Review: 2012 VW Jetta TDI Highline

Ah, the Jetta. Maligned and misunderstood in Europe for decades, it’s been a perennial best-seller for VW here. And for good reason.

The new Jetta, dipped in Toffee Brown Metallic, made a stop in the Wildsau Garage for a week and made a pretty good impression. For the record, I think brown cars are important members of our society, but this color took a while for me to like. It definitely grew on me though.

Jettas start at a remarkably low CDN $15,875 – this Highline model rang in at a significantly higher CDN $29,865.

By the way, if you’re interested in my review of a 2013 Jetta Turbocharged Hybrid, here it is.


Exterior/Under the Hood

The new Jetta’s styling is more conservative than it has been in the past. I feel that the last few generations have taken continuous steps in a more conservative direction, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. The one thing that does take the brunt of this kind of styling is uniqueness. The Jetta did set itself apart from the masses in the past, but today’s version blends right in with the competition. Line them all up, and blur the picture slightly, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart at all.

That said, the Jetta follows VW’s new direction in terms of wearing a corporate face with somewhat serious horizontal lines, and has VW’s Audi-derived tail lights in the back. Not just a few onlookers commented that they thought this was the new Passat. So that’s something too – it’s a bigger car.

VW saw fit to send me the TDI model, and I thank them for that. I’ve driven a couple of VW’s with the 2.5-Liter inline-5 (also available in the Jetta) and I feel lukewarm about it. The TDI, on the other hand, is simply a lovable lug. It’s a 2.0-Liter 4-cylinder, direct-injection turbocharged diesel. People who don’t understand the wonderfulness that diesel engines exude always chuckle at the horsepower number – 140 HP @ 4000 RPM. Meh. That’s not the number that matters here. It’s the torque, which is what we love in North America, and what we use during stop-and-go, everyday driving – it’s what motivates our cars from rest. The TDI churns out 236 lb.ft of it – and that’s available to you at a low 1750 RPM.

The TDI is hooked up to a dual-clutch 6-speed transmission with manual shifting and sport modes.

Not only does the diesel drop a bunch of torque in your lap, it’s also fiercely efficient. Rated at 6.7 L/100 km (35 mpg) in the city and an amazing 4.7 L/100 km (50 mpg) on the highway, it’s right on the heels of most hybrids for the combined cycle. AND you’re not driving a limp noodle around. The fuel tank is 55 Liters – do the math, and you’re able to make your way across a quarter of this country on the highway before you need a fill. I saw 7.4 L/100 km (32 mpg) from almost exclusively city driving – mostly with a heavy foot on the gas, and with no effort to conserve fuel. Very impressive!



The interior is well done, and brightened significantly by the two-tone tan and black scheme. Materials are nice to look at and the interior appears to be well-crafted. I found it to be roomy enough for me in terms of space to move around and headroom.

The manually adjustable seats are leather-surfaced and heated. That’s real leather, y’all – no little vinyl-leatherette animals were hurt making these seats. They are awesome seats – very comfortable, very well bolstered. Other companies could learn a few lessons here.

The dash is quite shallow, and there are two very legible gauges in front of you with the driver information screen in between. VW’s excellent manually adjustable steering wheel has buttons for media, phone and handsfree controls. I always love the flat edges on their wheels, and they are a joy to use.

The basics are powered, of course – door locks, mirrors and windows – as well as a power trunk release. The ignition is push-start, and requires you to hold it down a second or two longer than regular cars, because it cranks up the diesel’s glow-plugs.

The center stack is simple and usable. At the top is a small-ish touchscreen surrounded by hard buttons – it houses media, phone and nav functions. Media sources are AM, FM, satellite, CD, SD-card(??), auxiliary, Bluetooth streaming and iPod control. The stereo is Fender-branded – a goofy branding exercise since Fender is known for crunchy guitar amps, not hi-fidelity sound systems. Goofiness aside, Fender did a great job here and it sounds awesome in this car. Below that sits a manual climate control system.

The center console holds a nice shift lever, a parking brake lever and an armrest. Overhead are a powered tilt/slide sunroof and lit vanity mirrors.


Rear Seats/Storage

The rear seats are highly comfortable. You have three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests. Seating is fantastic for two adults – headroom is good and legroom is exceptional for this class – and three kids fit fine. I was able to comfortably fit two kid seats, and there are 2 LATCH anchors for that. Sitting in middle position sucks for anything but a small child or a dog – there’s a tall tunnel on the floor, and the center console sits quite far back. The middle seatback folds down to become a floating armrest with cupholders, and behind it is a pass-through door if you’re transporting long items like skis or illegal immigrants.

There is a little storage cubby at the top and at the bottom of the back of the center console, and there’s a 12V plug in between as well as a power door lock switch.

The glove compartment is a decent size and all four door bins are small but usable, with room for a bottle.

Underneath the center stack is a deep carpeted bin with a 12V plug. There are two cupholders in the console, and there is a nice carpeted bin under the armrest lid.

The trunk is large, and that space can be increased by folding the 60/40 split rear seats down – they don’t fold flat. Strangely, there’s a release handle for the seats in the trunk, but you still have to go into the back doors to fold them down. Seems silly to me.


The Drive

The Jetta has always been a great driver’s car, and this one is no exception. The ride is smooth and controlled – firm enough to feel planted and plush enough to soak up virtually any nastiness. Handling is fantastic, and it seems that it gets better as you go faster. There is some body lean, but when things get hairy, the Jetta never seems put out. I took some high-speed corners in some urban areas, and it handled them without a single complaint. I think the size of the new Jetta makes it a little less sharp and focused around town, but it’s a trade-off I’m happy with.

Highway speeds are no issue and it cruises very happily and smoothly there.

The torque is the real story here. There are simply gobs of it. When you get on the gas pedal, you’re rewarded with an almost instant surge of power, and it will pull nicely from virtually any speed. Notice I said “almost” instant surge. The problem with this car is the lag when you get on the gas. There is a hesitation, especially from a standing start. That lag is really, really irritating. It can be alleviated somewhat by putting the transmission in “Sport” mode, but not totally. I was quite surprised by this, because I’ve driven other DSG-equipped vehicles that were near-perfect. I’m not sure whether to blame the transmission, the throttle response or the marriage of the two. Once you get past that lag though, the wave of torque is simply delicious. Passing someone in an urban setting or on the highway is not an issue, and you’ll surprise more than a few people with the get-up-and-go factor from a red light. Sure the engine runs out of breath, but not before you’ve achieved what you wanted when you stepped on it.

Visibility out of the Jetta is great, other than the rear headrests intruding into the rear view a bit. It’s a very quiet car, including engine, road and wind noise. The modern diesels are quiet, and there’s not smoke or soot to speak of either – which were some of the complaints of older diesel cars. There’s a bit of clatter at start-up, or when you get going from a stop, but realistically, it’s basically nothing more than you’d hear from a gas-powered car. Same goes for the outside.

This car has a great dead pedal – typical VW, and I thank them for that. The steering is a bit more numb than I’d prefer, but it’s responsive enough, and the turning circle is very, very good for a car this size. The brakes, while effective, felt too spongy for me.



My one real gripe regarding the interior comes in terms of the material quality. Materials feel cheapened since the last generation of Jetta, which was obviously done to bring the price down. They are pretty, but there isn’t a hint of soft-touch plastic to be found other than small padded door panels.

I absolutely hate that the stereo’s auxiliary port is smack-dab in the middle of the stereo system, which means if you’re one of the 4 people in the world that still use analog auxiliary plugs, you’ll need to have it running through the cabin to plug into your dash. Other cars hide this in more discreet places.


The Verdict

I’ll come at this from two angles. First of all, the Jetta is a great car. The size makes it a fantastic choice for small families, and the driving dynamics are wonderful. Secondly, the TDI is a lovely engine and simply makes sense. It offers near-hybrid fuel economy, but without the compromises (no torquey-ness for around town or on the highway) and without the concerns (what happens to those batteries when this car goes to heaven? What happens if my hybrid drivetrain passes away peacefully after my warranty is up?). Diesels are reliable, fuel efficient and modernized to the point where noise, smoke and inability to start in cold weather are no longer valid concerns.

Unfortunately, I took issue with the lag that this car brought to the table everytime I wanted to get going from a start, and that costs it a point.

I give the VW Jetta a 7 out of 10. If the transmission and throttle response could get reworked to avoid that lag, I’d easily be looking at a 7.5 out of 10.

It’s a solid choice, for sure, and should be considered if you’re looking for a vehicle in this class. It’s difficult to find a lot of direct competitors here – the fuel-efficient non-hybrid class is smaller and cheaper, such as the Mazda3 SkyActiv or the Chevy Cruze Eco. They seem like a class down from the Jetta. If you’re not quite as hopped up about fuel economy, I’d also recommend looking at the GLI, which is the hot-rod version of the Jetta. Same car, paired with the snarky turbo gas engine and tuned for performance. It’s a sweet ride, but it gets pricey too.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was, not surprisingly, quite high. She has loved recent VW products and she didn’t even notice the lagginess from standing start. She loved the interior, the seats and the way it drove. She was pleasantly surprised by the lack of diesel characteristics that she assumed it would have.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by VW.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.