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VW's Jetta handles like a sports car yet looks like a basic, nicely designed sedan.

2002 Volkswagen Jetta Road Test
Sleek and slick

By Bill Roebuck

On the outside, the 2000 Volkswagen Jetta (introduced as a 1999-1/2 model) looks like a compact, aerodynamic, European sedan. It has lines that remind you of the more costly Audi -- sleek, but not too exciting in design. It's about the same length as a Chrysler Neon (172.3 in.). Inside, there's lots of room up front -- but rear seat passengers suffer a bit from tight door openings and limited legroom.

Other features to appreciate include a fully finished trunk; body coloured door handles, rub strips and bumpers; tensioning seat belts; and great-sounding stereo system with CD player and an optional sensor that automatically turns on the wipers when rain hits the windshield.

If you choose the Jetta GLX version powered by VW's aggressive VR6 six-cylinder engine, you've likely realized that this is a sedan that drives like a hot rod. The 2.8-litre, 174-horsepower VR6 engine is incredible. It's fast and wide-ranging, with seemingly endless thrust and speed. And it's coupled to a tight, quick shifting five-speed transmission that encourages aggressive driving. It has a 0-100 km/h time of under eight seconds and a top speed of about 220 km/h. Throttle response is strong even at 130 km/h. That's why I call it a hot rod in disguise.

Driving feel is tight and confidence building. This is a car with very good road manners, like those of a larger sports coupe. Handling has been enhanced by a stiffer suspension, wider track and longer wheelbase compared to the previous year's model.

The leather seats in the GLX are firm and supportive, although the side bolsters on the cushion better suit those with narrow behinds. Six-footers have no problem fitting into the rear seats as far as head room goes, but it's a tight fit for the legs. The attractive dash features blue and red instrument lighting, which I found annoying at first, but came to appreciate.

Jetta shares its platforms and powertrains with the Golf, New Beetle and the Audi TT coupe. About 60% of its components are shared with the Golf, although that includes none of the body panels except the front doors. Compared to the previous Jetta, this model is rounder and sleeker. It may remind some of a BMW 328i, which is not a bad image to conjure up. However, despite the new design, there's considerable wind noise at highway speeds, and the power sunroof creates a lot of wind noise when opened.

The Jetta GL and the GLS versions have a base 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 115-horsepower engine that saves on gas but lowers the fun quotient. It's also available with the 90-horsepower, 1.9-litre four-cylinder TDI turbo-diesel that gives outstanding fuel economy. However, acceleration to 100 km/h with the TDI is a leisurely 12.3 seconds.

Overall, pricing is Jetta's only obvious flaw (aside from its hard-to-use cupholders). The 2002 Jetta GLX with the 200-hp VR6 engine and five-speed Tiptronic automatic is $37,110. That includes leather, power sunroof, air conditioning, power windows and locks, a premium audio system, heated front seats, 15-in. alloy wheels, ABS brakes, and front and side passenger air bags. The five-speed manual, 174-hp VR6 in GLS trim is $27,110. A base GL with the 2.0-litre engine is reasonably priced at $21,700.

© Copyright Bill Roebuck, 2002.

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