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Buying a new car might feel like it is straight-up out-of-the-question this year. We get it; 2020 was rough, both personally and economically. And Volkswagen gets this. That's why the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta is priced to compete. But does this 'budget' car actually have value?
Some might be skeptical. And, truth be told, there are both pros and cons to owning the 2021 Jetta. Pro? It was redesigned for 2019, so you get a lot of nifty new tech features packed into it, and vehicle has a lot of style - something which the compact sedan segment has been struggling with for a few years. The redesign was something that the Jetta needed. The ride quality became remarkably smooth and compliant, absorbing bigger impacts in the road with a premium feel for an economy vehicle. And, as far as noise levels go, you only hear intrusion from the outside when you take the Jetta up to speed on the highway. Around town, the cabin is pleasantly tranquil.
The engine itself is another story. While just cruising about town, the engine accelerates fine enough since, at low rpm, there is plenty of torque provided. Every Jetta comes with a standard 1.4-L TSI, 16-valve, DOHC, inline-4 cylinder turbocharged engine with an intercooler and direct injection that is able to generate a power output of 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. When you take it out on the highway or along higher-speed winding roads, you will feel this engine quickly run out of steam. It also takes this little sedan a sluggish 8.4 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph, which is definitely not anywhere near being an industry-leading time.
Also, at lower speeds, the brakes tend to feel grabby. The pedal feels far too soft, and as you apply more pressure, the braking system's response seems off-kilter. Making a smooth stop when you are just scuttling about town is a lot harder than it should be, and the steering itself also feels way too light and floaty for being a small sedan. At least handling proves to be a bright spot for the Jetta, as the body roll is well-controlled and the 8-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and Sport mode shifts smoothly between gears. There is also still that 6-speed manual option available on the base S trim if you prefer driving a stick, something that most automakers are fazing out of their State-side line-ups due to low demand.
So, could the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta be the right compact sedan for you? Should you think about getting one of its rivals or just going for something bigger? If you settle on the Jetta, which trim level offers the best overall deal? Time to strap on your seatbelt and find out.
Compare the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta S vs SE - What is the Difference?
The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta's line-up starts with the S trim level. As far as base trims go, it is fairly bare-bones. As we already mentioned above, it comes with the 1.4-L TSI turbo engine and 6-speed manual transmission. If you aren't into driving sticks, then you can choose to equip the 8-speed automatic instead. The 8-speed does come with automatic engine start-stop. Other standard mechanical features include an electromechanical power steering system with variable assistance. Meanwhile, the SE trim level does equip the 8-speed as standard, so you will get start-stop technology equipped.
On the exterior, you will find that these two trim levels mostly look the same. The S and SE both come with LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, LED taillights, LED lighting for the license plate area, power-operated side mirrors, automatic headlights, and a coming/leaving home feature. While the S rides atop standard 16-inch alloy wheels, the SE gets a slight upgrade to 16-inch two-toned alloys. Heated side mirrors come on the Driver Assistance Package for the S trim level, but they are standard on the SE. The Cold Weather Package, which is optional for the SE, can add heated windshield washer nozzles and heated windshield wiper de-icer.
Inside, there are some noteworthy differences. The S comes with manual air conditioning while the SE is upgraded to dual-zone automatic climate control. Both come with cruise control and a 6-way manually adjustable driver seat. The S has a multi-functional steering wheel but the SE has one that is wrapped in leatherette and can be heated if you get the Cold Weather Package (which would also add heating to the rear outboard seats). The S has cloth upholstery on the seats, but the SE gets V-Tex leatherette with standard heating on the front seats. A center armrest gets added to the SE's 60/40-split folding rear seat.
Of course, we cannot skip over technology. The S comes with a fairly basic array: a premium multi-function display, driver personalization options, a composition color touchscreen system with a 6.5-inch color display, App Connect, 5 years of Volkswagen Car-Net Remote Access, an option for a paid subscription to Volkswagen Car-Net Safe & Secure, a 1-month/1GB trial subscription to Volkswagen Car-Net Hotspot, an optional 3-month SiriusXM Traffic trial subscription and 3-month SiriusXM Travel Link trial subscription with Volkswagen Car-Net Guide & Inform, and one USB port. On top of that, with use on compatible devices, Bluetooth can be used for hands-free phone calls and audio streaming. An electronic parking brake comes standard, while the Driver Assistance Package adds Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking (including Front Assist) and a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross traffic alert.
If you get the SE trim level, it will add push button start with the keyless entry system. Also, you get Forward Collision Warning and Blind Spot Monitoring as standard features while the Cold Weather Package offers Remote Start as an option.
Standard safety features included on all VW Jetta models include a rear-view camera system, a front end that is optimized to sustain crashes, a full array of air bags, the LATCH system for child safety seats, electronic stability control, brake assist, and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Compare the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta SE vs R-Line. What is the difference?
The mid-tier R-Line trim level is the sporty middle sister of the bunch. This trim level does leave everything from the Cold Weather Package as optional, so you can still leave that off the list if you prefer. But, as you will notice, the rear bumper has a much sportier design than the other trim levels. The exterior also features special R-Line badging, grille accents done in black, matching black painted side mirrors and rear sport valance. There are also 17-inch painted alloy wheels equipped. The 6-speed is once again the standard transmission while the 8-speed is optional. Also, take note that an electronic differential lock gets equipped since it adds more traction as the vehicle accelerates.
Inside of the R-Line, there are only a few additions to be seen. The steering wheel is upgraded to a full leather wrapping instead of leatherette. However, that is about the extent of the differences you will find inside of the cabin.
Compare the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta R-Line vs SEL - What is the Difference?
The SEL is the second trim level from the top and builds off of the foundational content offered by the SE. On the outside, it switches to using LED projector beam headlights and also makes everything from the Cold Weather Package standard (meaning that you get the heated windshield washer nozzles and de-icer). This trim also has rain-sensing windshield wipers and 17-inch machined alloy wheels. Again, the 8-speed transmission is standard, but now, there is standard Driving Mode Selection.
On the inside, you get everything from the SE plus the Cold Weather Package as standard equipment. That means you get the heated steering wheel and heated rear outboard seats. On top of that, the SEL sees the addition of a 10-color customizable interior ambient lighting system as well as an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
What's even better are the tech upgrades. The Volkswagen Digital Cockpit really sweetens the deal and tightens up the clutter along the dash. It displays all the driving info you need in a cohesive digital display. The infotainment system gets upgraded to a composition media touchscreen sound system with an 8-inch color display. A wireless smartphone charger comes equipped too. You also get treated to a 3-month trial subscription to SiriusXM Satellite Radio as well as standard Beats Audio. Remote start, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and high beam control are all standard features on the SEL.
Compare the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta SEL vs SEL Premium Trim. - What is the Difference?
The line-topping SEL Premium quite honestly does not add a whole lot to the mix, just a few luxuries here and there that are meant to enhance physical comfort. On the exterior, you get the R-Line's fog lights with their low-speed corner-illuminating feature and a unique rear sport valance.
Inside, the 6-way driver's seat becomes power-adjustable and gains a memory function. The front seats both have power lumbar support. Also, the front seats themselves are switched over to sport bolstered comfort seats with standard ventilation and leather upholstery. The offerings made with Volkswagen Car-Net Guide & Inform become standard on this trim level, and you get built-in navigation. Aside from that, though the SEL Premium offers everything else you will find on the SEL.
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Which Trim to Choose?
The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta certainly has its pros and cons. For a compact sedan, the mechanical specs under-performs and is the one thing really holding the Jetta back from achieving higher marks. It doesn't achieve as great of a fuel economy as its competitors, and its acceleration, braking, and steering range between snooze-fest and scary. A stronger engine and brakes, coupled with a more responsive steering system, could make the Jetta a much fiercer competitor.
The Jetta does get a high score for its standard features on the higher trim levels. For the price, the SEL actually offers a good deal. The amount of infotainment and safety features found inside of it are rather remarkable for an economy vehicle. That is why we would pick the SEL as our trim level of choice. The S is too minimalistic, the SE only builds a bit more, and the R-Line is geared toward a select few. The SEL Premium simply doesn't add enough to boost its value. The SEL, though, strikes just the right balance.
However, we do think that a lot of buyers will pass over the Jetta simply because of how it drives. The disappointing engine, flimsy brakes, and lackluster steering are all things that are easy to notice during a quick test drive and will likely turn you off toward buying a Jetta. But, if you can set your issues with its mechanical performance aside, give the SEL trim level some consideration. It jams a lot of neat features into a tiny, good-looking package.
• Compare the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta Trim Levels