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Probably the best car in the world

Volkswagen Jetta 1.6 Trendline – 2006

20/04/2013 08:29 |  Comments: 

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Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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A car for the men of mature years. Nope, I should put it more precisely, it has to be clear for everyone. When you’ve reached a point in your life where you no more expect any good to happen, go and buy a Jetta. I was agonizing to find a good starting sentence and sensed that my brain is shutting down. The synapses switched to default mode because of the lack of stimuli, the memories of driving the Jetta didn't trigger anything at all. I was desperate. I had to push the reset knob and give the Jetta-mystery another go.

Never trust the automotive journalist. Be extra careful, if you discover the word boring in the ocean of sentences. The automotive journalist is a spoilt little bastard, although he would never put it that way. Just a few minutes after trying the Nissan 370Z, he goes for a spin in a Porsche 928; on better days he burns some rubber with the BMW M5, and then plays a bit with a Checker Marathon for a change. On dull workdays his ride is a Corsa OPC (VXR) so he can get to the racetrack fast enough to compare a red hot classic Mini with the new Cooper. Imagine, how you'd feel after all this in a Passat TDI. Or even worse: in a naturally aspirated Jetta 1.6. Welcome to automotive hell, right? A true shock, for sure.

Never trust the automotive journalist, because his standards are far away from yours. If the victim doesn't corner like a Porsche 911, he'll jot down: drives like a waterbed. If it doesn't tear off his head like an Audi RS4, he speaks on his voice recorder: sluggish. The poor test car didn't get the seats of a Lexus? Torment. And if he can't find something specific, because the car behaves like it should, well, then he plays the boring card.

You should in no way trust the automotive journalist, because in most cases he only uses the test car for a week. And you know, a week's not too long. If it doesn't rain, the reviewer will never find out, how evil the high-praised hot hatch can be in the wet. If he doesn't have to visit the family, he only gets to the motorway when he's lost. And anything that needs more than 30 seconds to get used to is irritating, making the two hours he spends in the car awfully tiresome.

He goes for a shopping tour to Ikea? If the bookshelf doesn't fit in, God save the poor little car. If his mother-in-law is picking on him from the backseat, he'll have to take out his frustration and give some bad marks on the radio at least. The world has never seen a piece of junk quite like the test car he had, the week when his wife moved back to her parents. What if he has a bad headache during the 2-3 hours when he tries a second hand car? The mint-condition sedan transforms into a monster.

But who should know cars better than the automotive journalist? There are days when he drives a dozen cars, one after the other. Even in the coffee break, he's arguing with his co-workers if the BMW Z3's or the Focus ST's steering is more lively in fast corners. He's sifting the Albanian car sites all day to get you the most up-to-date news.

Trust him because it's not only his job, it's his life. On his holidays, he either experiments with photography to shoot the most beautiful pictures of cars for you, or pours burning hot oil into his ears to get a better grasp of the engineering aspects of a car.

He should know what's good for you. Trust him.

He has his private test routes he's driven along a thousand times, where he tries every car he can get. He knows the corner where the torsion beam rear suspension will reveal its weakness and also the hill where he can judge the engine's characteristics. He needs to change gears just once to tell you if it's a good gearbox, two corners to find out about the secrets of the suspension and he won't be fooled by cheap tricks like short gear ratios or funny accelerator pedal programming.

Trust him, since he has connections who can help him to determine if the rattling gearbox is a unique problem or an issue worth a recall. Professionalism is his driving force, he wants to deliver the most detailed picture of a car. He trains himself to be more empathic, to feel what a genuine Hyundai customer would feel. He drives an old piece of junk himself, like most people do, he lives in the same world as his readers. He takes his car to mechanics, converts his car to LPG, tries every magic accessory in the ads - he sacrifices himself for others.

Trust him, he's not like your average Joe mechanic, who only sees worn out, clocked wrecks therefore has a bad opinion about all the models he's ever worked on. The automotive journalist has driven millions of test cars, he sees the big picture. He's not biased, why should he be? He can drive whatever he wants. No-one is going to give you a more balanced opinion, and as a bonus he can put it into words.

Obviously the truth is somewhere in between. The automotive journalist is human, too, and as such, has his own taste. There are things he likes in a car and others which he detests. Of course, he is set to write an objective article, so if he has some odd ideas, he will filter them for you. Naturally, he tries to think as if he was a potential buyer, but frankly, what does a Californian Ferrari-owner know about the life of a Cambodian farmer?

I admit, the Jetta-mystery gave me a headache. From the bottom of my heart, I should tell you to run and hide from this greyer-than-grey monster, this champagne-coloured yawn. Don't try it on, it's dangerous. Your cool stubble is going to disappear, a tie will wrap around your neck, suddenly steel-framed spectacles will sit on your nose and you'll find yourself transformed into an insurance broker. Your life is going to change, there will be no more stories, it's going to be a straight line heading to infinite space, slowly fading away.

If you have 6000 euros for a sedan, quickly get to an Alfa-dealer, buy a fire-spitting 159, but no diesel, no-no. Or buy at least a Honda Accord, if you're dreading the Italian inferno. You're even better off with a Mondeo; at least you get a sensibly tuned suspension. But no Jetta, for God's sake, if you want to live! Heed the words of the man for whom a car's not just a device.

If we were all like that, nobody would ever buy a Jetta. Nevertheless the streets are full of them, and on the market they are sought after. Last week a friend called; they're expecting a baby and he wants to buy a sedan. He's not into cars at all, but he has a deep faith in German engineering. „Is a Jetta all wrong?" he asked. I had to close my eyes and say: "No, not at all. It'll be great!" And I meant it.

Hey, he won't give a thing, if it looks similar to the Passat from behind. The automotive journalist, on the other hand, will go mad about those kind of things. What if you mistake it for a Golf when you look at it at the front? Lack of character doesn't make it a worse car. The lousy engine will drag the body along to the end of the world, and if you have to drive in such a way that the baby can sleep until you get home, even 30 PS is enough. But the huge cave, called the boot, will be more than important, if you have to fit in a pram. And to know that in the morning your automobile is going to start under any circumstances is more important than anything else. There is a scale, however, by which the Jetta is unbeatable.

Let's have a second look at the car. The nose of the Golf V is rather elegant with that chrome grill. The VW-badge is just slightly smaller than the brand's reputation in Eastern Europe. Okay, you don't have the road presence of a full-size SUV, but it doesn't matter, you only use the fast lane once a week. And you don't have to be ashamed of the car anywhere - it's not a Honda City, not a fat-bottomed Golf, rather a scaled-down Passat. The more you look from behind, the better the illusion. When your eyes reach the backlights, you're convinced that he's just the younger brother. The classic roofline, the massive C pillar and the inviting arse broadcasts some kind of sweet harmony. The Jetta says: ”I'm a good boy”.

Inside, you're almost perplexed of the magnitude of order. It's like when you don't turn on the lights any more in the living-room at night, because you know the place just too well. And when you reach the bedroom, you're sometimes surprised that you didn't stumble into something. You can set the A/C without looking, your left hand reaches out to the German light switch without thinking, and your heart starts missing a beat when “Service jetzt!” appears on the display, as if a German combatant had just shouted at you. All right, I'll take it to maintenance, I know, I know.

The gearchanges are firm and precise, although you can feel some crunchiness on the gearstick. The clock shows 87,000, but the gearbox would most likely feel the same if it was twice as much. When I drive off, I hardly hear anything from the engine, it's just the rolling noise that stands out a bit. The most likely explanation of this is that everything else is as silent as the grave, and since the background noise is missing, the whispering of the 16-inch Continentals is amplified by our ears. ,.

There is one thing, however, that I can't defend, even if I hurt myself: the Paleolithic eight-valve engine with the simple 1.6 badge. I remember the times when this 1.6 petrol engine was quite all right, but since the emission controls have been choking it more and more, it has developed some kind of apathy. I have the impression that even the engineers at the test bench programmed the ECU with a feeling of resignation - nothing matters any more for this poor old straight-four.

If you drive it with the peace of mind of Buddha, your prayers will be answered, and with God's help you'll eventually reach your destination. But one jerky motion and the engine starts stuttering even in second gear – somehow they didn't manage to find good ratios. But the block doesn't make strange noises, it doesn't light yellow warning lamps, it does its duty. I guess it wasn't better six years ago when the car was handed over to the proud first owner.

The same goes for the suspension. Its stern discipline echoes the German trend of the era, so it doesn't even try to soften the bumps: the Jetta falls into the potholes and then emerges. We bounce, sometimes our teeth chatter, but the car doesn't wobble around, it drives on with a poker-face. It hasn't lost much of its firmness in the last six years and we have the impression that it won't lose it in the next six decades.

Otherwise, the test car which we've borrowed from Weltauto, a used car dealership, leaves us with mixed feelings. The body gives an authentic picture, some dents here and there, minor scratches at the corners, but no signs of serious damage. The worst-looking injury is the paint that has come off on the door frame. The interior however shows excessive wear for a car with less than 100,000 kilometres. Scratchy switches and handles and a greasy arm-rest take their toll on our otherwise untarnished first impression.

I wouldn't worry much about the peeling leather of the steering wheel since this is quite common in the VWs built around the millennium. On the other hand, I guess the knob of the gear lever will never wear, and the scratches of the clutch pedal only reveal that the rubber pad was lost a while ago. The Jetta is not that kind of car that would fall apart within one or two hundred thousand kilometres, so it's really hard to tell if it was clocked, which is more often than not the case around this part of the world. The mechanical parts however are sound, so I'm happy to believe it has done 87 thousand.

Now I've almost reached a point where you'd have to talk me out of buying it. It has all the necessary extras, automatic A/C and cruise control included. The colour is very practical, you don't see the dirt on it. The fuel gauge shows 7.8 litres per 100 km (34 mpg) and it was zeroed some 5000 kilometres ago, so the Jetta doesn't consume more than a car of this size should. The technology isn't too complicated either so I shouldn't expect any bad surprises for a few years. How come I hadn't noticed this jewel earlier? Oh yes, it's awfully boring.

Which is the bestselling car in the world once again? The Toyota Corolla, heading towards 40 million units sold. Boring? Yep. The VW Golf is not much behind, and it's more or less the same as this Jetta. And boring, as well. So we can conclude that there must be many who don't seek excitement in cars. Or don't seek excitement at all. For them, the Jetta is probably one of the best cars in the world.

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