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Review

Jetta preview promises a stouter, sportier sedan

A preproduction model of 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, concealed with black and white stripes.

Seventh-generation model leaves the impression this is a solid step forward for a mainstay of VW's passenger-car lineup

For diehard compact sedan fans, the Volkswagen Jetta has been a hard-working and sensible option since the Golf-with-a-trunk was introduced way back in 1979. A sneak preview of the 2019 suggests that, almost four decades on, the world's second-largest auto maker is turning up the heat.

Volkswagen will unveil the seventh-generation Jetta in January – the first fully new model since the current version went into production in 2010. To whet our appetites, VW invited a handful of journalists to its Arizona Proving Grounds for the first time since the $100-million (U.S.) facility opened in 1992.

Under watchful security, we got to touch, drive and discuss the new Jetta – we just didn't get to see it.

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Well, not fully. The preproduction models were concealed with zebra-like black and white stripes that made it pretty tough to assess the appearance. The lines, however, suggest the new Jetta will be a subtle visual evolution of the current model, not a radical departure. As always, VW tilts toward understatement.

The new Jetta will debut with the the company’s turbocharged 1.4-litre engine paired with a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission.

The new Jetta has grown ever so slightly over the sixth-generation model. At 470 centimetres, it's four centimetres longer. Its wheelbase has also grown by 3.3 centimetres to 258. The vehicle will launch with three trim levels, although details are not yet available.

Inside, the seats, dash and instrumentation were covered up. The only hint of the interior features was a front-pillar-mounted logo for premium sound system Beats Audio. Oh, and we did manage to spot some traditional round gauges when the instrument cover slipped off.

Driving the new Jetta left the impression this is a solid step forward for a mainstay of VW's passenger-car lineup. We took it through a nasty little track designed with sharp turns on reverse cambers to expose any potential fuel starvation problems. Its stiff chassis, beefy brakes and tight steering enabled it to manoeuvre like a champ.

The 2019 Jetta is to debut with the company's turbocharged 1.4-litre engine – the same one found in the current model – paired with a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission, the latter paired with fuel-saving start-stop technology. Power ratings have not been finalized, but they are expected to be close to the 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

Except for a brief delay as the turbo winds up from a dead start, the car accelerates surprisingly well. The tiny engine also proved itself on the facility's four-kilometre, high-speed endurance testing oval. With four fully grown men aboard, I was able to push the little car to 209 kilometres an hour – according to the GPS we were using to track speed – and felt firmly planted the whole time.

The only place the handling seemed a bit weak was on a wet slalom course, where the compliant suspension allowed the car to dip quite a bit on the turns. It is, after all, a family car.

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Except for a brief delay as the turbo winds up, the car accelerates surprisingly well.

The sportier GLI version with stiffer suspension won't be available until late next year or perhaps even early 2019, VW said.

The new Jetta completes the shift of Volkswagen's compact cars to the Modular Transverse Toolkit (MQB) platform, which was announced in 2007 and introduced on the Golf 7 in 2012. Other compacts built on the platform include the Passat, Tiguan and Atlas.

More than 10 million compact VWs are now built on the platform each year. A seemingly radical idea when it debuted, the idea of having one skeleton for a number of different vehicles offers consumers and the auto maker several benefits, said Mattias Erb, the executive vice-president, chief engineering officer and head of product strategy for VW's North American region.

By saving money through the design of just one platform, the auto maker invests more into making it that much better – which, in theory, could reduce early production bugs. (Several publications have reported MQB development costs at more than $70-billion.) With the Jetta, the platform has already gone through five years of real-life experience. And producing one platform in larger volumes allows the auto maker to offer more features because they don't need to be re-engineered for each model. Lane assist, blind-spot warning and adaptive cruise control will all be available on the new Jetta, VW said.

Production will begin shortly in VW's factory in Puebla, Mexico. The first production models for sale in Canada are expected to hit dealerships in April.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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