2000 Volkswagen Jetta VR6

The jaunty new Jetta sedan is further proof that Volkswagen's daring Mexican gamble has paid off big time.

The jaunty new Jetta sedan is further proof that Volkswagen's daring Mexican gamble has paid off big time.

Back in 1988, the German automaker closed its money losing Pennsylvania assembly plant and headed across the Rio Grande to Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.

There, it began to construct a vast, US $1 billion auto plant to supply the North American market.

The project encountered severe labour problems, with Volkswagen de Mexico at one point firing its 14,000 workers and hiring replacements.

The result was quality problems and a crippling shortage of cars in the early '90s for North American VW dealers.

But the bad times are past for Puebla.

Today, the plant is the sole world source for VW's hot selling New Beetle and builds all of this continent's Jettas known as Boras in Europe and the rest of the world.

Puebla used to make Golfs, but production was shifted to Germany last year to free up room for the Beetle. Volkswagen also builds the oldgen Bug there for the Mexican market.

The 1999 Jetta the name goes back to 1980 has been redesigned for the first time in five years.

Its maker wants to position the sedan above the hatchback Golf, although they still share some 60 per cent of their parts.

VW now sees Jetta, its sales leader in North America, as more of a mini Passat. (The mid-size Passat itself got a new look for model year '98.)

I drove a silver Jetta VR6 in mid-level GLS trim, with a five-speed manual gearbox and rich black leather interior.

The front wheel driver's base trim is the GL; the gilded as it gets version is the GLX.

My lushly optioned tester had much of you'd get on a GLX. (Special sport seats and 16-inch alloy wheels are two of the

latter's exclusives.)

This is the first year VW is offering its gutsy 2.8 L V6 up 2 hp to 174 in the volume GLS trim. The engine formerly could be had only in the GLX.

This space saving motor has a mere 15 degrees between cylinder banks. The two valves per cylinder design goes against the

four-valve trend, but it's a strong and confident performer, nonetheless.

Torque 181 lbft, up eight over last year is well spread for quick pickup.

The gearbox puts reverse to the left of first gear, Euro style, so you have an R135 pattern to deal with. Maybe it was all psychological, but the spacing felt a little tight.

Jetta styling has emotional presence, projecting that look of cohesiveness and substance that the Germans do so well.

On the other hand, there is a certain stubbiness to this four-door. Its wheel base is a modest 2513 mm exactly 1 mm more than the two-door New Beetle.

As you've probably deduced, the closeness is because the Jetta, Beetle, Golf, Audi TT coupe and a few models we don't get here are spun off the same basic platform. It's a growing international practice at which Volkswagen is an acknowledged master.

The bottom line is that back seat leg room in the Jetta is not excessive. Prospective buyers would do well to make sure they can live with the situation.

On the road, the compact's stiffened chassis and friendly temperament add up to a fun drive. The cabin's visual charisma day and night is an ongoing delight.

Starting Jetta prices (manual transmission):

GL $20,990 (2.0 L four-cylinder engine); GLS $23,100 (2.0 L four), $25,990 (VR6); GLX $31,650 (VR6). A four-speed automatic is yours for $1,100.

The tab on my tester rang in at a hefty $29,760, plus tax. Ouch.

To ease the pain, the warranty package on all Jettas includes what VW calls "industry leading" coverage against corrosion, good for 12 years and unlimited kilometres.

And the company throws in all scheduled maintenance at no charge for two years or 40,000 km. You also get no charge 24-hour roadside assistance for two years.

The Volkswagen Group is an automaker whose global aspirations seem to soar higher than most. It built more than 4.5 million cars last year and now holds 11.5 per cent of the world market.

VW is aiming for 5 million and 12 per cent.

Given creations like the '99 Jetta, you'd be crazy to bet it won't happen.

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