Do you know what the best-selling German car in America is? No, not the BMW 3 Series—my initial assumption when the question was posed to me. Why, it’s the Volkswagen Jetta. The iconic brand from Wolfsburg moved 121,107 units of their C-segment sedan in 2016.
Good, right? Well, sort of, until you consider that Honda sold 366,927 Civics and Toyota moved 360,483 Corollas during that same time frame. Hyundai sold 208,319 Elantras, Chevy sold 188,876 Cruzes, and Ford sold 168,789 Foci last year. The Jetta isn’t the worst selling in the segment—it beats the Kia Forte, Mazda3, and Subaru Impreza (don’t feel too bad for Subaru; the tiny Japanese brand still outsells Volkswagen at the brand level).
Obviously, Volkswagen isn’t happy to be in the bottom half of anything, let alone this crucial Brot und Butter segment in the world’s most mature auto market. And with an image that has taken a beating of late (you know, the whole diesel emissions thing), VW needs a win, badly.
So they’re moving their top-selling car onto their best platform, the incredible MQB toolkit/chassis/platform. Mind you, this platform is so good that, back in 2014, we handed our Car of the Year award to the seventh-generation Golf hatchback—the first car to be built from MQB. I don’t even remember what car came in second.
Volkswagen flew a gaggle of us auto journo types out to their hot weather proving ground in Maricopa, Arizona, to have a go in a camouflaged preproduction 2019 prototype. Obviously, this new Jetta has to be pretty good, ja? Keep reading.
Volkswagen themselves are burying the lede (a journalist term, meaning that the bigger point of a given article is given short shrift compared to the headline). Dieselgate, Volkswagen’s self-inflicted emissions-cheating software scandal has cost the company—depending on whom you ask—around $30 billion. Ahem, billion. Could be more than that, but it sure ain’t less.
How do you come back from that? Who knows, but one thing Volkswagen North America Region (NAR) would like you to know is that they’ve been in America for a long time, they employ lots of Americans, and they do so in many locations around the country. Counting a plant in Puebla, Mexico, there are currently eight North American locations, with a new one—the Concept and Innovation Center—on the way.
For this demonstration drive, and for the first time ever, Volkswagen opened the doors to its Arizona Proving Grounds to the press. Part of the reason why is to show that post-Dieselgate, the VW brand has decentralized. It’s no longer a top-down organization with a notoriously iron-fisted chairman/dictator (Hallo, Doktor Piëch!) calling all the shots from his throne in Wolfsburg. Or is that Salzburg? The other part of the story is, sometimes you gotta just change the story.
The 1,600-acre Arizona facility has been in operation since 1992—that’s 25 years—and has become essential to VW’s global operations. Over the past quarter-century, Volkswagen has spent $100 million on the facility, which employs around 200 individuals.
As you’re hopefully aware, Arizona, especially just outside Phoenix, is hot. About as hot as anywhere human beings live. In the winter it’s cooler (mercifully VW had us tour the place in December), so Volkswagen has another hot-weather proving ground in South Africa so they can keep abusing their products year round.
The Arizona facility is responsible, however, for more than just baking metal in the desert sun. The proving ground is responsible for corrosion testing, long-term mileage accumulation (there are 49 different routes through Arizona they use to rack up 7.5 million miles annually), static hot weather testing for 100 cars and 3,000 parts, as well as dynamic, severe hot weather testing. Rumor has it that the aforementioned Chairman Piëch laid out nine engineering benchmarks for the Bugatti Veyron. One was that it had to be able to run at 125 mph in 120-degree heat for 10 hours straight. The Arizona facility’s 5-mile long oval sure would make a great place to try that out. In August.
I mention Bugatti for a reason. See, it’s not just the Volkswagen brand that uses this hot weather facility. All the VW Group brands do. I saw Audis, Porsches, Bentleys—even a Lamborghini Urus (under a cover)—if the Volkswagen AG owns it, you can bet it gets tested out in Arizona.
The corrosion testing was my favorite part of the tour. First of all, they have several humidity chambers. Cars are placed inside a garage that’s kept at 125 degrees and 100 percent humidity for 19 hours per day. Once out, they are inserted into salt chambers where you can literally taste the 3 percent salt solution in the air. VW claims that a few rounds of this punishment are equal to 12 years of East Coast driving. After enough sessions have been completed, the cars are then completely disassembled—we’re talking down to the welds—as technicians look for signs of rust, wear, corrosion, and/or rot. If a problem is identified, it’s then (obviously) corrected.
All that leads us nicely to the new seventh-generation Jetta, which—yes—was engineered specifically for the American market. Also, much of the road testing took place in the nearby city of Maricopa.
The new Jetta is solid. No surprises here—it’s basically a larger Golf with a trunk. Actually, there was one surprise. I climbed under the rear of the Jetta to have a look, and staring back at me was a beam axle. Also known as a torsion beam, the last Jetta began life with an inexpensive beam axle but then in 2014 switched to a fully independent rear suspension.
Why the retrograde move? Independent suspensions cost more money, and when you’re near the bottom (in terms of sales) of an especially price-sensitive segment, you save pennies where possible. The good news is that like the old beam-axle Jetta, the new one rides and drives quite well. I doubt any customers will mind the cost cutting, and most compact sedan shoppers won’t be able to tell the dynamic difference in the suspension swap. Also, you can go ahead and bet in the affirmative that we’re going to see a hopped-up GLI version of the new Jetta, one that will sport a fully independent rear in addition to much more power.
Volkswagen turned us loose on a tight and twisty single-lane road course to evaluate how the new Jetta drives. Although it’s not a sports car, the new Jetta displays no bad behaviors. There’s no torque steer, understeer shows up when you drive the car harder than 90 percent of its buyers will ever drive it, and its brakes felt strong and healthy.
Power from the turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four was just OK; call it adequate with your tongue firmly not in your cheek. VW is being mum on the actual output, but 150 horsepower isn’t a bad guess. VW also let us play with the 2019 Jetta on the same banked oval as the Veyron once did. An engineer told me the car’s top speed is 127 mph. I saw 128. Like all good German cars, the Jetta was composed and relaxed at Vmax. Even if it’s not much of a Vmax.
More seat time will be needed to provide a real, proper review. Especially time spent simultaneously driving other cars in the Jetta’s segment. This will happen soon. Volkswagen will be showing the car at the Detroit show in January and will then begin manufacturing the finished product in March.
It will be on sale around the third quarter of 2018. All said and done, I probably had about an hour in the preproduction Jetta, and that’s just not enough time. It didn’t help my thought process that the body was wrapped up in black and white camo and the interior was covered with black fabric.
At one point during my time on the proving ground a VW employee quizzed me about my take on the Jetta. I said that I felt it was very solid, drove like a big Golf, and had steering that was in line with the brakes that were in line with the engine that was in line with the chassis. It had no rough edges. It seemed like a well-thought-out commodity product, though one that doesn’t tug at my heartstrings. This person will remain nameless and genderless, but they said, “Yeah. We built a boring car.” Which, in a world of rapidly shrinking sedan sales, might prove to be the wrong approach.
Luckily for Volkswagen, the magic of MQB is that you can quickly and cheaply deploy numerous products from the single toolkit because 60 percent of the engineering work is already done. Might I suggest tiny little SUVs? I mean, just look at how many crossovers Subaru makes. And sells.