With its high-efficiency diesel models leading the charge, Volkswagen's Achilles heel hasn't necessarily been fuel economy.
Instead, it's "accessible" economy - that is, the balance between mpg, performance and price. With its mediocre five-cylinder 2.5-liter "mainstream" engine essentially biting the dust for 2014, VW has stepped up to the plate with a 170-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder that debuts in its Jetta and Passat sedans for 2014.
The engine will be most common - at least initially - in the Jetta, where it replaces the 2.5-liter entirely. Throughout the 2014 model year, VW has indicated that it will begin phasing out the 2.5 in the Passat. Initially, just one well-equipped trim (Passat SEL Premium at $30,895) will incorporate the four-banger.
We recently had the opportunity to sample the new engine in the Jetta.
Less is most definitely more
VW issued a less-equals-more statement with the introduction of the new EA888-codenamed 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. Now in its third generation, this Silao, Mexico-built 1.8T arrives in the 2014 Jetta SE and SEL trim packages.
Closely related to the automaker's latest 2.0-liter turbo four seen in cars like the Jetta GLI and the Beetle Turbo, the 1.8-liter unit utilizes new technologies that yield the same 170-horsepower found in the outgoing 2.5-liter as well as an increase of 7 lb-ft of torque (for a total of 184 lb-ft, available 2,750 revs sooner).
EPA fuel economy numbers climb a lot - 1 mpg city and 5 mpg highway to 25/36 mpg for the automatic transmission model. Speaking of gearboxes, the 1.8T mates to either a six-speed automatic or, rather oddly, a five-speed manual gearbox.
On paper, those numbers are a mixed bag - fuel economy trails segment leaders at 39 to 40 mpg, but the Jetta is noticeably more powerful.
Oh, VW's 115-pony 2.0-liter four-cylinder-powered Jetta S sticks around for about $2,200 less than the new engined model. Admittedly, the Jetta SE with the 1.8T adds more than just an engine - it also includes 16-inch (versus 15) wheels, leatherette heated seats, SiriusXM and a few other goodies.
Finally, VW's new Car-Net connectivity offers a six-month free trial period of security and convenience features like accident notifications, remote vehicle access, boundary and speed alerts and a vehicle health report. Currently available only as an iPhone app, the system will soon be offered for Android devices.
Engine deep dive
The cast iron block construction remains, but is joined by an all-new aluminum cylinder head that utilizes an internal exhaust header in place of the older system, which connected to the block via external attachments. These and other refinements such as reduced piston friction, thinner walls with a 72 lbs. weight savings in the block, and a new, lighter turbocharger unit, add to the mix, but other innovations exist, as well.
Thermal management and fluid dynamics are all part of this bouillabaisse. Through the use of the internal water-cooled headers, VW claims hot exhaust gasses are chilled by nearly 160 degrees, before reaching the turbocharger, for a more dense and efficient charge. This added efficiency results in a torque curve that is not a curve at all. Very flat, in fact, it offers peak performance from 1,500 to 4,750 rpm before it starts to taper off.
The result is a 20 percent decrease in highway fuel consumption with a 0.7 second decrease in the 0-60 mph sprint (to 7.3 seconds on the recommended regular unleaded).
Mildly refreshed - where you can't see it
The Jetta sedan returns with a multitude of minor refinements that the brand hopes will allow it to continue as its best selling vehicle in North America.
From a mechanical standpoint, the Jetta ditches the torsion bar rear suspension of the outgoing model in favor of a more refined multi-link setup for improved tracking and handling. Joined by an electric power-assisted rack and pinion system, it offered good road feel and the ability for quick tracking and lane changes during avoidance maneuvers on the narrow roads of Napa Valley.
The new four-cylinder gives the Jetta an increased sense of self confidence. Limited turbo lag resulted in gravel rustling underneath on our first application of the Jetta's skinny pedal. Clearly, this engine was all about the go in addition to the show.
We quickly leapt into fast-moving traffic on switchback-laden back roads, where the higher-tech rear suspension increased the sedan's agility while improving its already planted feel. Unfortunately, we weren't able to sample the new engine's fuel economy - so stay tuned for a more comprehensive review in the future.
Leftlane's bottom line
Volkswagen seems to be marching back upmarket with its Jetta. Introduced to much criticism (but increased sales) as a relatively decontented model a few years ago, the Jetta is regaining ground with its new engine and upgraded suspension.
Stickering for about $2,700 less than an equivalent Jetta TDI, the new turbo gas engine finally strikes the right balance for VW's compact sedan.
2014 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T
base price, $18,895.
Photos by Mark Elias and courtesy Volkswagen.