The Jetta MkIV is "just right," as Goldilocks would say. As European cars have increased in luxury and sophistication across the board, the Jetta and its fraternal twin, the Golf, have kept pace, moving upmarket from competitors such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which remain price leaders for their makers. While the Jetta is the least expensive new European car one can buy in America, it is both more expensive and luxurious than its traditional Asian counterparts, so that it can reasonably be considered an alternative to their "older" siblings, the Accord and Camry.
To my eyes, the Jetta's styling is simpler, more timeless and more attractive than Asian competitors, whether up- or down-market. Its European design has the panache to fill the gap between the economical choices of youth and the resignation to conformity that appears easy when age, marriage and children pile onto a person's life. It works as well for those looking to grow up as for those who have grown up but are not yet old.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel draws on Audi's mastery of the 3-6-9 spoke layout, and the texture of interior surfaces is unmatched by many cars costing twice as much. In his June update, Editor Brown presciently forecast that the sand-colored interior would suffer at the hands of children, and indeed its back seat has transported many a small person. Worse were the detailers commissioned to remove the mess, who left not only an obnoxious wet-look shmoo on every surface, but also a perfume that went from chemical to almost biologically funky. Beware the full-service car wash.
The painted finish on the plastic door trim has chipped from many fingernails, and the radio, though offering excellent sound, has an irritating interface. It fades out and back in when switching stations, stretching a 10-second preset scan considerably. The feedback and required force are quite different from button to button, too, but the differences seem consistent across the several cars I have driven. This was fixed with an all-new radio in a 2002 Golf I drove.
The exterior's Tornado Red has remained shiny, and the BBS composite wheels still look sharp. I think they are just the right size for the car, and would argue that sticky rubber is the only thing lacking in footwear.
Around town, performance remains peppy. The 1.8t's 155 lb-ft of torque gets the Jetta up to traffic speeds more quickly than one realizes, making it a zoomy errand runner. Asking more of the car reveals that it gives what it has early, leading one to expect reserves that are sometimes lacking. Fortunately, the foundation for those reserves is latent and can be unearthed quite easily.
Since this Jetta replaced its predecessor 11 months ago, it has covered 21,800 miles, with records showing a typical economy of 28 mpg. This varies significantly from driver to driver, though. It takes fuel to make power; the flexibility of the turbo engine allows it to be a sipper or a kegstanding frat boy, depending on the weight of the driver's foot. Our Jetta has been a comfortable long-distance cruiser and commuter, a workhorse for one and all, but especially those with flocks of offspring.
Jetta 1.8T Tuning TipsThe MkIV Jetta is a very pleasant car in stock form, and a very safe one. However, some drivers want more performance in all areas, and all drivers would probably appreciate improvements in some areas. While it is possible to make a Jetta into a very fast car, taking one to the track in stock form would be virtually pointless for most enthusiasts.
If you change only one thing on your Jetta, change the tires. Good ultra-high-performance tires offer the best bang for the buck of any modification and are the most often scrimped on. Perhaps they don't offer the glamour of pizza-sized brake rotors or a big turbo, but tires are necessary to realize the full benefits of any other changes. The optional stock BBS wheels are excellent.
My second step would be to balance the car's cornering, either with springs and shocks or just anti-roll bars. We have been unable to get our Jetta to do anything on an onramp but understeer. Tires will make some difference here, but redistributing grip toward the front is required. The simplest way is with a set of anti-roll bars. Adding only a rear bar may work, but the car could be tail-happy, perhaps a handful. Proceed carefully. Greater roll stiffness overall, as with front and rear bars or just stiffer springs, will also keep the tires flatter on the pavement, making better use of whatever rubber is there. That is especially true on a Volkswagen, as neither struts nor the twist beam control camber well.
If I planned to change the springs and shocks, I would do so even before adding anti-roll bars. My preference is for a stiff suspension with well-tuned damping and lots of travel. Good damping maximizes contact between the tire and road for optimum handling as well as controlling body motion for comfort. With proper damping, a very stiff suspension can ride just as comfortably as less stiff suspensions with poorly tuned dampers. Project M3, for example, has nearly full-race spring rates but is quite comfortable to ride and drive in. Suspension travel is important because it is required to absorb large bumps, no matter what the spring rates.
One way to ensure good suspension tuning is to purchase a complete matched set, either springs with custom-valved dampers or some variation on coilovers. An exception is the Koni damper, which is adjustable in rebound, allowing it to work with a wider range of spring rates than most dampers do. A stiffer spring stores more energy and requires more rebound damping to dissipate the energy. Rebound damping controls the stored energy of the spring more than it affects the suspension's subjective "stiffness," usually felt as impact harshness.
Several spring companies offer taller versions of basic sport springs, which work well when teamed with an appropriate damper. H&R Special Springs recently released what it calls a "Dune Buggy" coilover kit for MkIII and MkIV Volkswagens, which allows a range of adjustment from 1.0 in. below stock to 1.0 in. above stock (we'll have a "Tech Analysis" on the kit in the April 2002 issue, on sale 2/26/02). With a regular coilover kit, I would much rather see the adjusters at maximum height than at minimum height. I have driven many cars with the adjusters screwed down to the bottom. They tend to bottom out on the street, and over time the damping degrades. Having chosen your own route through the above recommendations, the job won't be complete without some careful attention to alignment and tire pressures.
If you are willing to make permanent modifications to your car and can accept slight sacrifices in road noise, a great improvement can be made in responsiveness and handling precision by replacing the large, soft, rubber suspension bushings with harder polyurethane bushings. They are available from ABD Racing, Autotech and Energy Suspension, among others. The wheels will stay pointed closer to the direction the suspension geometry was designed to point them, which is a good thing.
Like the suspension, the MkIV Jetta's brakes feel quite good up to about 5/10s, or for one emergency stop. Lean on them hard for a prolonged period, such as when coming down a hill or lapping a racetrack, and they fall off. The first step is not Porsche Turbo brakes, but rather more aggressive high-temperature pads and good, fresh brake fluid. For more aggressive use, slotted rotors will clean the pads, keeping fresh friction material exposed to the rotor. If you still wish your pedal felt firmer, step up to braided stainless-steel hoses. One of my favorite brake pedals is still backed up by factory rubber lines, so be sure your problem isn't just inadequate bleeding before laying down a lot of cash for hardware.
If you've done all that and taken your car out to the track, and still aren't happy with the brakes' performance, the Audi TT's larger brakes bolt right on. As a bonus, you can be certain they are compatible with the factory ABS. Going bigger than that means "Big Brake" kits, with four-piston calipers and other exotica. In this category, we have seen excellent results demonstrated with Stoptech's kit. We have not yet witnessed instrumented testing on other big brake systems, but have heard favorable reviews on many. In any case, be careful of weight. It is your enemy, with negative effects on acceleration, roadholding, responsiveness and ride. Brake parts are expensive, and there is no reason to buy more than you need.
Most readers have probably been wondering when more power would enter into my Jetta tuning recipe. My answer is that I really like the 1.8t in stock form and would fortify the chassis first. And, also unlike most readers, I probably wouldn't just throw a chip at the ECU when I did begin looking for more power. The magic of electronics has made possible dramatic power increases on a 1.8t simply by swapping ECU software, but the mechanical engineer in me still wants to focus on mechanical aspects of the system first, taking a careful look at flow paths, efficiencies and thermal management.
Whether you decide to keep the stock turbo or upgrade, concentrating on flow into and out of the turbocharger itself is very important. We have been impressed with the effects of a compressor inlet pipe, and a large, smooth-flowing turbine downpipe should also help. A more efficient exhaust system, even perhaps including the cat, is a good idea and will make a dramatic difference as boost is increased. The energy available to drive the turbine is the flow rate through the turbine multiplied by the pressure difference across the turbine. Less backpressure means more energy. With the small turbos typically used on 1.8ts, it's difficult to make an exhaust system loud.
Whether to use an open-element intake is a matter of personal preference. Engineering says that any pressure drop between the atmosphere and the compressor inlet is bad, but many open-element intakes allow loud sucking and blowing noises to emanate from the turbo system, which could be annoying to some drivers.
The intercooler is often neglected. Even a stock car feels like the intercooler "heat soaks" by the end of third gear. Daisy-chaining intercoolers together can lead to significant pressure losses and is not nearly as good as changing to a large, front-mount unit. A less expensive alternative might be a simple water spray on the stock intercooler, switched to run only under boost.
With chips, details of the software and the quality of its engineering are key. european car has tested several chips, but not all, so readers are referred to the test we have published (ec, September 2000 and May 2001). If large power increases are desired, upgrading to a Garrett T25 or T28 turbo is wise. Garrett's latest turbochargers are more advanced than the little KKKs that come stock on 1.8ts and flow more with greater efficiency.
I recently drove a big-turbo 1.8t GTI and was most impressed. It made a ton of power, driveability was awesome, and it was the most consistent 1.8t I have ever seen on the dyno, laying down nearly identical back-to-back runs with big numbers. Not even stock 1.8ts do that. What was its secret? Race gas. At $5 per gallon, that's not really an option for the street, but it does present some interesting software-swapping possibilities for a dual-purpose street/track car. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea at all.