If you have caviar taste on a fish sticks budget, the Jetta R-Line threads the needle

CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer
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I’m very spoiled. But while I get to drive a lot of expensive cars, I don’t make enough money to afford most of them. So when I start considering cars for myself, I want something that drives well, looks good, gets great gas mileage and is affordable. Still, I don’t want it to feel cheap compared to more expensive rides. So when I start thinking about cars that cause little sacrifice for my spoiled self, Volkswagens rise like cream to the top… cars like the Jetta R-Line.

R-Line trim is more about appearance than actual performance, but gives the latest Jetta a pretty sporty suit. It starts about the big black grille with chrome brow and extends to the LED headlamps, 17-in. gray alloy wheels, habanero orange paint, and LED taillamps with classy amber turn signals, but it’s really about the spicy paint! The grille connects it to the large VW Atlas crossover while more sculpted bodysides give the car more visual interest than the slab-sided three boxes it replaced. Squinty taillamps and dual chrome exhaust outlets reference Audi.

I might as well list all our Jetta R-Line doesn’t have inside. There are no leather seats, Beats audio system, navigation or flatscreen instrument cluster. We didn’t even have satellite radio. But the car does have a lot of premium content, like dual-zone automatic climate control, wide panel moonroof and heated seats. The seats are leatherette, but the two-tone scheme looks good and the material will be insanely durable.

The audio system sounds fine and analog gauges are clear. Stitched coverings, piano black trim and metallic-look slat across the dash appear anything but low-rent. A swipescreen with proper volume and tuning knobs plus Apple CarPlay are baby-easy. Adding layers of safety are forward collision alert with auto brake, blind spot detection, rear cross path detection and rearview camera.

I don’t need my ride to be a muscle car, but it should be confident in the left lane. For the Jetta, that starts with a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that delivers just 147 horses, but churns up 184 lb.-ft. of torque to squirch those front wheels off the line and keep stirring as the speedometer sweeps. Connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission, the engine always seems to be in the right rev range whether creeping through city traffic or flying long distances. Really satisfying my soul is fuel economy of 30/40-MPG city highway, which are conservative in my real-world experience.

The suspension doesn’t seem especially sophisticated on paper, with its independent front and torsion beam rear lay-out, but you’ll think Audi engineers conjured it when you glide over rough roads unbothered. Steering feel is direct and torque-vectoring control automatically brakes the inside front wheel to sharpen curves. On the highway, the chassis provides the right balance between comfort and control, always engaging the driver’s best instincts. Far more expensive cars achieve far less.

If you have a lot of money to spend, it’s easy to find a German sedan that will delight you every day. I’ve driven plenty over the last 20 years. To get a car that’s efficient, comfortable, athletic and styled way above its price point is no easy task. But R-Line fits the bill, especially given an as-tested price of $24,140.

Competitors include the Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

To watch Casey’s video review of the Jetta and other cars, follow him on YouTube @AutoCasey.