Mountain Wheels: Modern-era VW Jetta provides power and lots of choices |

Mountain Wheels: Modern-era VW Jetta provides power and lots of choices

2015 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T SEL

MSRP: $25,380: As tested, $26,896

Powertrain: 170-HP turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission

EPA MPG figures: 30 combined: 25 city, 37 highway

As you may have recently heard, Volkswagen is indeed coming closer and closer to its objective of being the world’s largest automaker, edging Toyota out of the way as it expands to new markets and begins to finally make a deeper impact here in the U.S.

They’ve accomplished this through a range of modern automobiles that are both charming and curiously amorphous at the same time — sharp, loaded with functionality, but just a little generic in their character, especially on the insides.

I spent a few days checking out the 2015 Jetta, an SEL model powered by a Mexican-built 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, connected to a Japanese-made six-speed automatic transmission. Jetta and its ilk have subsequently received a litany of mostly high-tech optional upgrades for 2016.

No longer simply the funky, upsized rendition of the Golf, the Jetta is now an admirably sized and impressively assembled but still eminently affordable, starting at $17,000 and some change for a basic model. And is available in a gazillion variants, including a diesel and a hybrid.

In the spiffier version I tested, total price just a hair under $27,000, the combination provided 17-inch wheels, a sunroof, an upgraded Fender-branded audio system, rear and forward alerts and that 1.8-liter engine, reliably producing as many as 37 highway mpg.

I did enjoy this particular engine option, as it’s a dynamic setup that propels the Jetta with assured power, a comfortable 170 horses and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. I also preferred the six-speed automatic here to VW’s dual-clutch DSG models, which sometimes produce a bit of gurgling and second-guessing as the car tries to figure out how it wants to get going forward.

The ride is smooth and just the tiniest bit sporty; you can shift the Jetta into S mode and add some gutsier shifting patterns and hold the revs higher for passive-aggressive driving on the freeway. Overall, Jetta is as rigid as its steering wheel, itself as thin as the shaft of a golf club.

In VW’s peculiar fashion, it was also equipped with a glowing cornsilk beige-tinted leatherette interior — including nearly white front and rear window frames, causing some fierce glow and occasional visibility issues on especially sunny days.

Cool faux carbon fiber trim has been added to help brighten up the short, stippled dash; there’s also small doses of piano black around the navigation and audio head unit and the shiftgate. Beyond that, a whole lotta plastic.

Size and stance of the modern Jetta is quite pleasant. It’s now like a taller, truncated Passat — maybe a bit more like what the Passat was like before it became very large and Americanized — complete with a similarly designed, broad snowplow nose and grille, and a very tall tail, containing 15.7 cubic feet of trunk space.

From the driver’s seat, you get good overall visibility, healthy views from the ample side mirrors — they even had the sense to make the rear center headrest black to cut down on the glare, provided you don’t order the aforementioned nearly white interior décor.

The seats themselves are tall and heavily bolstered, quite attractive and made more sharp with highlight stitching and a two-tone design with black edges. Making them the snappiest part of the entire interior, minus that flashy carbon fiberry trim.

VW’s versions of the contemporary suite of safety and technology doodads are indeed equally subtle. The 2015 model forward/rear parking warning system produces warnings that are indeed quite visible and easily noticed; for 2016, the systems get an upgrade to include adaptive cruise control and collision warning with full automatic emergency braking.

Unfortunately, the old navigation system was just way too simple for its own good — small and only providing either very local scale mapping or very vague details at a larger scale. That too will be remedied to some degree in 2016 with an upgraded infotainment system that can also use the new Apple CarPlay or Android Auto systems to effortlessly link to the apps on your phone.

The Fender audio is a very impressive add-on and again builds a lot of extra character in the vehicle; everything is nicely integrated through a comprehensive set of wheel-mounted controls.

For 2016, the 1.8-liter engine and the optional 2.0-liter TSI — a 210-HP, 33 highway mpg option — are joined by a new 1.4-liter turbocharged direct injection engine that’s good for 150 horsepower and an admirable 39 highway mpg.

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