The 2008 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 is part of the fifth generation of Jettas from VW. Offered as a competitor to Toyotas and Hondas, the Jetta was often the choice of enthusiasts more so than mainstream consumers, as drivability and fit-and-finish is the name of the VW game. However, Volkswagen, as part of a new business model designed to put the VW Group on top of the automotive pile, decided this was a bad thing and redesigned the sixth generation Jetta to appeal more to consumers. A move many enthusiasts and journalists have... erm, expressed doubts about (but then again, there are oodles more mainstream consumers than journalists, so VW likes its odds, as they should).
Well, I'm here to review the fifth generation anyway, so less on the controversy. The 2008 Jetta 2.5 features a 2.5 liter inline-5 powerplant that shares parts (not many) with Lamborghini's 5.0 liter V10 found in the Gallardo. And when you wind the engine up towards its redline at 6250 RPM, yes you can hear a similarity between the I5 and the V10 exhaust note. Personally, the Jetta 2.5 is one of the better sounding mainstream sedans on the market today. The example I drive is a 5-speed Getrag manual gearbox, which in true German fashion executes flawless and buttery smooth shifts every time. The shifter has a bit of a long throw, but overall feels nice.
Inside, the Jetta Mk 5 benefits extensively from VW's corporate ownership of Audi. Switchgear, head unit, and console layout are borrowed from the upmarket Audi A4, and results in a rich cabin experience for driver and passenger alike. The car features automatic up/down on all four windows, which is absolutely marvelous, and also an automatic three-blink turn signal, which is stupendous for highway lane changes. Also, an automatic electric sliding sunroof is fitted, again with switchgear from the Audi A4. The leatherette (VW's name for faux leather) seats are perforated, and the front two are heated with five stages. The premium sound system in my example seamlessly integrates a Sirius XM satellite radio service to the in-dash 6 CD changer, which also offers MP3 playback and iPod connectivity. The sound is crisp, clear, and full-bodied.
As for driving dynamics, I personally think the Jetta falls a little short when compared to a 2005 Mazda6. The Jetta offers a glass-smooth ride on the highway, but cornering just isn't quite as satisfying as the Mazda. Also, the clutch pedal on the Jetta has a 67.5 mile travel distance, making it an ideal manual for learners, but not necessarily for spirited drivers. The absurd pedal travel means that while smooth, shifts aren't as quick as the Mazda's shorter pedal travel and short throw shifter.
I have driven the Jetta on two sets of tires, and I can report that it doesn't seem to make much of a difference. Though I am not the world's biggest Bridgestone fan, the new Michelin all-season tires don't seem to offer any more grip. Body roll is also noticeable, though is in control, as is understeer. The Jetta comes with an electronic stability program (ESP), which can be turned off via a switch on the center console. Without being on a track, or hammering away on someone else's car, normal drivers will not notice a difference in character when the ESP is on to when it is off. Also equipped on this example was VW's dynamic steering system, which increases and decreases the steering assist based on speed (slower speeds mean faster steering and vice versa).
For power, the 2.5 liter five cylinder engine (a bit of an oddity in today's mainstream car market) sounds better than it drives. It really does sound like a very scaled back Lamborghini V10 when pushed to the limits, but with a paltry 150-horsepower, it doesn't feel that fast, especially with extra passengers. The Jetta will easily maintain highway speeds, and this is where I think the Jetta is at its best, as a budget "'Bahn burner".
Speaking of extra passengers, the Jetta offers ample room in the back for two full-sized adults, but the bench is a squeeze for much more than that. The trunk is fairly large and offers a load-through system for long items, such as a javelin or a boat mast - if that's your thing.
Styling of the Mk 5 Jetta in my opinion is more or less non-polarizing. I find that it is even more non-descript than your average Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. I won't call it ugly, but then it isn't even just kind of cute. It hovers exactly on the mid-point of design. Which I suppose is often what is normally expected of the Germans. But even in 2008 Audi was releasing the new A4 B8 (the styling of which I adore endlessly), which is cold yet beautiful, imposing yet attractive. Perfect for this sort of entry-level luxury car. The A4 then is the automotive equivalent of a Soviet war monument in Red Square. And I don't know why the designers at Audi were allowed to keep this beauty away from their superiors at VW until now. As of course the all-new Jetta Mk 6 does share the styling of the A4. Inside the Jetta Mk 5, the styling is similarly neutral to the outside, but because of the fit-and-finish and the functionality, it becomes attractive. Buttons are easy to see and have a nice tactile feel. VW has added touches such as red LED ambient lighting at night, which bathe the shifter in that perfect amount of just enough light. It really is a nice place to be.
In the end, the Jetta Mk 5 is still a hip alternative to Toyota and Honda, but I find myself wishing that VW had kept the upmarket feel of the Mk 5 interior and combined it with the upmarket look of the Mk 6 and create a mini-Audi. Instead we have a downmarket looking, but upmarket feeling Mk 5, and an upmarket looking, but downmarket feeling Mk 6. Pick your poison I suppose... or buy a used A4 B8.