2002-2006 Volkswagen Golf and Jetta VR6 and Turbo

See our review of the Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Review Notes: Volksagen Jetta VR6 and Turbo
Front-drive BMW
Backlighting colors, keys, no passenger side door lock, headlight control
Unusual features
Variety of powertrain options; cachet
Above Average:
Handling, acceleration, style
Needs Work In:
Automatic transmission, cruise controls, gas mileage

The Jetta and its hatchback sibling, the Golf, show the rise of Volkswagen to the ranks of premium vehicles. From producing the inexpensive "people's cars" - the Beetle and Rabbit - Volkswagen has moved on to very tight high-performance cars.

The current Jetta is an exemplary small car, though underpowered with the standard 115 horsepower engine. Unless you're only interested with going around corners, though, and not powering down straightaways, we suggest you bypass the base model and go for one of the three optional powertrains: diesel, turbo, and VR6. The diesel has excellent gas mileage (42 mpg city) with high torque for good off-the-line pull; the turbo (150 hp when tested; 180 hp in the GLI) has good power that is easy to manage; and the VR6 (174 hp) is a pocket rocket.

The VR6 combines a 2.8 liter V6 engine, which pushes the Jetta to 60 mph in just over seven seconds with a tight suspension that provides excellent handling. There is considerable torque steer on full-throttle takeoff, but very little on the highway. Freeway acceleration is considerably quicker than the zero-to-sixty sprint would indicate, with zoom on tap. Acceleration is easy and very quiet, though the slushy automatic transmission sometimes led to some disquieting delays. Stick with the manual.

Gas mileage is in the low 20s for the VR6, and we found ourselves burning through the tank surprisingly quickly. The turbo's a bit easier on gas with mileage in the mid-20s. Unfortunately, both the turbo and six require premium.

The turbo four is remarkably quiet, and has little turbo lag. It has good low-end torque, and accelerates quickly and smoothly up to redline. The EPA estimates its gas mileage as being in the low 20s (city) to about 30 mpg (highway). Hill climbing, including acceleration in top gear on fairly steep inclines, did not faze the engine.

On higher models, such as our VR6, an anti-slip regulation system and electronic differential lock use electronics to control throttle response or use the brakes to prevent wheels from slipping. This system proved to be invaluable for handling the power of the little six, and in fact was used every time we pulled away rapidly from a stop, which is both good and bad. We still often found the tires screeching briefly on acceleration from a stop, especially on poor road surfaces. Perhaps the manual transmission would have helped us avoid this.

Handling is very good, ride on the base model is far better than you would expect, and cargo space is large and highly usable. In wagon form, rear seating is comfortable and adequate.

The best way to get a Volkswagen is with a five-speed manual transmission, and that's especially true now. The clutch was very smooth and easy to operate, unlike past versions, and the stick was precise without giving up a pleasant mechanical feel. As always, the stick provides an added bonus in both acceleration and gas mileage. The automatic, on the other hand, feels slushy and disconnected, especially when you first start out. Then, it feels as though it's slipping, until it suddenly engages and you zoom off, activating the antislip system. No question - we prefer the five-speed.

The Jetta has a sensible, quiet, well designed ventilation system. Air conditioning was more powerful than we expected. The system is automatic, but unlike most automatic systems it is not far too noisy when it first applies heat. The controls are easy to figure out and use, and pretty to boot.

The cruise control is mounted on one side of the steering wheel, and requires some thought to use. We hope Volkswagen will go with the modern trend of moving cruise over to a dedicated stalk.

Instruments were clear and easy to read, despite night-time illumination which used purple and blood-red. Whenever the key was in the ignition, the headlight switch was lit, a sensible precaution. The gas gauge was small but accurate, and the low fuel warning sounded at an appropriate time - not at 1/4, but at just above empty. We liked the three-way-driver's seat memory.

There was no shortage of interior lights; and each of the two back lights can be easily set to always on, always off, and dome light functions. A miniature fold-down console/armrest provides little interior space, but works well otherwise.

The interior was generally elegant and emanated luxury, though the VR6's tight suspension dispelled any idea that this was a luxury cruiser. While road-hugging is exceptional, the ride is quite firm. Larger bumps are well cushioned, but the VR6 ride may be hard and busy for those who are not into performance. The turbo or diesel model would be a better choice.

A conveniently placed trip computer provides both trip and overall gas mileage, average speed, and other information. It's controlled by the front-and-rear wiper-washer stalk, which takes a bit of getting used to.

Another convenience feature is the power memory. The radio stays on until the key is taken out of the ignition, and the power windows stay active until the door is opened. This type of system should be standard on every car, given modern computer controls.

The distinctive Volkswagen styling does not end with the exterior, or with the massive VW emblem on the horn. The unique key fob has three buttons, for the usual function. No big deal. Press a silver button, though, and the key itself pops out like a switchblade knife. Cool, though not especially functional - it gets a bit annoying after a while, but it does prove to everyone that you own a Volkswagen. The alarm's panic button is cleverly placed on the size of the key fob, where it is less likely to be accidentally pressed. Incidentally, the oddball key is part of an electronic theft protection system.

The moonroof has a clever dial control. Move the dial to the desired position, and the moonroof caters to your whim - safer and more convenient than the controls in most cars. The moonroof's interior cover includes a vent so that you can block the sun's rays while letting hot air escape.

The cup-holders pop out from the dashboard or center console, and have springs to hold cups in place - a more thoughtful design than most. However, there is no passenger side door lock. Presumably, everyone uses the remote control, and when the batteries run down, they open the doors from the driver's side, since power locks are standard. Another quirk is the headlight control - there's no option for leaving just the parking lights on. You pull the headlight knob to activate fog lights, and a previous driver had pulled our knob too far - it was halfway off when we got it. However, pushint it back on and treating it gently fixed that.

Cargo space in the wagon is very good, with more room than in other compact wagons. It's a very good combination - a station wagon that handles and accelerates like a sports car, and fits into any parking space. Of all the Jettas and Golfs, we probably like the wagon the best. It's more practical than just about any SUV.

Overall, the Jetta is far different from yesterday's Volkswagens, though they too had unusually good handling and advanced engines. The Jetta can hardly be considered an economy car; it's more of a BMW with front wheel drive. But if you're not totally into performance, there are many other high-quality cars in its price range, from the newly redesigned Corolla and Camry, with their soft ride, high economy, and strong reliability, to the all wheel drive Subaru Impreza and WRX, with their above-average handling and ability to handle just about any kind of weather or road conditions. The Jetta offers premium handling and performance - and, if (unlike most people) you find yourself often hitting the limits of your own car, the Jetta may well be the way to go.

See our review of the Volkswagen Jetta GLI