COAL: 2012 VW Jetta SE – Bland Is As Bland Does


When we bought our Volvo C30, we decided to trade my Mazda 3 instead of Maggie’s PT Cruiser, knowing it would net us a lot more. That would leave me driving the PT and after about 6 months the novelty had worn off, so I started to think about a replacement.

A co-worker was driving a 2011 VW CC, not a car that I had paid much attention to until one day when I needed a ride somewhere and he offered. I loved the interior of that car, those ribbed seats especially, how was I not aware of this car? As often seems to happen with me and cars, I started obsessing over the idea of owning a CC. I read everything I could about them before heading out for a test drive. I found a low mileage, one year old program car being offered at a deep discount. The test drive went fine and I was already imagining one of these in my driveway when I opened the rear door to check out the backseat. I noticed the unframed, sharp corner of the rear glass and how close that was to what might be my kids’ eye level. I could just picture one of them running into that while climbing into the back. Thinking about it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been a problem, but maybe that was my subconscious telling me not to buy another 2 + 2 when we had just bought the C30. Yes, technically the CC was a 5 seater, but not really.

While I was there at the VW dealer, I decided I might as well take a look at their other used car offerings. There was a low mileage 2011 Jetta GLI with the 2.0 L turbo, but at the time I wasn’t totally sold on turbocharging. Again, we had the C30 turbo, did we really want to put all of our eggs in the turbo basket? But feeling pretty good about VW offerings thus far, I headed into the showroom to see what was new. Focusing on 4 door sedans, I first climbed into a 2012 Jetta. I really liked how roomy and airy the cabin was, especially the back seat. Volkswagen was bucking the trend with their upright greenhouse and relatively large glass. The seats didn’t feel like vinyl seats of old, these looked and felt pretty good. Just for comparison’s sake I sat in a Passat which seemed cavernous by comparison, but otherwise very similar. Since I didn’t need all that room, I thought the Jetta would do me just fine. I really like the simple dash layout and the large infotainment screen. This seemed like a lot of car for the money and VW was discounting these substantially at the time.

I test drove a white SE with the 2.5 L 5 cylinder engine and 5 speed manual. I loved that VW had retained the same shift pattern as my old Beetle and that I had not forgotten how to put it into reverse. Engine choices for the Jetta included an anemic 1.8 L price leader, the 2.5 L and a 2.0 L turbo. As we have already established, the turbo was a non starter because the Volvo. You might ask why the 5 cylinder was okay when the C30 was similarly equipped. I don’t have an answer for you there, some things just defy logic.

VW was still selling the previous gen Jetta in wagon form and I sat in one of these as well, although I didn’t go so far as to test drive one that day.

My previous brush with Volkswagens dated all the way back to 1975 and my ’69 Beetle. Sure, I was aware that VW had long ago grafted a trunk onto the Rabbit and created an affordable 4 door sports sedan, but I had never ridden in a Jetta, much less driven one. Reviews hated the hard plastic surfaces on the new Jetta’s interior, perceived as a significant downgrade over the previous generation’s soft touch materials. Me, I thought it looked fine. I mean, who goes around touching the dash while they are driving?

There were complaints about VW dropping the adjustable height center arm rest and switching to cheap trunk hinges, but all of this seemed petty. Probably the biggest complaint was the rear suspension, which was now a solid, torsion-beam axle except in GLI trim. In the end, it seemed most reviewers actually liked the car, they just seemed shocked that VW had taken so much cost out of it. What I gleaned from most of the reviews was that the new Jetta was a decent, if somewhat boring appliance of a car, built to a price.

I brought Maggie with me back to the dealer and we gave the Jetta wagon a test drive before checking out the SE again. I really wanted to love the wagon, but after experiencing the updated Jetta sedan, the older design felt a bit claustrophobic and Maggie voted no. We ended up buying the Jetta SE that day. I remember noticing that our specific car had the mid-year rear disc brake upgrade, where as most of the cars on the lot were showing rear drums. I pointed that out to my salesman, who in typical form wasn’t aware of the change and had to ask the sales manager when that happened.

I liked the Jetta a lot. I could pretend, to myself anyway, that I was driving one of the small Audis. The Jetta even had the same underbite on the front as Audis of that period. The 5 cylinder could make a decent growl when pressed and I found the 5 speed stick perfectly serviceable. Done up in beige, the leatherette seats were quite comfortable and made for a warm interior. The kids enjoyed plugging their iPhones into the glovebox adapter and seeing their playlists come up on the decent sized infotainment screen. It’s amazing how far things have advanced in 10 years with these systems, but at the time I thought this was pretty slick.

There was one incident though, shortly after I bought the car, when I picked up my daughter and future so-in-law at the airport. He was a car guy and I thought he would be impressed with my new ride. His first comment after getting in was “You bought a chick car.” Huh? I had no idea, but according to him, these were favored by young women in those days. The implication being that a manly man such as myself would never own a car like this. I know he was mostly joking, but all humor has at its root a kernel of truth, right? I still liked my Jetta, but his comments nagged at me. Then later I learned that my wife didn’t really like the car either. It turns out she has an aversion to both trunks and white cars.

The car was a beast in the winter, wearing Firestone Winterforce tires on after market rims at each corner. I think it was mostly the tires, but this car really loved the snow. We did have one fluke of an accident during the winter that had the car laid up for a couple of weeks. Driving down a narrow St Paul street one frosty morning, a college student opened the iced over door of his Mustang just as we were abreast of his car, gouging both passenger side doors and removing the rear door handle completely before continuing onto the trunk. He had started his car to warm it up and was getting out to scrape his windows when we drove by. The body shop did a great job and repaired some door dings while they were at it so the car looked good as new.

The car made several road trips and with my commute to pick up my kids after work each day, I was putting on about 20,000 miles annually. I don’t remember having any mechanical issues despite the raft of complaints on the VW forums about quality and service. My suspicion is that the North Americanization of the Jetta, with its reduction in parts complexity, was perhaps part of this. A much more successful transformation in production and engineering than the first attempt with the Westmoreland Rabbit.

In 2016 we moved from our house to a downtown condo as the last of the kids were nearing the end of college and this meant another reconfiguration of the fleet. This might be the only car I have ever gotten rid of based strictly on other people’s opinions. The Jetta never gave me any trouble and the VW dealer service was fine. Like my Miata, I’m not sure I would buy another one at this point in my life, but the Jetta gave me some good memories. There would be at least one more VW in my life and I’ll give you a hint, I still wasn’t finished with chick cars.