This is about the most common question I get from readers:
“What’s a really good car for $20,000 to $30,000?”
There are numerous answers and, recently, I’ve found my favourite yet: the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta.
Having recently driven equivalently-priced versions of the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel and Honda Civic Hatchback, the equally-priced Jetta makes for an interesting comparison. These models each demonstrate why today is a great time to buy a new vehicle in this price range: simply, you’re getting more than ever for your affordable-car dollar.
The all-new-for-2019 Jetta stacks up very nicely by including all must-have features for the money, and also, thanks to the deployment of a driving experience that feels largely akin to a pricier ride.
If you’re shopping in this price range, you need to get some seat time in this car.
First, it’s huge. You can stretch out, the opposite side of the cabin seems a half-mile away, and the rear seats are very roomy, even for larger adults. Jetta’s conventional sedan shape also enables the use of tall windows, toward an open and airy cabin and plenty of outward visibility. In back, the trunk is almost comically large.
The interior makes a great first impression, primarily thanks to the gorgeous all-digital instrument cluster which flows into an ultra-modern looking central touch display. Both the cluster and display have high-resolution graphics, immediate response, and a clean, modern look that blows anything else in this price range out of the water. If you want an affordable cabin that looks high-tech, this will more than cover you.
Elsewhere, there’s embossed leather, accenting via wood, aluminum and gloss-black trim, and an angular and edgy shape to many of the panels. Some of the interior uses cheap plastic and a few too many of the consoles and switches haven’t been updated in years, though as a whole, this cabin makes drivers feel like they’re sitting in something pricier.
Fully loaded at $30,090, my tester included heated and chilled leather, power everything, automatic climate control, lights, high-beams and wipers, remote start, radar cruise, a backup camera, a punchy Beats premium audio system, and more.
But it’s not a car for the performance buff.
The 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder engine is excellent on fuel, but only generates 147 horsepower. Performance is adequate, never thrilling, though the engine is practically invisible, rarely makes a sound or any detectable vibration or harshness unless pushed, and it comes with an idle-slashing auto-stop system that’s the smoothest I’ve ever encountered.
Handling is similar to the performance — far from thrilling in any way, but relatively unbothered by all but the most aggressive driving on winding roads.
The ride is also excellent — usually.
On smooth highways, it isolates nicely from undesirable sensations coming from the road beneath. It’s comfort first, and though it doesn’t ride like the shocks are made of boiled Charmin, engineers tuned it for one of the best highway rides you’ll find for the money. Noise levels are kept down appreciably, too, though rougher surfaces can see noise levels and harshness increase quickly.
On most roads, if you blindfolded me, took me for a drive and told me I was in a $50,000 luxury sedan, I’d probably believe you. Even whacking the sort of pothole that makes you bite your own forehead hardly breaks the Jetta’s composure.
The real magic of this car is careful tuning to control what sensations are allowed into the car, and which ones aren’t. The auto stop system is barely detectable. The engine and transmission virtually never transmit any noise or vibration into the cabin as they work. Ditto the brakes. Ditto the steering. The little buzzes and vibrations characteristic of driving most any other car are all but invisible, here.
In all, it’s very smooth, very quiet, and highly refined throughout — helping this latest Jetta feel like a more expensive machine. My tester came with the eight-speed automatic, though enthusiast drivers can specify a six-speed manual, even on high-grade models.
Other notes? The headlights are potent and vivid, helping inspire confidence for after-dark travels. The up-level stereo system is punchy and powerful. Finally, though the turning circle is a touch larger than expected, Jetta’s backup camera and feather-light low-speed steering makes parking in tight quarters a cinch.
Is it perfect? Nope.
Performance is adequate at best, and enthusiast drivers will wish for more power (and a better sound) from the engine when pushing it hard. Brakes, though powerful enough, feel somewhat sludgy at the pedal. Finally, though Jetta is usually quiet, as mentioned, rougher pavement at highway speeds can rapidly spike interior noise levels.
If you’re primary concern is a lot of room, top-notch comfort, very good fuel mileage, and loads of add-on content, consider this one an absolute must-drive if you’re shopping in the segment.
- Model: 2018 VW Jetta Execline
- Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, 147-horsepower
- Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
- Features: Beats audio system, navigation, Android Auto, Radar Cruise, backup camera, remote start, climate-controlled leather seating, power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, automatic lights, automatic wipers, drive mode selector
- What’s hot: Roomy, comfortable, great on fuel, feels pricier than it is, great feature content for the money, luxury-car smooth, fantastic instruments and central interface
- What’s not: Adequate-at-best performance, some dated interior controls, certain surfaces spike noise levels
- Starting price (Jetta): $20,995
- Price as tested (Jetta Execline): $30,090