The Volkswagen Jetta is, admittedly, the occasional butt of car enthusiast jokes. Long considered a slightly snobby small economy sedan because of its comparatively high price of entry and less-than-great reliability reviews, the car didn't sell amazingly well here in the states for quite some time. Five years ago, VW tried to turn that sales situation around, completely redesigning the Jetta and drastically reducing the cost of many of its constituent parts - the result was the Mk.VI Jetta, and sales did go up quite noticeably.

But the car was compromised, and reviewers generally weren’t fans. Cost-cuts included things like fitting an unrefined rear beam-axle suspension system on most models, ditching optional leather trims, saddling the base car with a gutless 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder engine, and conducting most of the design and assembly in Mexico instead of Germany. While this caused outcry initially (particularly the suspension changes), VW quickly made improvements and refinements to the new Jetta, and in the 2016 model year, we’re probably seeing the best iteration of the car to date.

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The near-base SE lent to me by VW does have independent rear multi-link suspension. It no longer has the lackluster (if anecdotally reliable) 2.0 engine - which VW has wiped away entirely from its US lineup - but the far superior and much more powerful and torquey 1.4-liter turbocharged unit that has been available in Europe and elsewhere on VWs for several years now. And the ‘16 Jetta has a real technological feather in its cap: Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and MirrorLink on a car that costs just a hair under $21,000 with delivery in the US. You can actually even get it for less than that (albeit only a $400 or so difference) if you’re willing to sacrifice the backup camera, seat heaters, and push-button start. But you probably shouldn’t, because those things are all easily worth their combined cost. Anyway.

And let’s get this out of the way early: yes, Volkswagen has a diesel problem right now. But no, not every car VW sells is a diesel, and VW as a company isn’t going anywhere regardless of how high regulators choose to hang them on this scandal, so let’s put that aside for a moment and consider the ‘16 Jetta on its own - a car you can buy in the US right now.

The money part

We test drove a Jetta SE with no options (because it has none, aside from transmission), so the price breakdown is pretty simple.

  • Jetta SE base MSRP: $20,095
  • Options
    • Automatic transmission: $1100
  • Other costs
    • Delivery: $820
  • Total cost: $20,915

The cheapest Jetta with Android Auto is the S w/ Technology. But the SE is absolutely worth the additional $320 over it - you add a backup camera, heated seats, and push-button start. No-brainer unless all of those things categorically do not matter to you at all.

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Regardless, here’s what you need to know. Based on the driving experience and MSRP, I’d say getting anything other than the Jetta SE or maybe the Sport doesn’t make much sense. The new Jetta is pretty much at its best in a low-level trim that has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Here’s my model breakdown for versions that have Android Auto standard.

  • S w/ Technology - $20,595 (auto): Not worth saving $300 over the SE unless you really, really feel taken advantage of for getting a backup camera, push-button start, and seat heaters.
  • SE - $20,915 (auto): The one to get for most people. Has Android Auto, has a new-for-America engine (the 1.4T) that is legitimately great, gets good fuel economy, and is super affordable.
  • SE w/ Connectivity - $23,235 (auto): You get leatherette seats, a sunroof, and some VW Car-Net app for your phone. If you ask me? Not worth a $2,330 premium over the regular SE. If you really want nicer seats, just get the Sport - it is a far better value.
  • Sport - $21,715 (manual): Versus the SE, you get a two-tone leatherette interior, “sport suspension,” bigger wheels, and 20 more horsepower over the 1.4T engine, but that comes with slightly reduced gas mileage (25/37MPG for the Sport manual versus 28/39MPG on the automatic SE). Note that a Sport model with an automatic transmission commands an $1,100 premium (totalling out at $22,815) compared to a stick.
  • SEL - $24,470: Basically, you’re paying for more convenience features, and I don’t think they’re worth it for almost anybody. Probably safe to ignore unless you really want some of the driver assistance stuff and other extras. And gets worse MPG than the SE because it uses the heavier, thirstier 1.8T engine.
  • GLI - $27,740: The high-performance Jetta. I haven’t driven it, but it’s a niche car for a niche audience - if you’re into it, you’ll get one. If you aren’t, you probably have no reason to really look at it. It’s nearly $7,000 more expensive than the SE.
  • Hybrid - $31,940: A $32,000 Jetta? Well, if you’re really into VW and you really want a hybrid, I doubt there’s anything bad about it. It’s fully-loaded, too, so you get alltheoptions.jpg. Still, because it bears repeating: it's a $32,000 Jetta. Why not just step up to the eGolf, which is going to be a lot better to drive?

On the warranty side, VW isn’t going to wow you in most respects. Their all-inclusive new vehicle warranty is 3 years or 36,000 miles, and that includes matching roadside assistance. The powertrain warranty is 5 years and 60,000 miles - respectable, but not amazing by any means. VW does offer a pretty robust corrosion warranty, though, if that’s relevant to your interests, at 12 years or 120,000 miles.

On reliability, VW has had a mixed reputation in recent years. While the company is obviously making far more reliable cars than it did in the 90s and early 00s, there still is uncertainty around the decision to move major manufacturing outside Germany. The Mk.VI Jetta is largely assembled, and was even designed in, Mexico. But I find most arguments about region of origin to be a load of hooey - if the car is reliable, it’s reliable. If it isn’t, it isn’t. Will the ‘16 Jetta prove reliable? They’ve had about 6 years now to work out the kinks in the Mk.VI platform, and that's almost always a positive versus buying an “all-new” vehicle. I experienced no oddities or issues with my test car, though that amounted to all of 300 miles of driving.

The driving Part

Can a $21,000 small economy sedan be fun? Well, not usually. A $21,000 hatchback? Certainly! But small sedans in this price bracket today are generally strictly utilitarian vehicles and about as fun to drive as your parents’ old Dodge Caravan, albeit with fewer seats and better gas mileage. (See: Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, etc.)

There are exceptions - the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus being the notables available here in the US. But while the driving dynamics may be enjoyable on these vehicles, you typically have to pony up significant cash for an equally enjoyable powerplant to match, if one is even available without diving into a more hardcore, dedicated sport trim level (such as the Focus ST). And none of those cars have Android Auto.

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The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta is not an especially sporty car in econo-SE trim. Compared to my girlfriend’s Mazda 3, the steering feels more vague and provides pretty minimal feedback (probably due to the electric-assisted rack). While the brakes don’t have a ton of bite up front, they do have plenty of stopping power when you get on top of them. The suspension is clearly tuned for bumbling softly over rough city streets in Europe, not tearing up curves on back roads in Southern California. Still, you'll get a substantially more lively and engaged driving experience than you would in, say, a Corolla or a Sentra - this is not at all a bad car from a driver's perspective. And regardless, the Jetta’s new base 1.4T engine makes up for any shortcomings in driving dynamics. Coupled with the responsive 6-speed auto, this little turbocharged unit is one of the most engaging economy engines I’ve ever driven. The torque peaks way down low at just 1400RPM, and once that pushes you into the powerband around 3000-4000RPM, the Jetta zips ahead like it’s really got something to prove. It’s genuinely intoxicating to just mash the throttle through an intersection or during a freeway pass. The engine is free-revving and never sounds unhappy, which is a joy compared to most naturally-aspirated 4-cylinders in cars of this price. And a true automatic transmission (as opposed to a CVT) means you feel it rowing through the gears and that you can modulate power with your right foot with consistent and predictable results.

The other option is the Sport model, which is probably the one I’d get. It’s equipped with a slightly more powerful engine - the 1.8T, boosting output by 20HP - but notably it reduces the gas mileage and doesn’t net you any additional peak torque. The suspension is a “sport” setup, but VW doesn’t specify what makes it different other than a 0.6” reduction in ride height, while the steering and brakes are the same as the 1.4T. In my opinion, the main reason to get it would be the manual transmission, the cool two-tone leather, and the enhanced touchscreen (it adds nav and is faster, though not larger). I’d have to drive it to see if that sport suspension makes much of a difference, who really knows. If you don’t want the extra stuff but do want a stick, VW sells the SE with a manual transmission (MSRP w/ delivery $19,815), though they’re a lot harder to find than the Sport model.

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Oh, let’s talk gas mileage. It’s really good on that 1.4T. Even being a bit of a leadfoot around town, you’ll crack just below 30MPG pretty easily, and I’m not joking. On the highway? Shooting for 40 is far from unreasonable. This 1.4T is a gas-sipper, and it’s all that torque you have to thank for it: you don’t have to mash the hell out of the throttle any time you want to make a pass or get through a light. You can modulate gently and the car responds. The transmission really deserves praise here. For an automatic, this is a very surprisingly quick-shifting car, and it even holds gears on grades really well, so your foot isn’t constantly forced to tell the car what gear it should be asking for. That said, the manumatic mode is worthless for anything but low-traction situations or especially steep inclines - it’s clearly not meant as a “sporty” stand-in for paddle shifters or anything. But that’s just as well, because this isn’t a sporty car.

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The inside part

What I love about Volkswagen interiors is their long-standing commitment to minimalism. Sure, they do occasionally make some odd decisions in the eyes of us Americans because German car, but VWs have a proud history of being about “just what you need - none of what you don’t.” And the 2016 Jetta feels like just what you need.

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Interior controls in the ‘16 Jetta are laid out sensibly, with easily eyes-free-operable HVAC below the infotainment system, window and mirror controls on the driver’s door, and buttons for the trip computer and media controls on a surprisingly good multi-function steering wheel. Really, there is very little to complain about in regard to the layout of this car’s interior - it’s simple without feeling incredibly cheap, and the amount of functionality for the cost is actually pretty good.

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For example, all four of the Jetta’s power windows, regardless of model, have secondary switch positions for full up/down functionality. Even my girlfriend’s substantially more expensive Mazda 3 Grand Touring only has it for the front windows. Push-button start tends to be a fairly high-trim upgrade on most economy cars, but on the Jetta, all versions SE and above have it (though keyless entry to match means stepping up to the SEL). These are nice things to have, especially on a $21,000 car! Going back to that steering wheel, I actually really like it. Some reviewers have said they’d prefer a fatter rim, but for a car this soft and with such light steering? I’m actually totally OK with it. Combined with the function buttons (volume, track skip, voice command, cruise control, trip computer toggles), the steering wheel was probably the second thing about the Jetta I fell in love with, after the engine. Tilt and telescope on it is pretty good, and I had no issue finding a comfortable driving position quickly.

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There are some downsides, though. First, the audio system: it’s not great. It is extremely boomy and loud (for the millennials, I suspect), in part likely to drown out the not-insignificant amount of road noise in the Jetta at highway speeds. The fidelity is OK, totally passable for an economy car, but this isn’t going to blow you away for anything but sheer volume. It does get loud, I’ll give VW that much. The seat adjustment controls (both manual) feel a bit cheap and kind of “am I going to break this when I pull on it,” but thinking back to my old Mk.IV GTI, that’s exactly how they felt in that car, too. The seats themselves are going to be a matter of personal debate. I found them anecdotally comfortable, but, I did notice some back soreness after long drives because they aren’t especially strong on lumbar support. Going back to the good news, the back seats are surprisingly roomy - legroom was shocking when I got in to take some photos from the rear. With the driver’s seat adjusted for myself (6’1”), I still had ample legroom in the back. This is a huge consideration if you plan on transporting kids or friends (well, more than one) in your car on a regular basis, as most cars in this class have pretty poor rear legroom. Going even farther back, the trunk is positively cavernous, at 15.7 cubic feet. That’s a lot of space for a lot of stuff.

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As for the interior styling, it’s typical Volkswagen: it’s not going to knock your socks off, but no one’s going to get in this thing and gag. It looks thoughtfully, functionally-designed with no excessive frills or “try-hardy” trim bits like faux-carbon fiber (though it does have faux-aluminum inserts) or fancy contrast stitching. A Volkswagen interior is like a mid-grade piece of office furniture - it doesn’t stand out, but you know it’ll hold up reasonably well and fit in just about anywhere, even as it ages. I like it. It’s unassuming, unpretentious, and doesn’t try to make you feel like it’s something it isn’t. Even the gauge cluster layout is nice and clean.

The technology part

The SE model I tested is among the most modestly-equipped Jettas for additional technology. Yes, it has a 6.3” capacitive touchscreen, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay, but if you’re looking for much beyond that in a $21,000 car, your expectations are probably too high. But here’s what you do get.

The infotainment system, aka the Composition Media unit by VW’s marketing terms, does what you’d expect: no nav, but it does have Bluetooth audio streaming, radio, phone functionality, and voice controls. You can route audio over USB with a compatible device and via auxiliary jack, as well. All this stuff works. The interface for the infotainment unit itself is pretty reasonably easy to understand after a few days feeling everything out. Like all such systems, your initial reaction will be “I don’t like X, Y, and Z,” but it’s best to keep at it and just master the thing. After all, if you’re buying or leasing one of these cars, you have to put up with it. Once you do, you’ll realize that A.) it’s not complicated at all, and B.) that there really isn’t even much you can do with it. You just have to adapt to the UI flow. VW’s is reasonably simple, responsive, and easy to pick up. It’s not the prettiest thing in the universe, but I actually even like it better than Hyundai’s or Honda’s in most ways, and the capacitive touchscreen is more responsive than resistive units you find on most vehicles today, though it still does lag a bit, especially compared to a smartphone.

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The USB port is located in front of the gearshift, and it charged my Nexus 6 just fine and at a reasonable speed (I'd guess 5-7W) while running Auto.

As to Android Auto itself? VW isn’t really doing anything special with it that I’ve found. Just the same ‘ol Auto. Though, one convenience I’ve noticed is that once the car recognizes a phone you’re using for Auto, Auto automatically launches as soon as the device is connected over USB. Hyundai’s implementation requires you to go tap a button to go into Auto even after plugging a recognized phone in. I’m not sure how Honda’s handling it, but I do prefer VW’s approach to Hyundai’s in this instance. I didn’t have a chance to try CarPlay, unfortunately. And MirrorLink? Yeah, I have no idea how to even get it to work. I tried with a Galaxy S6 edge+ and HTC One A9 - Samsung and HTC are both MirrorLink partners - but there’s no MirrorLink app out yet (though I’m not sure it is an app?), and they just automatically launched Android Auto no matter what I did, even when I set the default action on the head unit to MirrorLink. So, I’m not sure what to do about that, exactly, or if MirrorLink is even available.

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The one other notable tech piece of the Jetta SE is the information display between the gauges in the instrument cluster. I like it! It’s very crisp, high-contrast, and easy to read. You don’t always get these on low-end economy cars even today, and VW’s is a pretty good one. You get instant MPG, average MPG for current drive, average speed, current speed, time driven, trip distance, estimated fuel remaining in miles, and outside temperature. There’s a smaller area closer to the bottom of the display that flashes through a few of these stats so that you don’t have to constantly switch the main one just to see a given piece of information.

The conclusion

Want a perfectly enjoyable, affordable small 4-door sedan (that legitimately seats 4, or even 5, people) with Android Auto? You can swing a 2016 Jetta for under $20,000 if you look hard enough and want to or can live with a manual transmission, and under $21,000 far more easily if you want an automatic . For all the flak the Mk.VI Jetta took when it was introduced, it seems VW has ironed out the biggest complaints over the last 5 years - the anemic 2.0 NA engine is out of the lineup entirely, and independent rear suspension was reintroduced some time ago on the car.

Which would I have? If I was seriously on a budget and just wanted Android Auto at the best value possible, I would hunt down an SE with a 5-speed manual. That'll get you in just under the $20,000 mark (though that may depend on dealer pricing / add-ons), and I think that's going to be an absolutely fine car for most people. It doesn't have all of the bells and whistles and luxury(TM) that cars from rivals like Hyundai and Nissan can offer at this price, and the further up the price rungs you go, the less compelling the Jetta looks on paper in that sense. Hyundai's top-trim luxury Elentra is around $22,500, while a comparable Jetta - the SEL - is around $2,000 more with delivery and doesn't even include a power driver's seat or real leather. I just think those nicer Jettas are a tough sell, even if they are going to be a lot better to drive than an Elantra.

Now, if I had a bit more money to work with? I'd get the Sport trim with a 5-speed all day. It's not hugely more expensive than the automatic SE I tested, and you get nicer seats, bigger rims, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sportier suspension, and a slightly more powerful engine. No Sentra, Elantra, Focus, Civic, or Corolla offers you that kind of package at that kind of price. I think if you're in the market for this kind of car and you want Android Auto, it makes the Jetta a no-brainer.

But! If it's really me you're asking, and I'm looking at the VW stable of products? I'm going to immediately be turning my attention to the 2016 4-door Golf S. But not everybody likes a hatch, and the Golf is generally a more expensive car than the Jetta in terms of features per dollar - you'll get no arguments from me. And there's less room in the back.

Anyway, the 2016 Jetta is a fantastic little car if you're looking for a small sedan and Android Auto is high on your list of desired features. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.

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