In the Autoblog Garage: Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE

Click above to view high-res gallery of the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE

"I think we're gonna have to buy a Volkswagen," I told me wife just hours after signing for the keys to a 2008 Jetta 2.5 SE. I had only done about four miles in the car and, already, the near-luxury interior and throaty exhaust had won me over.

But my wife was skeptical of a sedan's ability to handle the needs of our pack-rat family even if it did have 170 horses. So I drove the handsome little VW a couple of days more before turning it over to her for toddler-toting duty. I felt sure she'd see the positives of German engineering by week's end.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

White has never been one of my favored car colors. It's a non-choice, safe and devoid of personality. And white cars are hard as hell to photograph. Our Campanella White Jetta could have pulled off a convincing marshmallow impression had it not been for that black and chrome grille, the sparkling, mirrored headlights and blacked-out rear valance. It's available dressed all in black, and, with the brightwork around the side windows and grille, it's a gorgeous package.

The Jetta's standard 16-inch wheels are well-fitted to the car's 101-inch wheelbase. Larger shoes might look better, but who wants the added weight and tire cost? Oh, and the optional 17s are another $1,200.

Contrasting our Jetta's stark-white exterior was its almost entirely black interior. Black leather seats, black leather steering wheel, black carpet, black user's manual. You get the idea. The light-gray roof pillars and headliner are obviously there as a reminder that you're driving, not spelunking. But cave-explorers don't get heated, well-bolstered seats, or eight airbags, or a telescoping steering wheel. Not that they'd need any of those, of course. Alright, bad analogy, but we were glad our Jetta included the glass sunroof to let in some spring sunshine.

Before turning the keys over to my wife, I strapped down our super-duper kid seat in back. I can't think of a modern car that doesn't have the safety-enhancing LATCH system to install child safety seats, but I have never seen any as aesthetically pleasing as the Jetta's. For those of you without kids, I'm talking about simple, metal attachment points to which a child's seat is strapped. Two straps snap onto loops buried somewhere in a car's back seat cushions, and one strap attaches to a hook either behind the rear seat in SUVs, or, in passenger cars, on the shelf in the rear window. Most cars have utilitarian attachment points that are not even seen until called into duty. Volkswagen has such a keen sense of detail that even their rear LATCH point got prettied-up by one of the company's designers with a brushed-steel look and feel. Alone, it won't sell a car. But it might make loyal customers out of first-time VW buyers. You listening Ford? GM? Chrysler? Toyota?

Installing the child seat in the recommended center position covers the center armrest, which holds the only cup holders in back. And, of course, it blocks access to the lockable pass-through to the trunk. Not a big problem, but something to consider if you have another kid who needs a place to park his juice box. Luckily, the rear bench seat is wide enough to allow even two adults to fit on either side of our La-Z-Boy-like child seat. They weren't comfortable adults, but not every small car can brag about carrying four adults and a baby. Back seat passengers get storage pockets on back of the front seats, a shallow box in the armrest to stow small valuables and their very own air vents.

Getting our son in and out of the the back seat was fairly easy, though the back doors could have opened a bit wider. Speaking of which, if those rear doors aren't pushed open until they catch, they will not stay open. Not a problem if owners remember this but a potential for injury (especially for small children standing in the way) if they forget. And watch your pants legs in wet weather. Water tended to pool on the lower door sills, ready to be mopped up by a swishing skirt.

In the front seats, driver and passenger are held tight in the twisties by firm bolsters, while highway travel is made more comfortable by twin bun warmers. All the windows go up and down with one-touch switches and the sunroof opens with the well-known VW dial. Gauges get the highly-readable white on black treatment in daylight, and glowing red numerals on black at night. As much as I have minimalized the need for steering-wheel switches in the past, I missed my stereo controls being at thumb's length. Whether it's laziness, a safety thing or just convenience, their absence in the otherwise coddling Jetta were a bit startling.

Interior materials and fit and finish were impeccable. All plastics are soft touch, textured or both. Everything's put together like, well, like a bunch of German engineers had spent years perfecting it. Which, of course they had, and, therefore, of course, it all should. If American carmakers could somehow get their hands on a VW and have just a few minutes to study how their interiors are built, there's no telling how many Calibers and Impalas they could sell. If only there were a VW dealer in Detroit. Alas.

The big 2.5 should also take note of what's hiding in the center armrest. Yes, that's an iPod dock. Not a simple auxiliary jack, but an honest-to-goodness dock for your Apple-made mp3 player. Slide in your Pod, and its usual screen is replaced with a glowing VW logo. Cool. Switch the stereo to aux and there's your musical library at your service. Except you better know what song is in what position on your player, because the Jetta sure doesn't. We were very surprised to find that names of playlists show up fine on the LCD screen, but songs and artists are replaced with "Track 1" and "Track 5." It was all so, well, un-Apple like at that point.

Usually to illustrate a vehicle's trunk space, I fill it with a stroller then whatever else will fit back there. Diapers, cases of soft drinks, etc. This time, though, I filled it with me, and it was quite comfy. You get to know a car pretty well when you lock yourself in its trunk. The Jetta's is carpeted throughout, it's got a neat little device that folds down from the lid to hold your grocery bags, and a two-year-old can spend upwards of an hour crawling into and out of it using the back seat pass-through. I didn't try, but I'm betting we could have gotten me, a full-size stroller and maybe even some groceries back there. So, yeah. It passes the stroller test.

So we all know VW has great interiors and handsome exteriors. But how does the thing drive? Did I mention the well-bolstered seats? You're not gonna need them. Don't get me wrong, the Jetta is no slowpoke. When you ask it to get the heck down the road, it will, eventually, respond. Even my wife, who normally drives an older Corolla, mentioned how sluggish the VW was. Use of the Tiptronic alleviated most of the throttle hesitation, but it might be to blame for our paltry average of 16.5 mpg for the week. Yeah, I lead-footed it again. But I did find that putting the Tiptronic into second gear actually made for much smoother starts, and smoothed out some of the sluggishness. VW claims the EPA estimates to be 21/29, but, of course, your results may vary depending on the weight of your right foot.

Around curves and on-ramps, most Jetta owners will be pleased. The suspension holds the car flat and even with steering that isn't so over-damped that the road can't be felt at all. You'll not be winning any Autocross competitions in this thing, but no one will mistake the ride for a 1996 Buick.

On the highway, we found the stereo to be our friend. It had plenty of volume (especially on Track 15) to drown out most of the road noise that found its way into the car. The drone wasn't unbearably noisy, but with the level of interior refinement, we just expected to hear less of the outside world.

At the end of the week we had to give back the Jetta, of course. So we rushed out and bought ourselves a brand new one. No, not really. With a base price just $10 shy of $17k, it's in our family's new-car budget, I'm certain we could improve on our fuel usage and vague iPod information is better than none at all. My wife was even won over by all the attention to detail like the VW logos in the headlights.

But we're holding out for the diesel-powered, Jetta Sportwagen this summer. With the sedan's refinement and looks, but the more efficient powerplant and expanded cargo space, it could very well be a winner. Don't want the diesel and have no need for the extra room? The Jetta may be your knight in white.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

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