While automakers still offer inexpensive utilitarian-trim levels of small cars, they are increasingly creating high-end, luxury-like versions, as well. With its newly redesigned Jetta, for example, Volkswagen is betting that a surprising range of gadgets and features will get buyers into the showroom.
But does the suit make the car? To find out, we’ll compare the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta to the king of compacts, and one of the best small cars on the market, the Honda Civic.
While the new Jetta is available in five trim levels, its top two are where the car really begins to set itself apart. Instead of a 6.5-inch touchscreen and traditional gauges on the lower trims, the SEL and the SEL Premium have an 8.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system – one of the biggest you’ll find in this class – and a full digital display screen in place of the analog gauges.
Like the setup featured in Audis, the digital gauge cluster is customizable and offers multiple layout options. Volkswagen also offers a powerful 400-watt Beats stereo and heated and cooled leather front seats.
The Civic’s higher trims don’t skimp on features either, with leather upholstery and heated seats, a 7-inch touchscreen and, at the highest trim level, a 450-watt stereo. But there aren’t any cooled seats, and certainly no digital dash.
The Civic’s gauge cluster has a somewhat awkward design, so it’s hard to read key information at a glance. Finally, the touchscreen’s small buttons can make it frustrating to use while in motion. In terms of tech features that deliver both a real wow factor and excellent usability, the Jetta has the edge.
Power, efficiency, fun
Under the Jetta’s hood you’ll find a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 147 horsepower and returns an EPA-estimated 34 mpg in combined city/highway driving. As an option, the Civic comes with a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine producing 174 horsepower and returning 36 mpg combined.
The Jetta’s down on power compared to the Civic’s turbo engine, and it also has a less sophisticated suspension design than the Civic. The results of that design are less engaging handling and a slightly busier ride when the pavement gets rough.
The Jetta has enough torque that it doesn’t feel slow around town, especially when paired with the smooth automatic eight-speed transmission. However, the Civic is quicker, livelier and just more fun when equipped with the optional turbocharged engine.
The Civic sedan has an extra cubic foot of storage space (15.1 cubic feet versus 14.1 in the Jetta), while the Jetta has about an extra half-inch of headroom for rear passengers. Both possess an impressive amount of rear legroom – enough for most adults.
The Jetta feels slightly more open and airy, but in either case, you get a compact sedan with almost midsize space.
Honda managed to fit all this space into a smaller package: The Civic is almost 3 inches shorter than the Jetta and weighs slightly less. Honda’s excellent packaging goes hand in hand with excellent build quality.
The Civic’s interior feels solid and sturdy. The new Jetta is certainly a step up from past iterations, and its interior design lends it a more upscale appearance.
Volkswagen is more sure than ever of its product, and the company is backing it up with an impressive six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. The Civic’s bumper-to-bumper lasts three years or 36,000 miles.
While Honda has a great history of making reliable vehicles, Volkswagen’s new warranty adds peace of mind.
The bottom line
The new Jetta starts at $19,440 for a base model that’s functional but lacks the upgrades that really make the car stand out. The top SEL Premium and its many upgrades come in at $27,840.
The base Civic starts at $19,835, and its Touring trim tops out at $27,695. These prices include destination fees.
It’s worth noting that if you want a full suite of active safety features, they’re standard on midlevel Jetta trims but an extra $1,000 on midlevel Civic trims. The Civic comes in more than one body style, namely a hatchback and coupe, and has sporty variants, the Si and the Type R, so Honda offers a lot more variety.
The new Volkswagen Jetta is a big step forward for VW: It’s roomy, just like the last Jetta, but it now has a wow factor that can rival some cars costing thousands more. The warranty coverage is impressive, too.
The Civic offers all the same practicality in a smartly packaged, solidly built vehicle that’s both efficient and engaging to drive.
With pricing so close, and the Jetta’s six-year warranty to level the playing field with Honda’s reputation for trouble-free ownership, choosing between the two cars comes down to deciding what you want from a compact sedan.
Go with the Jetta if in-car technology is a priority for you. But for sharp handling and zippy power, the Civic is going to be more appealing.
Will Kaufman is a staff writer at Edmunds. Instagram: @didntreadthestyleguide.