Look, there's no arguing withAG's recent U.S. sales boom. The Passat started it, a blunt message that midsize sedans needn't be a styling snore. The perky New Beetle fanned the flames, and the restyled Jetta is the gasoline for the blaze, reaching the young - and young at heart - in embarrassingly effective fashion.
Proof, then, that great styling sells. But we're told that "performance" sells, too, and now that's the area VW plans to attack to totally perfect its resurgent image. Yeah, the new Jetta (and its less-popular hatchback counterpart, the Golf) are great to look at, but at their launch last year, journalists - and some enthusiast customers - called VW down for the puny base engine, the ancient 2-valve, iron-block I-4 fronting a measly 115 hp and 122 lb.-ft. (165 Nm) of torque. One could move up to the excellent 190 hp of the VR6, but the 6-cyl. upgrade for the Golf/Jetta fetches a handsome price.
VW's answer to this carping is the mid-year (i.e. right now) addition of the 1.8T engine to the Golf/Jetta lines. You know the 1.8T as the base engine in the Passat and Audi A4.
This little 1.8L 4-cyl. turbocharged brute features the brilliantly designed 5-valve cylinder head and develops a smart 150 hp at 5,700 rpm and 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) of torque from as low as 1,750 on up to 4,200 rpm. The block's still cast iron, though, because VW engineers are enamored with cast iron's noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) attributes, saying they're much quieter and less thrummy than the aluminum-block engines favored by Japanese and U.S. rivals.
The upgrade to the 1.8T costs a not-inconsiderable $1,550, but it's worth every light-pressure-turbocharged cent. The 1.8T engine transforms the Golf and Jetta into vehicles that can rightly lay claim to some of that famed German-engineering hoo-hah.
We blasted around the San Diego mountains in the Jetta GLS 1.8T and Golf GTi GLS, buoyed on the remarkable torque waves available from this diminutive engine. The GTi is particularly rewarding, not the least because the 1.8T brings the new-era Golf as close to the original GTi that started the "hot hatch" trend as any Golf iteration we've seen since the late '80s. No wussy speed limiters for VW, either, as reports of 130 mph (209 km/h) circulated freely.
Good fun, these new turbocharged Golfs and Jettas, but their arrival highlights my primary beef to date with VW product planning: North America continues to wait for versions Europe's already enjoying, sometimes for a year or more. Euro Golfs, for example, are fitted with the VR5 engine, 6-speed transmissions and 4Motion all-wheel drive. We're still waiting for that setup in any VW. Same for the 4Motion Passat (VW suits say it's finally coming this year) and the higher-powered TDI turbodiesel. At least '01 North American Golf/Jettas will get the long overdue option of a sport suspension to tighten up their soft handling.
But we're thankful for what we're getting, even if the delivery is slow. After all, VW insists that the old 2-valver actually satisfies the majority of its (apparent) style-over-performance buyers. It's their loss if they don't put up the extra cash for the outstanding 1.8T engine, I suppose.