When the Volkswagen Jetta was redesigned for the 2011 model year, it took a big step back from the carefully honed upscale aspirations of its predecessors.
The philosophical departure wasn't so much the difference between Target and Wal-Mart as the difference between Target and your crazy neighbor's weekly lawn sale. All the brainpower that VW brings to bear on wonderful machines like the GTI was deployed instead to create a Jetta possessed of a single-minded cheapness.
2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
What is it? Volkswagen's most affordable turbocharged sedan.
Price: $19,715 base, $20,815 as tested, including six-speed automatic transmission ($1,100).
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four-cylinder (170 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque) with turbocharger and direct injection.
Mileage: Rated at 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, the SE automatic's highway mileage is 5 mpg better than that of the previous five-cylinder model.
Since then, VW has backed off its bottom-dollar game plan. The plain-Jane Jetta has traded its rear drum brakes for discs, and for 2014 the torsion-beam rear suspension was replaced with a multilink independent setup. Along with the suspension change, this year also brings significant power upgrades for the SE and SEL versions. Please note that the bargain-basement S model is still powered by an eight-valve four-cylinder that's so old its blueprints were drawn on the wall of a cave.
The SE and SEL get a new turbocharged and direct-injected 1.8-liter engine to replace the old 2.5-liter in-line 5. The 1.8 makes the same 170 horsepower as the outgoing 2.5, but it generates more torque at lower engine speeds while drinking less fuel on the highway. The six-speed automatic is happy to select a tall gear and let the torque -- 184 pound-feet of torque at only 1,500 rpm -- do the work. (Opting for the five-speed manual transmission will save you $1,100.)
Among the Jetta's gasoline-powered competitive set, only the Dodge Dart's 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder offers similar low-rpm torque, and that engine's peak doesn't arrive until 2,500 rpm. The Dart also prefers premium fuel; the Jetta is fine with regular.
Besides the objective improvements, Volkswagen's turbo 4 is far more polished than its predecessor. The five-cylinder managed decent power, but its omnipresent off-kilter warble was an acquired taste: "Hey, is that a UPS truck trying to pass me?"
The new four-cylinder is Audi-caliber, which makes sense since it's the same engine you get in an Audi A3. Which leads me to the dilemma facing Volkswagen: If you've got an Audi-quality motor powering an Audi-quality chassis, how do you differentiate the Jetta from the A3?
The answer lies inside, where you won't find push-button start, a backup camera or other frippery now common in the $20,000 class. You want Bluetooth? Eat some blueberries.
The SE's steering wheel is black plastic. The upholstery is fake leather that looks especially unconvincing in a hue that VW calls Cornsilk and I call Sad Moonbeam. When you open a rear door and look at the back seat, it's hard to tell visually where the plastic trim ends and the seat begins.
Some cars get their upholstery from Bridge of Weir. The Jetta's might be from House of Lego.
I would heartily recommend the $525 Connectivity package, which covers the steering wheel, emergency-brake handle and shift knob in leather. Don't ask me what leather has to do with connectivity -- maybe it's a German thing.
With or without Connectivity, there's no USB port in any Jetta. If you're one of the tens of millions of people with an iPhone 5, you'll need to pay $65 for VW's proprietary cable to connect it.
Stepping up to the Jetta SEL, which tops $26,000, at least buys you a soft-touch dashboard. (If you find the Jetta SE's dash to be soft to the touch, that means the air bags have deployed. Exit the car and wait for the authorities.)
Moving to the outside, the Jetta's exterior is bland and inoffensively forgettable. It looks as if it might appeal to people who cut their own hair. The one I drove was metallic brown, and that's a moderately interesting color to paint a car.
Building a car to a price is a zero-sum game. Spend more on the interior and you have less for the chassis. Spend more on the chassis and you have less to put under the hood. In VW's case, they spent all the money where you can't see it, endowing a $20,000 Jetta with a version of the 2-liter motor that powers $60,000 Audis.
Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your priorities as a driver. Within its competitive set, the Jetta SE is probably the best to drive and the worst to look at.
If you wish you could get that underlying engineering wedded to a lot more style, maybe you can. Just keep an eye on the lease rates for the A3.