Among a crowd of feisty rivals, the redesigned 2005 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 wins a Smartmoney Award for best premium compact car.
TIRED OF SHELLING OUT $50 a fill-up for that sport-utility vehicle? Here's good news: Several carmakers have launched attractive, well-appointed compact cars designed to make you forget the noisy econoboxes of gas crunches past.
The newest arrival is Volkswagen's redesigned Jetta compact sedan. During the late 1990s, its predecessor was one of the "It" cars of the era, offering consumers bored by look-alike Japanese compacts a nimble, quick car with European ßair for considerably less money than a BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class.
But VW allowed the Jetta to get old and didn't move fast enough to address quality glitches — such as malfunctioning ignition coils — that soured a lot of onetime Jetta enthusiasts. In the meantime, rivals fielded new compact cars designed to offer a blend of driving pleasure, fuel economy and surprisingly luxurious amenities.
So has the new Jetta got the goods to win back its position as a benchmark in this class? I test-drove a new Jetta as well as three competitors: the Mazda3, the Volvo S40 and the Acura TSX. The cars I drove had sticker prices ranging from roughly $20,000 to $32,000. Not really "economy cars," they are designed to appeal to people who expect a high level of performance and refinement, regardless of a vehicle's size.
Volvo S40 T5 AWD
This model manifests Volvo's ambition to be taken seriously as an alternative to BMW. The S40 I drove had a 218-horsepower, five-cylinder turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission. The combination delivers peppy performance, but the S40 still can't match the new 3-series for silky acceleration.
The driver's seat was comfortable during a long haul, and most of the controls seemed logical — although it took a while to get comfortable with a gearshift that placed sixth gear adjacent to reverse. And as you'd expect from Volvo, there are plenty of safety features: side-curtain airbags, a system for minimizing whiplash in the driver and front passenger seats, and seat belts with "pre-tensioners" that cinch you in when the car senses a crash is coming.
Where the Volvo came up short was highway fuel economy — at 27 mpg, the worst of this bunch — and in certain areas of refinement. Clutch action, for example, felt vague and disconnected.
Mazda3 S 5-Door
The third-place finisher, by half a nose. For a price that starts as low as $17,650 (all prices include destination charge), the Mazda3 S delivers a lot to like. The 2.3-liter four-cylinder puts out 160 hp at 6,500 rpm, which means you need to rev it up to get the juice. But at just over 2,800 pounds, the little hatchback model I tested scooted around quite nicely. Overall, the Mazda3 is a charming car. At 25 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway, the Mazda promised the best mileage. The black-on-black plastic interior, as well as the superior technology and refinement available in the other cars, kept the Mazda in third.
Between the TSX and the new Jetta, it was a photo finish. The Acura TSX delivers an impressive, balanced package. The 200-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is barely audible at cruising speeds. Acceleration, with power going through either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, is quick and smooth. Mileage is rated at 22 mpg in the city, 31 highway. The car slices down a freeway with virtually no wind noise audible in the cabin. The double-wishbone suspension eats up bumps, so hardly a shudder makes its way to the driver's seat.
VW Jetta 2.5
The Jetta's 2.5-liter five-cylinder is rated at just 150 hp. But the Jetta's performance secret is the 170 pound-feet of torque that kick in at a low-revving 3,750 rpm, making the Jetta feel stronger pulling away from a stop than the Acura.
On the road, the Jetta's handling is crisp and precise; the suspension and chassis isolate the driver from bumps and keep the car firmly planted. The Jetta's cabin is not as quiet as the Acura's, but the difference is a modest amount of wind noise at highway speed.
The layout of controls is simple and logical — in contrast to certain other German sedans. The Jetta has numerous touches — such as wipers that automatically activate when drops hit the windshield and, in the trunk, a laptop-size storage cubby equipped with a power outlet for recharging your computer while you drive — that come as delightful surprises in a midprice car.
You can get a Jetta with a five-speed manual or, for $1,075 more, a six-speed automatic. Fuel efficiency with either is rated at 22 mpg city, 30 highway, for the gasoline engine. A 1.9-liter turbo diesel with automatic, rated at 35 mpg city and 42 highway, starts at $23,035.
The new Jetta is a thoughtfully designed car that represents a solid bargain among European compact sedans. It offers an impressive list of features for less money than the Acura TSX. But potential buyers need VW to prove that its quality sins are behind it. That argues for waiting a few months — even though VW is already offering low-rate financing and special leases.