By Jonathan Crouch
Volkswagen's sixth generation Jetta was improved in 2014 to make it smarter and cleverer, offering customers a different alternative to the Golf hatch. With this saloon, you get a huge boot and rear passenger space almost able to rival the larger, pricier Passat. Does it make sense as a used buy?
Volkswagen's Jetta. It's a Golf with a boot isn't it? Well yes and no. In more recent years, the Wolfsburg brand has sought to give this car more of its own identity, a trend that continued with the updated version of the sixth generation model that the brand announced in 2014.
The Jetta has always sold to people who couldn't quite stretch to either Volkswagen's larger Passat saloon or a BMW 3 Series or Audi A4-sized compact executive sedan. And it has always been a relatively rare sight on our roads: most buyers here in search of a car of this size would rather have the hatchback versatility of a Golf. American and Mediterranean customers see things differently though and these markets have combined to make this one of the world's most popular saloon models, with over 14 million units sold since the very first Jetta was launched back in 1979.
The US in particular has been a happy hunting ground for Volkswagen, this car having long been the brand's most popular Stateside model. American buyers still snap up over 110,000 Jettas every year, with college kids attracted by endorsement from singers like Katy Perry and cheap pricing made possible by the close proximity of this car's Mexican assembly plant. In order to sell the same design for nearly twice as much money in Europe, Volkswagen plushed up those cars heading across the Atlantic and added in the Golf's more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, plus electric power steering, a better quality cabin and subtle styling changes.
This would have been a clever and very profitable strategy if it had worked, but sales of the early version of this sixth generation model were slow from its original launch here in 2011. Hence the need for the significantly revised version we're going to look at here, launched in 2014 with smarter looks, an upgraded cabin, extra safety features and revised engine range. Volkswagen hoped all of this would be enough to get this Jetta's core values noticed: its refinement, its long distance comfort and the fact that nothing in the class can offer anything like as much luggage space. It wasn't and the car was quietly withdrawn from sale at the end of 2017.
What You Get
The original version of this sixth generation model had a key objective to meet right from the outset. From the start, stylist Klaus Bischoff and the design team were determined that it should be more than just a Golf with a boot. That's why the MK6 version of this four-door model was styled to be over 400mm longer than its hatchback counterpart, its 4.6m total length actually bringing it to within around 100mm of a Passat saloon from the next class up. It's also why this car shares not a single panel with its hatchback stablemate.
Less welcome perhaps, is the news that this Jetta doesn't share any Golf underpinnings either. The Volkswagen Group's modern-era MQB platform didn't make it into the MK6 Jetta, so this saloon remained designed around the same elderly Golf MK5 platform that it was based on in its previous fifth generation form. To try and compensate, Volkswagen gave this revised sixth generation version a light visual refresh that aimed to give a bit more purpose to this design's clean, cohesive but not especially memorable look. It was all pretty subtle though. At the front, there was a revised radiator grille with three horizontal fins, plus a reprofiled bumper, LED daytime running lights and revised air intakes.
In profile, you might even mistake this car for a Passat. Viewed from the side, this sixth generation design's extra length is more obvious, emphasised by a sharp, so-called 'Tornado line' that cuts through the large side surfaces in an attempt to offer a strong dynamic appearance. The smarter wheels also supply a touch of up-market class.
At the back, revisions to the post-2014 version of this car included sleeker tail lights and a revised bumper. As before, thanks to the long overhang, the same very large boot remained. It was always one of this car's biggest selling points, as you realise upon flipping the trunk lid, something you can do with just a press of a button on the keyfob. The 510-litre area revealed is massive, around 30% or (to be more specific) 130-litres more than you'd get in a Golf from this era. The theoretically much bigger Volkswagen Passat saloon we mentioned has a trunk that in this era was only 76-litres larger than this. Compact saloon rivals from other brands that are similarly sized to this Jetta can offer nothing like as much boot space. In this era, an Audi A3 saloon delivered 425-litres, a Mazda3 Fastback managed only 419-litres and a Volvo S60 just 380-litres.
If you need more room in this Volkswagen, you can push forward the rear bench - though that'll only be possible in a split-folding fashion if you've avoided entry-level trim. Most models get a ski hatch for longer items, but whatever Jetta you're trying, once the backrest is flattened, there's enough capacity for all kinds of unlikely loads to be carried.
So, your luggage will have more space to move around than it would in a Golf. And your rear seat passengers will enjoy the same benefits. This car has a substantially longer wheelbase than its hatchback counterpart, something you especially notice in the back where there's ample headspace - and more legroom for rear seat passengers than you'd expect a compact saloon to be able to provide. Two burly adults who wouldn't really relish a lengthy trip in the back of a Golf will be significantly better served here, with pretty much the same kind of space that a larger Mondeo or Passat-class car used to offer until just a few years ago. The provision of rear airvents is also quite unusual in this class of car.
And up-front? Well, it's a Volkswagen isn't it, so as ever, the overall look and feel speaks of quality. With cabin detail and fit and finish though, we come to another area where you might wish that this car did have a little more in common with a Golf. Build quality from the Jetta's Mexican factory wasn't quite up to German standards: nor was the cabin design. To be fair, the differences aren't overt: it's just subtle stuff, some elements more significant than others.
On a Golf for example, you'd get nicely padded door trims. Here, the door cards are fabricated from hard plastic right up to window level. Some tinier Golf details are missing too - the way, for example, that on that car, the instrument dial glasses are neatly angled towards each other. You also have to take into account that the Jetta is an older design - so for example, it doesn't get the kind of large, sophisticated central dash infotainment screen you'd find on modern versions of Volkswagen's evergreen family hatch. Instead, a smaller, more restricted display must suffice. Move from Golf to Jetta ownership and it's things like these that you'd notice.
But then hardly anyone does move from Golf to Jetta ownership: the two cars have, after all, always appealed to quite different buyers. Those who do prefer the four-door bodystyle will probably be quite satisfied with what's on offer here. As you'd expect in this day and age, there are soft-touch plastics and chrome-rimmed dials, along with some quite tasteful 'Zebrano' wood-effect trim on plusher versions. And Volkswagen updated the cabin atmosphere of this revised model by smartening the trim around the centre console, introducing more up-market fabric designs for the seats and door trims and adding slick ambient lighting. This is the sort of stuff the Wolfsburg brand thought European buyers would insist upon but never bothered to add to the budget-orientated American version of this car. That's one reason why US Jetta models were always so much cheaper than European-spec ones.
Perhaps of most importance though, is the news that no other competitor offers a more comfortable driving position thanks to reach and height adjustment for the redesigned three-spoke steering wheel and (on most models) height adjustment for the driver's seat. The bottom line here is that there are plusher-feeling rivals, but none that you'd rather live with over a four or five-hour journey. Volkswagen has thought through the practicalities too, so there are deep doorbins and you get twin cupholders behind the gearlever, though the rear one can sometimes get blocked by the sliding armrest on top of the central storage bin. Talking of drinks, the decently-sized glovebox gets an air conditioning feed that will cool them - a real boon in hot weather.
The technological attention to detail's nice too - let us give you an example. Select reverse or operate the windscreen washers and the air conditioning system automatically switches itself to recirculating air mode so as to prevent smells - from exhaust fumes or windscreen wash - from entering the car. Nice.
What to Look For
Most Jetta owners from this era that we surveyed were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there have been those who have had problems you'll want to look out for. There were a few reports of clutch failure and in one case, an owner found the engine stalling and shutting off while driving. The Mexican-built interior wasn't constructed or finished to the standard of the equivalent German-built Golf hatch, so watch out for rattles and poorly fitted pieces of trim.
On diesel models, the DPF (Diesel particulate Filter) light can sometime illuminate - which means that the DPF is probably blocked. The DPF can get blocked up if the car has only been regularly used for driving short distance around town - this kind of use often won't generate enough heat to remove the particulates. Take the car out onto the open road (Motorway/A-road) and drive at between 2000-2500rpm for at least 15 minutes to burn off the particulates, which clears the DPF. Once you clear these, the DPF the warning light should go off.
(approx based on a 2015 1.4 TSI 125PS) An air filter will be priced in the £12 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £8 to £11 bracket and a fuel flier will cost in the £16 to £19 bracket. A radiator will likely cost around £188. A pair of front brake discs typically cost in the £44-£67 bracket, but you can pay up to and beyond the £100 mark for pricier brands; a rear pair of discs can cost as little as £25, but a more typical price is around £62.
A pair of front brake pads are in the £20 to £45 bracket for a set but for pricier brands, you could pay up in the £40-£65 bracket. A rear pair of pads can cost as little as £25, but a more typical price is around £19-£30. A timing belt is around £12-£23, though go for a pricier brand and you could pay as much as £105 for one. Wiper blades cost around £10-£20.
On the Road
Your sales person will probably pitch this car to you as being one offering the best bits of both a smaller Golf and a larger Passat in one well-priced package. The pricing bit we'll come on to later, but as far as the rest of that proposition goes, it's not actually too far from the mark. At the wheel, you're stationed in a driving position that offers the clarity and ease of use of a Golf and much of the comfort of a Passat, with both of these attributes also carried forward into the roadgoing experience on offer. So, while you'll not be thrilled by the way this car responds to your every move, you may at the same time be quietly impressed by the ease with which it can smoothly but quickly be threaded down a twisty road, thanks to excellent grip and nicely weighted steering.
The ride's certainly fit for purpose: one of the key things that differentiates European-spec Jettas from US-market ones is that for our market, a more compliant multi-link rear suspension was fitted. Refinement's good too. Cruise at 50mph in a 2.0 TDI diesel model for example, and you'll find that the noise levels are actually only a couple of decibels louder than they would be in something like a Bentley Continental. This 150PS unit many original buyers chose is as willing and flexible as Volkswagen TDI engines always are: forget the 8.9s 0-62mph time - what's important is the prodigious 340Nm of torque that's always ready to help you blast past slow-moving traffic. You'll miss this if you opt for the feebler diesel model, which gets a de-tuned version of the same 2.0 TDI diesel developing 110PS and offering just 250Nm of torque. Buyers get a choice between two green pump-fuelled models and both are propelled by the brand's familiar 1.4-litre TSI unit, developing either 125 or 150PS.
With this revised post-2014 version of the MK6 Jetta model, Volkswagen kept all the practical elements people always liked about this compact saloon, while effectively addressing the aspects that weren't quite so good - things like the downmarket cabin and the lack of the kind of high tech options buyers now expect at this level. The result was a much more competitive product. And for the right kind of buyer, perhaps even quite a tempting one.
After all, for much the same as you'd pay for a used Golf from this era, you get a car that's eight-tenths of what you'd get in the pricier Passat - so great rear seat room, a huge boot and a classy ride are all provided, as are a range of efficient engines. Viewed in this light, you can see why the Americans like it so much. Find a well looked after Jetta from this period and you might too.