When it comes to automotive reviews, most journalists—myself included—gravitate towards the latest and greatest models. Whether a $100K opulent luxury SUV or a high horsepower, slick looking sports car, these are the vehicles that are fun, exciting, and popular—they are what everyone is talking about! In doing so, however, we forget that fancy and expensive automobiles make up just a small fraction of what people are really buying: cars, trucks, and SUVs that are practical, reliable, work well and, of course, offer good value.
One such automobile is the Volkswagen Jetta, now in its 7th generation. This front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan has been around since 1979 and, over the decades, has built a reputation for offering German engineering to the masses. Having undergone a major styling overhaul in 2022, the 2023 version of the Jetta continues to offer its buyer a lot of technology, safety, and standard features for a reasonable price. The Jetta comes in five different trim levels, although the SE package—or middle trim level—is its most popular version.
At a starting price of $25,480 including destination, the SE includes pretty much everything you would want in a car: heated front seats, keyless entry with push button start, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, LED headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver’s seat, and—new for 2023—remote engine start. Additionally, the SE comes with advanced driver safety tech. This includes blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and front collision warning with auto braking. To top it all off, Volkswagen offers a mobile app allowing you to remote start your car, lock or unlock the doors, and even see the exact location where you parked—right from your phone!
The Jetta SE is powered by a 1.5 liter turbocharged inline-four cylinder engine making 158 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, and is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission; a manual transmission is not available in SE trim. Power is smooth and consistent and, despite the relatively low power figures, the engine feels torquey—merging onto expressway entrance ramps and keeping up with traffic is not a problem. In fact, 0-60 mph comes in at a not-too-shabby 7.2 seconds—putting the Jetta towards the top of its segment. Gas mileage, too, is outstanding: With an EPA-rated 31 mpg city and 41 mpg highway, you might actually think this car is a Hybrid. But there’s no heavy EV battery here, just a very efficient power plant that—despite having a turbo—works on regular 87 octane fuel, saving you even more at the pump.
The outside of the Jetta presents Volkswagen’s minimalist approach to car design. In sharp contrast to the more angular theme found on Japanese and Korean brands, the Jetta keeps the body creases simple, giving the exterior a familiar and stately stance. The interior is a textbook example of the art of packaging, with lots of room for front and rear passengers, large personal storage areas, and a trunk that will hold more baggage than many SUVs. On the downside, some cost-cutting is obvious with lots of plasticky parts and an overall lack of contrasting materials and color accents. Ergonomics, however, are good—everything is laid out well and HVAC and radio volume/tuning controls use physical knobs and buttons. The 8-inch instrument cluster is all digital and very easy to read.
The Jetta uses Volkswagen’s excellent MQB platform architecture, which underpins many other vehicles in the VW family including the Golf and even the Audi A3. Because of this, chassis dynamics are very good—the car feels solid. Ride quality is pleasingly smooth and the cabin is quiet. Steering feel on the Jetta is light but lacks precision and, although the limit of grip is high, there is noticeable body lean when going through a sharp corner. The suspension is good with nice damping, but lacks the premium refinement and recovery of its sister Audi’s A3 setup— although I suspect this may be by design.
Overall, the 2023 Volkswagen Jetta SE is a lot of car for not-so-much money. With an emphasis on style, ride, and roominess, plus a long list of standard features and amenities, the Jetta SE stands out not only among its compact sedan competitors, but makes a strong case to skip the SUV and get back to the basics… and get back into a car!