2006 Volkswagen VW Jetta

The Jetta — Volkswagen’s best selling car in North America — has sold more than 2.2 million units since its introduction 25 years ago. For 2006, the fifth generation Jetta gets a complete make over. This all-new model has grown in every respect: It is now 177-mm longer, 25-mm wider and 11-mm taller. It also earns a much-needed 66-mm stretch in the wheelbase and the track is wider – 25-mm up front and 33-mm in the rear. The result is a much larger footprint and greater stability than ever before. The Jetta also looks the part with its new sheet metal, large headlights and a new bi-level chrome grille, (a design that will grace many new VWs). The drawback is that while few will mistake it for a Volkswagen from the front, many will take it for just another Japanese car from the side and rear, which is a pity.

For now, the new Jetta is only offered with an inline five-cylinder engine. While the power – 150 hp at 5,000 rpm and 170 lb-ft at 3,700 rpm – is appreciated, the weird noise all five-cylinder engine produce may not. That aside, it brings spirited performance, especially when coupled to the five-speed manual transmission. For the shiftless, VW’s six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission is optional. In June, Volkswagen will introduce the Jetta TDI equipped with a four-cylinder, 1.9 litre, turbocharged diesel teamed with a 5-speed manual ($26,650) or 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission ($28,050). The latter is a manual transmission with an automatic feature and no clutch. A high performance GLI variant will arrive in the spring of 2007. It will deliver 200 horsepower from a 2.0 litre turbocharged four married to either a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG.

With a base price of $24,975, the Jetta comes well equipped – tilt and telescopic steering wheel adjustment, air-conditioning, a 10-speaker audio system with a CD/MP3 player, heated front seats, power windows (with one touch up and down), heated power mirrors, outside temperature display, cruise control and dual exhaust tips. Also standard are three-point belts for all five occupants, active front head restraints and six airbags: two front, two side seat-mounted and two drop-down side curtain airbags. For those that want more, rear side air bags available.

Adding the Luxury Package brings 16-inch alloy wheels, power moonroof and chrome accents ($2,075). The Luxury Leather Package includes all of the above plus leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob and a rear centre armrest with pass-through to the trunk ($3,300). The disappointment is that the seats, even after the upgrade, are feature manual adjustment (only the recliner is powered). To get the power seat mean taking the Premium Luxury Leather Package. Along with the 12-way power driver’s seat (with memory) comes a premium stereo with a 6 disc, in-dash, CD player, multifunction steering wheel, trip computer, compass, Homelink and a rear sunshade. This lot will set you back another $5,125, which is not cheap.

Inside, the Jetta is finished with an attractive combination of fabrics and trim materials, all of which are top class. Likewise, the instrumentation is complete with four circular dials, illuminated red needles and a soothing blue backlight for nighttime driving. The remainder of the controls fall readily to hand and operate with precision. It’s almost as though the whole lot was lifted from Audi, which is a good thing. The seats follow this lead, providing the type of lumbar and lateral support for which German cars are famed. Taller drivers, however, may find the thigh support a little lacking.

In the past, one of the Jetta’s shortcomings was rear seat legroom. This is effectively dealt with as half of the wheelbase stretch (33-mm) means lots more stretch-out space. The front seats also sit well off the floor, and so there is somewhere to put your feet. As for cargo capacity, the Jetta has a trunk befitting the Ford Five Hundred – 16 cubic feet that is supplemented by that pass-through as well as 70/30 split/folding rear seats.

Considering the last Jetta was equipped with a wimpy 115-hp 2.0L as its base engine, the torquey performance of its new 2.5-litre five is very welcome – it not only revs readily it delivers a true sense of speed, even when mated to the automatic transmission. Indeed, the Tiptronic transmission is so good at bumping up and down the gears (to make use of engine braking) it makes the manual gearbox almost redundant.

The Jetta’s fully independent suspension features McPherson struts up front and a new four-link suspension in the rear. This set-up provides a good balance between comfort and handling. On the highway, the cushioned ride helps the miles melt away. Head for the hills and the twisty pavement brings the best out of the Jetta. The response to driver input is fast and predictable, the steering is crisp and the feedback reassuring. The full anti-lock braking system works well with the large discs to provide commendable stopping power and little in the way of fade.

Volkswagen’s new Jetta is larger and more luxurious, but more impressive is the fact it now has a much higher fun-to-drive quotient thanks to its boost in performance and nimble road manners.