A lot for less

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vw-jetta20140805THE Germans set the benchmark in a lot of stuff—football, for one, as they’re not World Cup champions for nothing. Or matters beer, where they’re champions at, too. And then there are their cars, which simply are the template in whichever segment these may land in.

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But while Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have got the premium end covered, Volkswagen mostly leans toward the more affordable end of the price spectrum. And this while sticking to the same high standards over which the Fatherland’s autos have been known for. In VWs’ case, affordable does not mean shoddy. Its Jetta compact sedan is a textbook example of this.

But, first, know this about VW. The carmaker is the planet’s third-largest producer of vehicles, nipping at the heels of the presently beleaguered General Motors, with Toyota at the top. It is Europe’s largest. VW’s auto brands, as opposed to VW commercial vehicles, count Audi, Skoda and Seat, as well as such luminaries as Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche. VW, therefore, has a deep bench from which to pull technological talent, and a vast parts bin from where to source mechanical bits.

This works to the Jetta’s advantage. The car is cobbled together from a lot of the corporate bits. It’s got some of the structure of the unimpeachable Audi A4, and the four-pot, 2.0-liter, turbocharged, common rail direct injection diesel engine that propels the Jetta 2.0 TDi Trendline pictured here—sold locally by Philippine VW distributor Automobile Central Enterprise Inc.—also sees duty in a number of Audis, Seats and Skodas.

Together with the Golf, with which it shares underpinnings, the Jetta is also one of VW’s most popular models, largely a result of it being one of VW’s best-built. But where the Golf hatchback is the brand’s youthful jock (its GTi version is iconic) the Jetta is the more conservative brother, the one in chinos rather than Gore-Tex wear.

This is clearly true in the car’s cabin. The Jetta Trendline comes with no-frills fabric seats in chinos beige—as plain vanilla as car furniture gets. Parts of the car’s dashboard and center console are finished in black, textured plastic. There is no fancy touch-screen panel that flashes with brightly colored lights. Silvery trim accents are few and the seats adjust by lever, not by electrics.

Still, everything appears top-notch. Panel gaps are small and uniform all throughout, things are well screwed together, switches and levers engage with a smooth, sure click. All the controls instinctively fall into hand for anybody who is slightly familiar with a European car. The cold logic with which the buttons and the functions they govern are laid out is Teutonic-efficient. There’s ample room front and rear of the cabin, made more airy by all the beigeness, and the trunk is simply huge. It’s a wonder how despite the simplicity of every component it just feels positively premium inside the Jetta.

Driving it is not much different. The Jetta is not a sport sedan, so you should not expect a suspension damped by concrete, steering that’s part of a circuit workout and a wheel-and-tire combo that’s cartoony wide, low and stiff. Instead, the Jetta’s ride leans toward compliance but stopping short of making the car actually lean into its door handles in fast corners. The tall 205/55 rubbers wrapping over 16-inch alloys absorb a lot of road nastiness, as do, no doubt, the Germany-built pieces that comprise the coil springs/multi-link suspension. A stout, rigid structure to which the car’s body and suspension bolts certainly helps here, too.

So in traffic the Jetta is easy to steer around, with the tiller weighted just enough as not to be heavy but neither too vague. There’s some feedback coming from the road surface beneath, transmitted by the tires and suspension bits through the steering wheel—but which still feels slightly disconnected because of its electromechanical assist—with most vibration and harshness filtered out. “Refined” is the word here.

The car’s engine is just as refined, with diesel clatter dumbed down beyond the confines of the engine bay. As a diesel mill it’s quite punchy, with 280Nm of torque available from a low 1,750rpm and 108hp starting at 2,750 revs. Zipping past slower traffic or briskly scooting away from stoplights is a pleasure, then. The five-speed manual transmission, which along with the lack of leather is the one thing a lot of people find disappointing in a car priced at P1.295 million, does not really bother me. Actually, I welcome it because it’s slick to slot into gear, even if the gates are a little vague. (Leather furniture? I wouldn’t want to sit on one after getting into a car that has been baking under the sun for some time.)

Anyway, the Jetta’s price tag also buys you a multimedia system with aux and USB ports, heat-insulating glass, a multitude of airbags, parking sensors, a cooled glove box, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, a couple of 12-volt sockets, daytime running lights—some premium bits, in short.

All right, the Jetta may come across as a bit bland and boring. But that’s only because it lacks quirks, which many people somehow associate with “character.” Ironically, though, in a sea of overly styled, ornately designed Japanese and Korean compact sedans, it’s the Jetta’s subdued plainness that makes it stand out and strut a character all its own.

And that’s very German.

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