A fixture in North America's miniscule market for diesel engines, Volkswagen's Jetta is one of the least-expensive cars to offer such a power plant on this continent. Its closest competitor is the Chevrolet Cruze, which added a diesel option last year. For 2015, VW's TDI diesel gets a 10-hp bump to 150 (which brings its horsepower total to within one of the Chevy's, while leaving torque at 236 lb-ft in contrast to the Cruze's 264.) Cosmetically, the Jetta's styling gets a gentle facelift. (Overall score: 6.2)
The Jetta's 2015 update is like one of those "find the differences" puzzles you played as a kid: the distinctions are there, but I couldn't spot them without a side-by-side comparison with my photos of a Jetta I drove last year. Outside, new headlight assemblies frame a revised front fascia and grille, and a new trunk lid houses reshaped taillights that look borrowed from an Audi. Inside, there's a new steering wheel and a (barely) revised gauge cluster. As always, this is a handsome car, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself stylistically.
Under-the-skin changes include active grille shutters and new underbody panels to clean up the car's aerodynamics; that and updates to the engine make for a small reduction in fuel consumption. (Score: 6.2)
Jetta's interior feels roomy for a car parked at the top end of the compact spectrum, with trunk space especially generous. Comfortable front seats make long stints at the wheel a cinch, and rear seat passengers will appreciate legroom a cut above what most compacts offer, rivalling that of smaller mid-size sedans.
A new steering wheel button layout moves the stereo's volume and track/seek controls to the bottom of the three- and nine-o'clock spokes - a less-intuitive location that makes these oft-pressed buttons more awkward to use.
Heated front seats and integrated iPod connector are standard as of the $17,700 Trendline+ trim, and Comfortline trim brings an adjustable front centre armrest. (Score: 6.5)
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My Highline tester came fitted with the optional technology package, adding navigation, steerable (adaptive) Xenon headlights, eight-speaker stereo, and LED daytime running lights. That's in addition to the multifunction trip computer, ambient interior lighting, intelligent keyless entry, forward collision warning, and blind spot detection with rear cross traffic alert (those last three being new to the Jetta for 2015) that are included in Highline models, and the Bluetooth and backup camera that are standard across the line.
This is a nicely-equipped car, but as with many new vehicles, the Bluetooth system wouldn't talk to my three-year-old Android smartphone. I guess it's time either for a new device, or for vehicle engineers to build in better backwards compatibility. (Score: 7)
Volkswagen's best effort to justify the Jetta's high price tag is in the car's drive: quiet at highway speeds and composed over rough roads, with a level of refinement usually reserved for larger cars or those wearing the badge of a luxury brand.
The TDI diesel engine is always a highlight: generous torque makes the Jetta quick off the line, but this motor does its best work at low revs, running out of breath quickly after 3,000 rpm. That torque works well with the optional dual-clutch DSG automatic transmission and its nearly-seamless shifts.
With the automatic, the Jetta TDI's official fuel consumption ratings (according to 2015's new five-cycle test) are 7.5/5.3 L/100 km (city/highway); cold weather drove my tester's average to 8.6 L/100 km in city driving. (Score: 7.3)
As in many cars, the Jetta's value is found at the lower end of the line, where you can get a Trendline+ model with VW's excellent 1.8TSI gasoline engine for less than $21,000. Still, most compacts at that price point come with more stuff, and the significant price bump to get the diesel in the same trim is a lot of money considering the 1.8TSI's already-impressive economy. Then there's my Highline tester, which starts at $28,290 with the diesel, and priced out to $32,200 with automatic transmission and options.
A Honda Civic Touring ($25,550) and Toyota Corolla LE Eco (with optional tech package, $25,260) lack my Jetta tester's passive safety features. So do the value-packed Korean cousins Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte, but they include items like heated rear seats and, in the Kia's case, a heated steering wheel and ventilated driver's seat, for less than $27,000 apiece.
But the Jetta TDI's biggest competitor might now be found in its own lineup: the 1.8TSI gasoline engine introduced last year makes the diesel's extra cost seem unnecessary. A Jetta 1.8TSI Highline with automatic and the same tech package added to my diesel tester works out to a bit less than $30,000. (Score: 3.9)
Volkswagen makes a strong case for the Jetta's value as a true entry-level luxury sedan, a car that goes over the road with refinement that eludes those Japanese and Korean models. The Jetta is easy to like, but breaking the $30,000 barrier is tough to justify in a small car, no matter how good it is.
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