VW has paved a difficult road for itself in North America. While huge globally, they’ve never pegged this market and have bumbled around with the wrong product mix for years. Deeply unreliable offerings in popular segments in the 1990s transitioned to denial of the crossover in the 2000s. They pulled a Onceler by figgering on biggering the Jetta and Passat in 2011, and that worked for a few years until the modest Truffula forest of customers who wanted big and cheap-feeling VW sedans had been logged out. Finally some serious crossovers landed in 2017, but being late to the party while carrying the baggage from your past is hardly a way to break out into the mainstream.
The company had its shining moments in some iterations of the GTI, the performance of the VR6 and old 1.8 turbo engines, the sooty durability of the 1.9 TDI, and the high tech wizardry of the common rail 2.0 TDI. Unfortunately these were rarely pure victories, often sullied by problems with the powertrain itself or the vehicle it was hooked to. Somewhere along the way one would think that VW–by dumb luck if nothing else–would have wed their signature refinement and Germanic driving feel to something that didn’t immediately fall apart or scream corporate malfeasance.
And it turns out they did, in gasoline versions of the A5 Golf/Jetta platform. This is the brightest star in the post-Beetle firmament, but less likely to be noticed because ejecta from the emissions scandal supernova is still obscuring the view. You can experience it in 2006-2010 Jetta sedans, 2007-2009 Rabbits, and 2010-2014 Golfs and Jetta Sportwagens. We owned a 2010 wagon from new to late 2016 and it is the only car I regret selling.
My prior exposure to VWs had been very limited. My first experience with a modern VW was in 2002 when five of us crammed into a MkIII breadbox Jetta for a roadtrip from Page Arizona to Zion National Park. It was hot, cramped, the A/C didn’t work, and the interior plastics smelled inexplicably and unpleasantly like melted crayons. The airbags had both deployed the prior year in a front end bonk and the owner had stuffed them back into the steering wheel hub and dashboard compartment as best she could. It was a sad creature beat to within an inch of its life in only six years, but the grunty little engine, solid road manners and sturdy feel of the doors left an impression wholly at odds with the condition of the car.
I bought ours in 2010 after sitting in one at the auto show. I knew of VW’s reliability reputation, I remembered the smell of crayons, but darn it if the phrase “the feel of the wheel will seal the deal” doesn’t exist for a reason. Everything about that car made a stunning tactile impression. The solidity of the doors, the excellent seats and driving position, the interior materials, the panel fitment, the thick paint, the flocked glove box and door bins, the thick carpeting, even the damped action of the air vent flow wheels. The interior pillars were sheathed in soft fabric and the armrest adjusted for length and angle. When was the last time you saw all that in this class?
Forget logic, I was emotionally involved and started researching the car. Reliability checked out, surprisingly. I was also surprised to find that the base model felt every bit as expensive, just with less tinsel and frosting. To gauge durability, I went to the Hertz car sales lot to see how an A5 Jetta sedan held up after 35,000 miles of rental abuse. It was nearly mint. Impressive considering the MkIVs had a reputation for delaminating interiors. All this cost the same as a Toyota Matrix that was an absolute embarrassment in comparison.
So we bought one, and I never regretted it. The charm of this car was how well-rounded and thoroughly executed it was, as if this were a chief engineer’s halo project ushered through the development process uncorrupted by the compromises every other mass market vehicle must accept. It felt expensive going down the road, with a firm but comfortable ride, good noise control and laser-guided steering at high speeds, and excellent packaging that paired a usable backseat with 30 cubic feet of cargo capacity in a tidy 179-inch length. It was porky at nearly 3300 pounds but hid the mass well in corners while putting it to good use in straight line road manners. When we sold it at nearly 7 years of age it didn’t have a single interior rattle, whereas our more expensive Camry developed several prominent ones at a third of the miles.
I don’t know how VW made any money on this car after seeing what the same $20K would get you elsewhere. Maybe they didn’t, and maybe that’s why the MkVI Jetta sedan was separated from the Golf in 2011 and savagely decontented. Or maybe they did, using predatory low-wage Mexican assembly that enables them to offer a nearly semi-premium car for Corolla prices to people like me who become too enamored to research the supply chain. I suppose I do have one regret.
Despite the name, this wasn’t an overtly sporty car. It was responsive and could take a confident set in a corner, but our Camry has a more lively steering response and less transitional roll and yaw, to say nothing of the GTI which shared this platform. Similarly, the manual was accurate and pleasant to use, but lacked the precision and machined feel of the better Hondas and Mazdas. The brakes were disappointing, never feeling as strong as the four discs suggested. But they also never warped or needed a pad replacement.
I purchased a gasoline model, rightly predicting VW was the wrong company from which to buy a hyper-complex turbo diesel. What I didn’t foresee was the emissions scandal forcing VW to reward those who made the wrong choice with a generous buyback. Most markets received a range of efficiency-oriented low displacement gas motors with and without turbochargers, some of which struggled to crest 100hp, while others were worrisome in their complexity. The oil-guzzling North American and Middle Eastern markets were luckier. We received this strange retrograde 2.5L iron block inline 5 with port injection and natural aspiration. The 170hp and 177 lb-ft were big numbers for the segment.
A low redline and a tendency to shove rather than rev made this feel somewhat like a small pickup truck. Most reviewers griped about the 2.5, but I loved it from the first moment I let the clutch out and felt the eager yank. It was torquey. It also sounded unique and sonorous when revving out, more Audi TT RS than Honda Civic. It wasn’t remotely silky, but NVH was overstated by the press. It wasn’t that quick, either: just under eight seconds to 60 with the manual. Yet, the flat torque curve provided good power at low revs and it felt very relaxed, linear, and responsive. A very nice everyday engine.
It drank a bit too much, though. Twenty-six mpg combined and rarely above 31mpg highway in my experience. So they were right about that one.
I have no bad memories or experiences with this car. It never irritated me. It easily shuttled our infant twins in their bulky rear-facing car seats and the solid crash test ratings gave me some peace of mind. Every road trip was stress-free. It was all-day comfortable, shrugged off long distances, and prevented road fatigue like a larger and more expensive car. It served as an admirable small camper on multiple solo excursions into the desert, but the FWD and low clearance kept me away from multiple destinations. Sand was scary.
The stick shift proved to be the car’s undoing. Any of you with a clutch-o-phobic partner may understand how tiring the logistics can become. I spent a total of 60 miles out of 85,000 as a passenger in this car, all of them on the deserted highway outside Denio Junction, Nevada, on a 15 hour drive from Salt Lake to Cape Blanco. My wife could struggle her way through the clutch engagement point into first and then up the gears to highway speed if no one else was around, and there’s no one around Denio Junction. However, throw her a crazy curveball like a stop sign or a need to downshift and she would have none of it. I know a losing battle when I see one. When it came time to trade in for the 4Runner, the wagon went and we kept this damnable thing instead. Whenever she says she misses the VW, I simply stare into the middle distance and say nothing.
Perhaps it’s better this way, ending the relationship on a high note rather than waiting for the fights and the betrayal. The gasser A5 platforms had very good CR ratings through the first six years or so and ours never gave us trouble. However, CR foolishly stopped separating TDI from 2.5 in their ratings so I cannot look back at how these are holding up at the 10 year mark. Scuttlebutt is that the 2.5 is still VW’s most reliable modern engine, but there are a lot of other VW components surrounding it. I’m eager to hear from the CCers here. If this isn’t peak VW, what was? Anyone have a 5-cylinder with well over 100K?