The “S” Stands for “Spock”
2013 Volkswagen Jetta S Review
From 1945 until 1974, Volkswagen’s tiny Type 1, affectionately known as the “Beetle”, was the very byword for low-cost transportation. With its little 1.3L air-cooled engine, it wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t very roomy, but it was, by the standards of the day, cheap and economical. It was replaced by the Golf in 1974, a car which is still with us today and, in the GTI model, is still the only car you really need.
When VW resurrected the Beetle in the late 90’s, it did not resume its place at the low end of the VW line-up. Instead, it instantly became the car of choice for square-spectacled hipsters. Once it got too common for hipsters to be seen in, it became a car for ladies. The new Beetle has a more expensive, higher-spec place in the VW line-up. The bottom end of the VW line-up is reserved for the Jetta S.
Most of the time, a car with an “S” designation in the model name is the faster, more fun model. You’ve got your regular Porsche Cayman then the high-powered Cayman S. Audi has the nice A4, and the equally nice and much faster S4. Chevrolet goes even further, because one S isn’t enough, so they have the SS spec. In general, the S model is your ticket to extra fun.
If you get a Volkswagen Jetta S, though, you’re not getting the nicer, faster model. You’re getting the base sedan. You can get a Jetta with sat-nav, Bluetooth, and leather seats. It won’t be the S model. It’ll also cost a lot more than the S model’s $16,720 retail price. When you buy the Jetta S, you’re basically getting the starter edition of German imports.
How it looks
The Jetta is not a particularly ugly car. Nor is it particularly beautiful. It has no glaring styling flaws. There is, in fact, nothing about it that departs even a millimeter from the conventional. Absolutely nothing about the Jetta’s design provokes any strong feelings whatsoever. It just sits there with a peculiar sort of Teutonic dullness. It neither repels nor attracts you. All that happens, if you stare at it too long, is that you get a bit sleepy.
When looking at high-end German cars like, say, a BMW M6 Gran Coupe or a Mercedes C63 AMG Black, they seem to hunch down with a predatory tenseness, waiting to assault the road. Those cars say “I am a serious automobile, for serious people who want to own a high-performance car.” The Jetta, on the other hand, says, “I am an automobile, for people who want to own a car.”
You never look at a Jetta and say, “Good lord, that’s ugly!” You never look at a Jetta and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” You never look at a Jetta at all.
The same stolidity prevails on the inside, where, I would argue, it’s been taken a bit too far. Everything that isn’t covered by hard plastic is covered by polyester. There’s no sat-nav, no Bluetooth, and no iPod connectivity. There is only one button on the adjustable, telescoping steering wheel. It operates the horn.
The interior of the Jetta could be transported thirty years back in time, and no driver would notice anything amiss. Perhaps this is VW’s way of inspiring a sense of tradition and connectedness with the past. Inside the Jetta S, for all of the features and technology on display, President Reagan could be preparing to meet with Chancellor Kohl. Except for the fact that there’s a CD player in the stereo. In 1983, that would’ve doubled the price of the Jetta.
But, one thing the Jetta is inside is comfortable. And it’s surprisingly roomy. There is no lack of room anywhere in the vehicle. I’ve sat in business class airline seats with less leg and headroom than is available in the backseat of a Jetta. Which means that, if you get bored on a long drive, you can take a stroll around the cabin to stretch your legs a bit. Honestly, it’s as roomy as an SUV in there. The trunk is capacious, too, with enough space to transport an adult body—two bodies for the less squeamish.
How it drives
The Jetta S drives exactly like a Ferrari 458 Speciale in the sense that, if you turn the steering wheel clockwise, the Jetta turns to the right. Conversely, counter-clockwise turns of the wheel will move it to the left. There is also a very Ferrari-like setup of two pedals on the floor, one of which makes the Jetta move, while the other makes it stop moving. The Jetta S is completely unlike the Ferrari 458 in every other way, however.
When using the steering wheel you will feel no indication of what the front tires are doing. In any other car, I would mark this a flaw, and make disparaging comments about “numbness” or some such nonsense. In the Jetta’s case, I believe this to be an intentional design choice. Feeling what the wheels are doing might, in some circumstances, impart a sense of performance-induced exhilaration. Conversely, in other situations, you might feel a loss of grip, which could instill a sense of anxiety or fear. These are all emotions, and I am firmly convinced that the Jetta is purposely designed to ensure that no emotions are ever associated with it at all. This is the kind of car that Spock (the Vulcan, not the kids doctor) would drive: emotionless, passionless, and soulless.
The ride is neither overly harsh, nor is it soft and compliant. It is precisely tuned to give the driver a sense that the car is in motion. You may additionally receive some indication about the quality of the roadway surface. You may, after all, require this information for safety purposes.
The acceleration from the 115 HP 2.0L 4-cylinder engine is neither quick nor sluggish. It is instead, rigorously calculated by Germany’s finest engineers to indicate to you, the driver, that you are, in fact, accelerating, though not to give you any sense that anything in any way out of the ordinary is happening. Despite this, it gets an unimpressive 30 MPG or so on the highway. So, not only is it not particularly fast, it’s not particularly economical, either.
The Jetta S seems designed to do nothing but transport you from one location to another in the most ordinary and mundane fashion possible. So, while there is practically nothing inside the Jetta S to distract you from the pure business of driving, there is nothing about the act of driving it that provokes any sense of enjoyment. Driving a Jetta truly is about the destination, not the journey.
Have you ever driven your regular daily commute and, when you got to work, couldn’t remember anything about how you drove there? Well, that’s what every trip in a Jetta S is like. Every. Single. Trip.
What’s good about it
It is comfortable and roomy enough for five passengers inside, with a surprisingly large cabin. No normally-sized human will ever complain about a lack of room anywhere. It does all the required car-like things in a car-like manner. The fit and finish are of high quality, though the materials themselves are strictly economy-class.
What’s bad about it
The gas mileage isn’t great. And it’s a Volkswagen, which means it may not be as reliable as you’d like. On the surface, it is competitively priced, but when you look closer, and see the lack of any sort of technological features that are increasingly common in other cars of its class, the price begins to look a bit high. Finally, the interior of the Jetta S is decidedly low-rent for a manufacturer whose car interiors are generally seen to be fairly upscale. It is not so much a car as it is a driving appliance; a transport commodity. You desire to go to a place, and Jetta transports you there as unobtrusively as possible.
Look, VW is all about the Golf and the Beetle—which are, by the way, essentially the exact same car, just with different body kits. I don’t know why you’d buy any other VW model than the Golf GTI if you wanted a practical, fun car. And I don’t know why you would buy the Beetle if you weren’t a girl. Nothing else VW makes is, in any way, interesting or exciting.
There are more boring cars to drive than the Jetta—the Toyota Corolla comes to mind—but there are many, many more fun cars in its price range. For the same price, I’d buy the Dodge Dart and get a better, more reliable sedan, with a 160 HP turbo-4 that gets 41 MPG.
You know, now that I think about it, I am feeling an emotion related to the Jetta S: mild disdain.