First Drive: The A7 Jetta at the Arizona Proving Grounds

The next Jetta promises a little more of everything (size, space, engine) thanks to its now familiar MQB platform. The last of the holdouts, the Jetta is joining its brethren on VW’s one-size-fits-all MQB chassis and sure enough, it fits.

Shrouded in secrecy and under threat of multiple NDAs, a group of journalists and I were escorted out of Phoenix to Volkswagen’s top secret testing facility to drive the brand new—actually more than brand new—the yet to be released Jetta A7.

Still hidden under camouflage, we were unable to get a good look at the thing, but we were given the opportunity to put some laps around VW’s handling track and its high-speed oval: the “Schnellbahn.” Again, the engineers who designed the MQB platform deserve credit for another solid car defined by its balance, poise, and drivability.

To be frank, though, the show of secrecy was kind of a waste of time, because I already knew what the new Jetta was going to be like to drive. And you do, too. It’s like the Golf. That may come off as dismissive, but really it’s the greatest compliment I could pay the thing. Yes, there are differences. If I’d had the chance to drive one right after the other, I’m sure I could have picked out some differences, but like Coke and Pepsi, if you blindfolded me, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which I was in.

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And that’s a good thing. The Golf is excellent, I don’t need to tell you. And while I liked the outgoing Jetta, the smidgeon of extra room (we didn’t get official figures, so I can’t guarantee you that the interior is bigger, but come on. It’s a new car. They aren’t gonna make it smaller) and the new handling are welcome.

Given the chance to wheel this car around a tight handling course, the layout of which I’ve never seen before, with off-camber corners, and steep run-offs the Jetta was remarkably confidence inspiring. Its steering weight is perhaps a shade lighter than the Golf’s, but it does what you want it to do, and it does so predictably.

Its back end is also remarkably playful. That’s not to say it wants to drift. It is, after all, still a front-wheel-drive car, so at the limit it understeers, but it doesn’t plow and you really have to be driving stupidly—as is my wont—to have your fun robbed by understeer. And that’s probably safe, or whatever. But when you’re driving like a reasonable person, and you enter a corner with maybe just a degree too much pace, the back end gives you a little nudge of oversteer.

And when things get really out of hand, it’ll react perfectly safely, as happened to me after Matthias Erb, head of engineering for the North American Region, jumped into the car with me. To reassure you, I wasn’t trying to injure highly ranked employees in the VW hierarchy, it was at his behest that I put the pedal to the… carpet and accelerated towards a watersoaked section of test track before jumping as hard as I could on the brakes. This, you see, I was asked to do because it meant that I would be between two yellow lines and could see how straight the Jetta stays on its way to a stop in an emergency situation.

And although this was an impressive bit of showmanship, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as the watersoaked slalom that I was allowed to weave when I turned around. Again, despite the lack of traction and the disbalancing nature of the exercise (which is the point of such a setup, doncha know) the Jetta kept right on course attacking each successive corner as if it was on dry asphalt. Again, too much throttle could invoke understeer, but again you have to be a loon to get there.

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If the Jetta is less than exemplary in any area, it’s the speed department. And it’s not really fair to even say that because it’s anything but sluggish and it’s still supposed to be a value offering, but the acceleration, if I was inclined to pick nits, didn’t take me aback. As I said. It was adequate. You can wheel this car around a tight combination of corners and it doesn’t feel gutless like some other cars—say, I dunno, a base Impreza. But if you were expecting a kick in the pants, you ain’t getting it.

It will, however, do 127, maybe even 128 mph—wind-allowing—on a large banked oval track, if you have one of those in your neighborhood. And it’ll get you there with a surprising lack of fuss. Which gives me hope for onramp pulls, because the stability and ease with which the new Jetta accumulates speed, even on a curved section of road, means you don’t have to worry about keeping the car in control when you’re pulling onto the highway or slotting in between faster cars that I can’t legally discuss on a test track in Arizona. Visibility is also pretty good, incidentally.

And it’s not just about pace. The Jetta is also really comfortable and smooth when you just want to be calm. Even on a dirt road, it managed to iron out any bumps, to a genuinely impressive degree. The price for this softness is a hint of yaw around the corners, but this isn’t trying to be anything but a road car and it doesn’t take away from the dynamism.

And that’s good news because even though it’s based on Wolfsburg’s chassis, the Jetta itself is actually mostly a product of the US (since Europe doesn’t really care about trunks). Part of the heightened autonomy given the North American Region following Dieselgate, the car is a chance to prove that VWs designed in America for American tastes don’t have to be looked down on. Gone are the days of Westmoreland, when American engineers softened and neutered the work of Wolfsburg. Here are the days when America actually does a good job with it.