First Drive

2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype First Drive Review | A desert rendezvous with a secret sedan

2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype lead
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype lead
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype profile
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype rear quarter
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype front
  • 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype back
MARICOPA, Ariz. — Nothing about driving the new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta for the first time is a typical experience. For one, we're in Arizona, at the company's proving grounds — a 1,600-acre facility surrounded by massive walls designed to keep folks like us out. Inside are two Jetta prototypes, pre-production cars really, swathed in swirly camouflage with heavy blankets covering most of the dash and center console.

And yet, here we are. Invited to a place we've never been before — although relieved of our cameras and smartphones, for security purposes. Now, other manufacturers have had us to their secret proving grounds on similar adventures, but Volkswagen hasn't in recent memory. At a minimum, it's an unusual move for an automaker entailing lots of risk that we might see something before we're supposed to. It's fascinating to take a peek behind the curtain.

APG's senior director, the affable James Marsella, is eager to show us all the goodies he can. Having been here for 25 years, he's rightfully proud of the facility, which is used by all brands owned by the Volkswagen Group — even MAN, Scania, and Ducati. During the main testing season, flocks of engineers migrate from Germany to the proving grounds, occupying a huge bank of cubicles and competing for time on the various test courses.

They include a massive banked high-speed oval, which cants at more than 30 degrees, torture chambers that bombard cars with salt and gravel, and a place where about 125 cars bake in the merciless Arizona sun all year long. There's a room where previously tortured cars are ripped apart, which happens in a room that looks pretty much like a room you might expect to find the pieces of a crashed alien spacecraft. It seems like a cool place to be an engineer, but a rough place to be a car.

The story of the brand new Jetta doesn't start in Arizona, however. Back in 2010, we drove the Jetta that was born out of the New Compact Sedan program, Volkswagen's main salvo in an attempt to become a much higher-volume player in the U.S. market. It was also an attempt to deconstruct the notion that the Jetta was a compact, near-luxury sedan built to do battle with Volvo and Acura — and priced accordingly. That meant a de-contented (a nice way to say cheaper), Americanized (a nice way to say softer) Jetta built in Mexico and aimed specifically at domestic tastes. Cost-cutting was evident everywhere, at first glance, and was rightly a major preoccupation of our reviewer at the time.

It was a preoccupation of buyers, as well: Jetta never reached the summit of the Corolla/ Civic sales mountain. In 2013, VW spent some money to make the cabin look nicer, and in 2014 some of the powertrain economization was reversed as the Jetta ditched its boat anchor of a 2.5-liter inline-five and adopted the company's modern 1.8T, as well as gaining electric power steering on most trims and real independent rear suspension instead of a torsion beam rear axle. It wasn't enough to move the needle, however. Jetta Mk. VI sales habitually hovered around the 15,000 units per month mark, while Corolla regularly exceeded 25,000 units during the same months.

That might lead you to think the idea of a Jetta built to a price is out the window, and that's what we were most interested to discover driving the car around APG. After a tour of the facility, we headed to a short, low-speed course. It's apparently used to test vehicle fuel tank ventilation systems, to make sure they work properly by sloshing fuel around. It was basically a low-speed autocross course, and it revealed a few notable things about the new Jetta that shouldn't change too much by the time it heads to production.

For one, the exterior is sharp. Literally. The beltline crease under the window sills is incredibly pronounced, as are the filets at the edges of the hood. Our first tester was an up-market trim, probably an SEL. It had complex, interesting headlight elements and upscale, two-tone leather seats. A peek under the blankets covering the dash and center console revealed Volkswagen's Digital Cockpit, although it was in some sort of debugging mode and didn't display a normal interface. The door cards had an insert that looked like patterned aluminum, and it nicely set off the angular inset for the door handle. The door pulls, however, were hard, nasty plastic, and while other parts of the door card were soft-touch plastics they didn't look like it. The bottom line is that the interior is much more like the new Atlas than the outgoing Jetta, in both good and bad ways. It's also adequately roomy, particularly in back, for normal-sized humans.

The familiar 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four is present, but there was a surprise out back: a torsion beam. Unless this pre-production car had a strange mishmash of equipment, it seems like all Jettas will return to this suspension setup. To be completely fair to VW, torsion beams are very attractive from a cost and packaging perspective, and the Jetta's trunk was cavernous. VW North American Engineering Chief Matthias Erb told us, in a characteristic moment of frankness, that VW's reliance on turbocharged engines means it's at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of per-unit cost. Saving some money in an area that a typical commuter almost certainly won't notice isn't a terrible idea. Honestly. If this ends up on a future GLI, though, we reserve the right to complain.

The road course revealed a few other things: The '19 Jetta is soft. Very soft. One of the Jetta engineers who rode along for a few laps told me that the company had gotten feedback from consumers that even the last-gen car, a very Americanized product for VW, rode too stiffly for many of them. A softer, more compliant car might please the masses, but it feels even less Teutonic than before. Chasing the mass market, I fear, VW's getting ever-closer to abandoning its magic formula of European flavor at budget prices.

Another worrying sign is the numb steering, which is also nothing new. Back in 2014, we said the old Jetta's "steering is empty on center, as if it had a linkage that was dipped in soft rubber, and its feedback score is pretty close to zero." Things haven't changed. It's one of the most desensitized units we've used, although there thankfully are few surprises in operation.

The true test of consumer-grade steering competence is a long, rough freeway ride. None of that today. Instead, it was put to the test on the high-speed ring. Incidentally, the Jetta's approximate top speed (somewhere around 128 mph, with three average-sized adults and an unknown amount of fuel on board, as measured by a VW engineer's GPS in the back seat) is pretty close to neutral steer on the highest part of the banking. The steering was accurate enough to keep us in the lane at this speed with the slightest of inputs. And the brakes, both hauling us down from the banking and on a short wet slalom and braking test in an adjacent lot, were also up to the job. An engineer mentioned that revised calipers, with bigger pistons, and a revised pad compound helped out there — although the overall size of rotors front and back is unchanged. Feel there was adequate, and braking performance seemed good from the seat of our pants. There was no measured stopping test to confirm our hunch, of course.

Frankly, in this short and highly curated experience, there wasn't much more to glean about the '19 Jetta. There was no opportunity to drive it on public roads, which would help prove if the general softening of this new compact sedan is an improvement or a step backwards from the outgoing car. The styling may move the needle a bit, as it seems likely that when the camo comes off it'll be a sharp-looking sedan.

The rub is that the be-softening of the Jetta seems like a misreading of history. You might get whiplash if you think too hard about how VW has swung from one reading of the car to another. Taking a step back, the real question is whether VW should even be chasing the sort of volume that it seeks for this car. Erb made it extremely clear to us that the 2.1 percent market share VW has in the U.S. "is not enough." VW's platform-sharing strategy can allow the company to bring high-end features to users at a competitive price — if, and only if, it can sell enough vehicles. VW doesn't want to be, and might not be able to afford being, a niche brand.

The problem is, the Jetta is best when it's a niche product. It started out as a Golf with a trunk, and the company didn't build a cult following by diluting the essence of its core products. Moving to the Golf's MQB platform is a great step. A real GLI, with an independent rear suspension and moves to match its Golf sibling, would cast an air of Europhillic legitimacy to the whole line — a unique selling proposition in a segment that really could use one. Look at Subaru's success sticking to all-wheel drive and boxer motors in the most vanilla segment around.

Americans deserve vehicles with a soul, even commuter appliances. We need more seat time to determine if VW captured the mojo on this one — and we need to see what kind of price point it comes in at. Until then, VW's latest creation will remain metaphorically wrapped in a mysterious swirly vinyl wrap.

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