Seasoned performer in a shrinking segment
THE GOOD
  • Comfortable, bigger-car ride
  • Supportive seats
  • Fuel economy
THE BAD
  • Cargo floor isn’t flat with seats folded
  • No active safety tech on base model
  • Some competitors have zippier handling

The number of compact sedans on the market is steadily dropping as consumers move into SUVs, but the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta remains.

It comes in three trim levels, starting with the Comfortline at $21,595 before freight and tax. Both it and the next-step-up Highline come with manual or automatic transmission transmissions. My top-level Execline uses the automatic exclusively, and it’s $28,995 before a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,750, bringing it to $30,745 before the government’s share.

Styling: 8/10

The Jetta has a few sharp-edged lines, but overall Volkswagen has gone for timeless styling here rather than what’s hot right now. That choice serves the brand well, as its designs don’t age as quickly as those of some of the more out-there competitors.

The cabin is fairly plain but functional, and while the centre stack may look droopy, it all makes sense when you’re behind the wheel. The screen and controls are focused toward the driver and fall easily to hand. There’s a fair bit of hard plastic, but it’s well-finished and everything fits together with precision.

Safety: 7.5/10

The Jetta gets the top five-star rating from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It also rates the highest “Good” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), although it misses the Top Safety Pick designation because its headlights are rated either “Marginal” or “Poor,” depending on the trim level.

My rating would have been higher, except that the entry-level Comfortline is very basic, with only hill-hold assist and a tire pressure monitoring system included, along with the rear-view camera that’s mandatory on all new vehicles. You must move up at least to the Highline to get emergency front braking, blind-spot monitoring, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control.

The competitors don’t include everything on their base models, either, but the entry-trim Toyota Corolla has emergency braking, lane-departure alert, auto high-beams, and adaptive cruise control; the Mazda3 gives you blind-spot monitoring; and the Honda Civic has emergency front braking, adaptive cruise, and lane-keeping assist.

Features: 8/10

The Comfortline includes such items as 16-inch wheels, a 6.5-inch touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, automatic LED headlights, heated front seats, heated mirrors, and heated washer nozzles. The Highline builds on that with the aforementioned active safety items, and features such as an eight-inch screen with voice control, wireless smartphone connectivity, navigation, satellite radio, keyless entry, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, leatherette upholstery, auto-dimming mirror, and dual-zone automatic climate control.

At my Execline level, it further gets 17-inch wheels – small by today’s standards, but you’ll pay less for tires – along with a digital instrument cluster, premium stereo, remote starter, wireless charger, heated and ventilated front sport seats, heated rear seats, leather upholstery, driver’s seat memory, and interior ambient lighting.

User Friendliness: 9/10

For frequently used functions, I always prefer a button or dial, which is quicker and less distracting than paging through screen menus and tapping icons. The Jetta delivers on that with hard controls for the climate functions, and the drive modes, and to temporarily disable the auto-stop/start function, if you prefer.

The touchscreen is also easy to access, with a dial for stereo volume and tuning, and buttons to bring up the menu screens. Most functions can also be accessed with voice control, although it took a few tries before the system figured out the exact navigation address I was attempting to enter. Single-syllable street names can be an issue with a few manufacturers’ tell-it-what-to-do systems.

Practicality: 8/10

At 399 L, the Jetta’s trunk is about middle of the segment: larger than that of the Toyota Corolla or Mazda3, but smaller than the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra. The rear seats fold to accommodate longer items, but there’s a riser and a bit of a bump up when sliding in your items.

It’s easy to get in and out of the Jetta thanks to doors that open wide. Once you’re in, small-item storage up front isn’t overly generous but it’s adequate, including large door pockets and a centre-stack cubby that, on the Execline, contains the wireless charger.

Comfort: 9/10

The Execline’s “sport” seats stay comfortable over long drives. They’re not very soft, but don’t be fooled by that firmness, because it’s the way they support your spine that makes all the difference. The front seats are heated on all trims, but the top-line model adds ventilation, and heats the rear chairs as well.

The ride is quiet and smooth, with bumps soaked up well before they make their way into the cabin. Overall, the Jetta’s on-road manners seem like they belong to a much larger vehicle.

Power: 8/10

All Jetta trims use a turbocharged 1.4L four-cylinder making 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. The two lower trims start with a six-speed manual that can be optioned to an eight-speed automatic, which is the only choice in the Execline.

That little engine isn’t a powerhouse – you’ll want to look at the 228-hp Jetta GLI for that – but as an everyday commuter car, it gets the job done. It’s sprightly off the line, there’s enough for passing on the highway, and the transmission shifts smoothly.

Driving Feel: 8/10

The Jetta feels tight and solid, and substantial but not heavy. The steering is light, and while it’s not as sharp or nimble as something like the Mazda3, it’s smooth on corners, and well-planted on the highway.

The turning circle is tight and visibility is good all around, so it’s easy to manoeuvre in parking lots. The brakes feel confident, and overall it’s a pleasant vehicle for everyday driving. While it’s possible to get all-wheel drive in this segment, which is standard on the Subaru Impreza and optional on the Mazda3, the Jetta drives its front wheels only.

Fuel Economy: 8.5/10

The Jetta with the automatic is rated by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) at 8.0 L/100 km in the city; 6.0 on the highway; and 7.1 in combined driving. In my week with it, I averaged 7.2 L/100 km, and it takes 87-octane regular-grade fuel.

That’s about even in the segment, where its 7.1 L/100 km combined matches that of the Honda Civic. It’s fuel-sippier than the Mazda3 with 2.0L at 7.6, while the Kia Forte with 2.0L undercuts it just slightly at 6.9 L/100 km

Value: 8/10

At $21,595, the Jetta starts a bit higher than most of its competition, but holds its own at the higher end. You can get a Kia Forte starting at $17,895; a Toyota Corolla at $19,350; or a Mazda3 beginning at $20,900. It’s pricier to get into a Subaru Impreza, at $22,995, while the Honda Civic starts at $24,465. None of those prices include their respective freight fees.

But if you’re going for the Execline, its $30,745 price tag including freight is on par with its competitors’ top trims. While most buyers will likely opt for the mid-range Highline at $25,495, the extra $3,500 to get to the Execline adds some decent features, including the leather-clad ventilated seats, a premium stereo, power driver’s seat, and adaptive cruise control, and I’d likely bump it up to that.

The Verdict

There’s still some tough competition on the market, and the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta fits into the segment rather than dominates it. It’s very smooth and comfortable, it’s roomy, its controls are simple and functional, and it has some nice features at its upper levels. If you’re bucking the compact SUV trend, try this one out.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.4L   Model Tested 2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $28,995
Peak Horsepower 147 hp @ 5,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 184 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm   Destination Fee $1,750
Fuel Economy 8.0 / 6.0 / 7.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $30,845
Cargo Space 399 L  
Optional Equipment
None