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Onward, Soldier! VW’s New Jetta 2.5 for 2005

Volkswagen has been in a state of quiet desperation of late. While sibling/subsidiary Audi is reaping the benefits of a successful bid to compete on an equal footing with high-lux brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, VW itself has seen sales slump by 20% or more. Most of that slide was due to an aging product line, which is why all the sudden we’re seeing a new Passat, Jetta, Golf and so on appear on our shores. As the high-volume “bread-and-butter” car in VW’s lineup, however, it is the Jetta that is perhaps most important to VW’s future.

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So it is that we spent a week in this car, just weeks after having previewed the slick Jetta GLI. After all, as much fun as that 200-horse sports sedan was, it is the base Jetta–the 2.5–that will snag most buyers. And now, having reviewed it thoroughly, we can say that it’s likely to do its part in reviving VW’s sagging sales–although unlikely to light many fires otherwise.

For one thing, it’s not a sports car. Truth be told, the base Jetta never really was–if you want fast, buy the GLI, and you will not be disappointed. But if you want German engineering, luxurious appointments, and the semi-prestige factor of the VW badge–all at an affordable price point–the Jetta 2.5 is the car for you.

From a styling standpoint, the Jetta has become controversial. Where the previous generation had an angular look much like that of a creased Italian suit, the new Jetta is rounded, modern and bright. For sure, the big, gaping grille, with the chrome bumper-band, looks pricey. The headlamps and taillights are well-crafted objets des art. Still, the effect as a whole reminds just about everyone of Toyota’s ubiquitous Corolla, and that goes against the otherwise upscale image here. Make up your own mind–if this Jetta *does* look Japanese, it certainly looks like the most expensive Japanese compact there ever was.

Under the hood is a new motor from VW, which actually owes its existence to the Lamborghini Gallardo. It’s a five-cylinder–essentially half the V-10 in the Lambo, although there’s nothing of that car’s character here. Power is rated at 150 horses, which sounds decent until you consider the portly curb weight of this VeeDub–at which point it becomes merely adequate. Zero-to-sixty mph is nearly a ten-second proposition, according to our test meter, and the five-banger design is inherently somewhat coarse. All this is reinforced by the exhaust note (especially on a cold start), which is more flatulent than anything else.

Still, sitting in the car is a lot like sitting in it’s Audi A4 sibling–it’s nice. For a compact car, in fact, the Jetta speaks of luxury and precision engineering. VW obviously spared little expense in the interior appointments; even the optional leather seating in our test car is upstaged by the soft-touch dashboard and console, rubberized-plastic buttons, and the damped movement of the glovebox, grab handles and sunglasses-holder. We especially liked the mp3-compatible, six-disc CD changer; the utility of the full audio controls on the steering wheel is trumped only by the unit’s own sound quality. We were also impressed with the large information screen between the gauges, complete with fuel-economy readout and trip calculator. All-auto up/down windows are a nice touch that we think should be on every car. And the sunroof, with the dial-an-opening control, is functional as well.

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Ergonomics are well done, especially considering how many functions are contained within. Even the dashboard lighting is upscale–we’ve never seen a nicer treatment in a car at this price point than the red and blue scheme used here.

Driving the new Jetta, while not an adrenaline-pumping proposition, is also by no means bad. There’s a certain smug confidence that comes from piloting a refined, comfortable machine such as this; you feel rich in this car. Noise from the outside world, and impacts from poorly-maintained road surfaces, are sufficiently muted, too, to help carry on the illusion. But relaxed-pace motoring is what the Jetta 2.5 is best at; it doesn’t really like to be pushed. The inline-five seems to grow coarser at high revs, as if the extra power comes at the expense of your piston rings. The six-speed automatic tranny’s “S” sport setting is as halting and jerky as it is high-revving, and makes you want to go back to “D” ASAP–or shift it yourself via the Tiptronic function. And the weighted steering feels less sporty the more you push it.

The suspension is an advanced independent design, with struts up front and a multilink design in the rear, which provides a good starting point for the high-strung GLI to be tuned into a sports sedan. In its base guise, however, the effect is softer. The ride is pleasant; perhaps the best in the compact class. It’s not exactly floaty, either. But there’s enough torque steer on hard acceleration to veer you into the next lane, and the optional 16″ rims, although they look aggressive, howl in protest at any serious cornering. No, this isn’t a car that’s meant to be hustled along–the rich, you know, don’t appreciate such impropriety.

Jetta buyers are an iconoclastic bunch; mostly college educated and liberal. They’re hip and a bit bohemian, but they appreciate the finer things when it comes to coffee and cars. Those that also appreciate speed and performance will turn to the hot GLI, the smaller Golf GTI, or maybe even the GTI R32 (the arrival of which we’re practically salivating over in anxiousness). For the rest, the Jetta provides what no other compact–besides the too-pricey and -pretentious Mercedes-Benz C-Class–German cachet, eccentric style, and a truly fine ride.

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