VOLKSWAGEN JETTA 1.4 HIGHLINE : A Volkswagen for mass market

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Price: $122,300 with COE

Engine: 1,390cc 16-valve inline-4 turbocharged

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual override

Power: 122bhp at 5,000rpm

Torque: 200Nm at 1,500-4,000rpm

0-100kmh: 9.8 seconds

Top speed: 202kmh

Fuel consumption: 6 litres/100km

This is Volkswagen's latest-generation Jetta, but you would never have guessed. The car, under its shiny new skin, drives like a six-year-old model.

Because VW wants to retain its presence in COE Category A (for cars up to 1,600cc and 130bhp), it has introduced this car with a 122bhp power plant that dates back to 2009.

While it is common for the Volkswagen Group to mix, match and recycle drivetrains in its extremely wide product range, across nearly a dozen brands, the latest move to preserve its mass-market share here takes the practice to a whole new level.

It is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. The 122bhp engine, mated to VW's seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, is a creditable platform for efficient and entertaining motoring.

Even today, when other transmissions are as compelling as a direct-shift gearbox (or even more so) and far less idiosyncratic, and when threecylinder engines are setting new standards for economy, the Jetta's proposition is still fairly intact.

You still get seamless gear shifts, with very little power loss between cog changes. As a result, you get decent acceleration at little expense to fuel consumption. These things do not go out of fashion.

What makes the Jetta feel a little dated, though, is the way it behaves at crawling speeds and in reverse. It is still hard to modulate the throttle for smooth three-point turns and backing into a parking space.

The absence of any parking guidance, other than a not-so-responsive reverse beeper, would mar any parking experience despite the Jetta's compactness.

Compared with the 2009 car, the Jetta is now a wee bit more efficient, with a declared fuel consumption of 6 litres/100km, from 6.3 previously. And its top speed is now 202kmh instead of 199kmh.

As before, the car has enough grunt across its rev range to keep abreast of traffic. Just do not expect to win many drag races.

Switching to Sport mode gives the car more verve, but at considerable expense of comfort and refinement. The gearbox delays change-ups till way past 3,000rpm, making the Jetta drone like a lawn mower. Most people looking to buy a car like the Jetta would not care though - at least not initially anyway.

They want a solidly built Continental sedan with a Japanese price tag. And they want it to be decently equipped, with gadgets such as cruise control, an automatic air-conditioner and keyless access and ignition.

On that front, Volkswagen has picked the most obscure place to put the Jetta's Start button, tucked away on the extreme end of a row of dummy buttons fore of the gear lever. The other thing about the Start button is you have to press and hold it for about two seconds before the engine fires up. Strange indeed.

The Jetta is available in three trim levels, starting with a no-frills Trendline that is priced keenly against cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Vios, a mid-range Highline that matches the Mazda3's pricing and a Sportline (with goodies such as navigation, xenon lights and 17-inch wheels) that tempts those with a budget for the Honda Civic.

Those who want a more convincing case might have no choice but to look at the 160bhp Jetta Sport which is, of course, a lot pricier at $159,800 because it is in Category B.

Or they can go check out the more alluring Audi A3 Sedan.

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