- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

The Volkswagen Jetta has always been an in-betweener.

It has been perceived as a car that’s slightly larger than compact economy sedans such as the Toyota Corolla or Chevrolet Cavalier, though in truth they all have similar passenger and trunk space.

It also is viewed as a step up from other compact cars such as the Volkswagen Golf. But the cars are so similar it’s a distinction without much of a difference. The Golf is a hatchback and the Jetta is available as either a notchback sedan with a trunk, or a station wagon.

But the two cars are marketed differently. Golf prices range from $16,070 to $20,160, and only two engines are available — a 2.0-liter gasoline four cylinder and a 1.9-liter turbo-diesel.

The Jetta, on the other hand, has a price range from $17,675 to $27,515, and it can be ordered with either of the Golf engines, plus a 1.8-liter turbo four and a V-6. So it’s more expensive than some compacts, and close in price to such midsize offerings as the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

The Jetta is further distinguished by its four-door station wagon, which nestles in a niche in which there is scant competition. About the only vehicles close to it are the less expensive Ford Focus and the similarly priced Saturn L-Series, both of which are slightly larger.

Tested for this review was the top-of-the-line Jetta GLS wagon, which is powered by Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine. It had a $22,890 base price and, with a few options, came in at $23,495.

But that’s without such items as leather upholstery, wood interior trim, automatic climate control, a power driver’s seat, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a trip computer. They are available as a package for $2,800, which would boost the Jetta wagon’s price to $26,295.

However, it all depends on how you look at it. Some people are enamored of cars that have a Germanic feel to them, which the Jetta definitely does. And if the price seems a bit stiff for a compact station wagon, just compare it to the similar-sized Audi A4 with the same 1.8-liter turbo engine, which starts at $29,660.

The tested Jetta wagon did have a couple of features to help justify its price, including a five-speed automatic transmission with the Porsche-developed Tiptronic manual shift mode.

It works well with the turbo engine, which delivers 180 horsepower, albeit with some surging. The acceleration to 60 mph happens in just under nine seconds, and comes on with a healthy tug on the front wheels as soon as the tachometer shows about 3,000 rpm. With the five-speed manual gearbox, the acceleration time to 60 is more than a second quicker.

Small station wagons are so appealing that it’s surprising the Jetta doesn’t have more competition. It offers decent seating for four, though the back seat is a bit tight on knee room for bigger passengers, and the cargo area out back has 34 cubic feet of space — about twice that of most midsize sedans — so it’s useful and practical. The only drawback is the center seating position in back, which is suitable only for a child.

Up front, the bucket seats, upholstered in a sturdy-looking yet soft velour cloth, delivered comfort and support. Like those on other Volkswagens, they have the best manual seat-height adjusters in the business. Raising or lowering the seat is a simple matter of push-pull on a handle on the side of the seat.

The suspension system, as in most German cars, is biased toward precise handling, with the accompanying shortage of softness in the ride.

However, the ride is acceptably comfortable on all but the roughest surfaces. There’s a large dead pedal to brace the left foot in spirited driving, which the Jetta savors.

Despite the lack of some amenities, the test car was nicely equipped. A pull-down center armrest, adjustable for height, contains a small amount of storage space, with a larger open space underneath. An upgraded Monsoon audio system with quality speakers included both a cassette deck and a CD player.

Other items included traction control, antilock brakes, air conditioning, remote locking and a theft alarm system, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, daytime running lights (but without an “off” switch), cruise control and a rollup cargo cover.

There were a couple of annoyances. The doors lock automatically as soon as the wagon reaches 8 mph, but only the driver’s door unlocks when you open it, so the other doors must be unlocked separately. Moreover, the hatch locks automatically whenever you close it, so it must be unlocked every time you want to use it, either with the remote control or touching a button on the driver’s-side door.

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