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VW steers true with 2000 Jetta

By Marc K. Stengel

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  As the millennium prepares to dawn upon the fourth generation of the Volkswagen Jetta, this plucky compact sedan has already achieved its own New Age awakening. Gone is the awkward, angular styling of previous Jettas that suggested the automotive equivalent of a cheap suit. The latest incarnation of Jetta, which debuted this year as a '99 model, represents a sleek, slick makeover perfectly in tune with the preppie casual-day-at-the-office mentality of today's hip auto buyer.

Better yet, the attributes that have made Jetta a perennial star in spite of its apparent squarishness are still there--the nifty road feel, versatile powertrain choices, functional seating for five, and a giant boxy trunk. Enthusiasts rightfully applaud the increased availability of V-dub's unique "narrow angle" VR6 in the Jetta, which remains standard in the top-of-the-line GLX model while migrating to the mid-range GLS version as well. Progress, of course, has its price. My GLS VR6 tester, with all the trimmings, stickered out at $23,770, a far cry from the mid-teens prices for Jettas of yore. Except for a few minor complaints, however, I firmly believe that this latest generation Jetta has improved well beyond the extent of its price increase.

For one thing, the distinctive new exterior is absolutely gorgeous--without sacrificing function to form. By "rounding" the square, VW shares with its corporate sibling Audi a unique sheetmetal shape; it's a combination of flowing lines and gentle corners. The pleasing aesthetic it introduces to the automotive world, moreover, yields practical dividends in the form of generous hip-, shoulder-, and head-room indoors. Only rear-seat legroom is stinted a bit; but what other compact sedan--especially one with a sporting personality--yields more? The fact remains that the 2000 Jetta GLS seats four comfortably, five adequately. Meantime, a 13-cu.-ft. trunk makes room for all their stuff.

My tester featured the vaunted VR6 powerplant, displacing 2.8 liters and producing a snappy, quick-revving 174 horsepower. (Other possibilities include a 116-horsepower 2.0-liter four starting at $17,325 and, my own counter-cultural favorite, the 1.9-liter turbo-direct-injection diesel, whose 90 HP delivers up to 49 mpg.) The VR6 is a peach, and the techies know it: It's the only production V6 to be made from a single block and to be topped with a single cylinder head. As a result of this obvious structural strength advantage, the VR6 also boasts relatively light weight and an excellent power-per-displacement ratio, delivering 62 horsepower-per-liter. The mileage rating of 19 miles-per-gallon/city, 28/highway is testament to the VR6's potent efficiency.

So I'm almost embarrassed to admit that it is the VR6's sterling performance that invites my chief gripe. Mated to the Jetta's optional four-speed auto (for $875), the VR6 is downright skittish when accelerating from a stop. It's a sensation akin to the jumpiness of high-strung turbos. As you tip in the throttle, the Jetta strains at the bit and lurches ahead before finding a more stately stride some distance down the road. Forget smooth, seamless starts; better just to jam it, lead-foot your way from stop to stop, and quit worrying about contributing to the general decline of civility on the road. At least VW has had the foresight to equip its VR6 Jettas with low- and high-speed acceleration slip control as standard equipment for model-year 2000.

Once at speed, however, the Jetta comes into its own. With independent suspension all around (struts up front, torsion bars in the rear), the car tracks like a sport along backroads. Yes, the spring rates are a bit soft for the sake of a smoother commuter ride; but the steering feel is crisp, and the car balances precisely in deep, hard turns. Even without VW's Tiptronic shifter option (which is unavailable on the Jetta), I found myself notching smoothly in and out of third and fourth gears in the twisties, never failing to find the generous sweet-spot of the VR6's powerband.

Behind the wheel, the driver can count on being both comfortable and well-informed. The Jetta's new dash layout isn't flashy, but it is eminently wise, practical, and clutter-free. A distinctly Teutonic myopia, however, continues to locate drink holders where they are certain to do most harm: directly above the center-mount Monsoon stereo-CD player and climate-control station.

Another curious anomaly is the Jetta's odd logic for automatically locking and unlocking its doors. After the car has rolled a few dozen yards, the doors lock automatically; that's a good thing. Once you stop and open the driver's door, the other doors remain locked; that's an annoying thing. Oddest of all, after you unlock all four doors with the remote key fob, it always takes two distinct pulls on the rear door handle to open the door--and that's simply an inscrutable thing.

What is certainly a lot easier to comprehend, however, is that Volkswagen's refurbished Jetta is poised not only to retain its best-selling status in the VW lineup, but also to increase its stature at the expense of competing models. In the cutthroat compact sedan category, Jetta isn't just a good contender. It's betta.

Good career move 2000 Volkswagen Jetta GLS VR6 sedan; 5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.8-liter "narrow angle" DOHC V6; 4-speed auto; 174 HP/181 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy.; base price: $19,950, as tested: $23,770.

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