The most popular cars in Europe tend to be small, fun to drive and luxurious for their size — not necessarily in terms of high-end features, but in the design and quality of their interiors, and the sophistication of their suspension design. The most popular cars here in the U.S., meanwhile, are more likely to be as roomy as possible for as little money as possible.
In DC, however, there’s a good reason to lean toward European tastes. Small cars are easy to park, and not all small cars have to feel cheap. One of the least expensive European cars in the U.S. is the Volkswagen Jetta, a compact sedan that’s newly redesigned for the 2019 model year.
2019 Volkswagen Jetta
Essentially a sedan version of the globally popular Volkswagen Golf, it wears the styling of an Audi A4 at the price of a Honda Civic. The interior’s simple angles and straight lines also reflect the mature austerity typical to European brands.
But it’s not just cosmetic differences that distinguish the Jetta from its competitors. The Jetta has more composure to its ride and handling than the compact sedan norm — not frisky performance or high handling limits, but a confidence that the car has the situation under control.
Performance-minded buyers may be disappointed by the new Jetta’s cut in power. It comes only with a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 147 horsepower; last year’s model offered a choice of three turbos with 150, 170 and 210 horsepower. But the engine is suitably peppy and also above average for fuel efficiency; the EPA estimates 34 mpg in mixed driving, and the tested car averaged 38 mpg.
One powertrain complaint: The Jetta accelerates eagerly when you lift your foot off the brake, including in reverse. It can catch you off guard and keeps you on your toes while maneuvering into a tight parking space.
Inside the cabin, the 2019 Jetta offers crisp digital displays on the dashboard and — on upper-trim models — in the place of a traditional gauge cluster. The tested car’s customizable digital gauge readouts look slick and present information usefully.
The eight-inch touchscreen on the dashboard (6.5 inches on base models) is generously sized, and the dash is styled to make the screen look even bigger, enhancing the high-tech vibe. Interior materials aren’t luxury-grade, but the overall cabin ambiance is both more modern and more upscale than the old Jetta.
Comfortable seats and a spacious trunk keep the Jetta useful for a small car, and its smooth, quiet ride makes it a potential alternative to a larger midsize sedan.
While many Volkswagens have a reputation for above-average prices, the Jetta keeps its prices competitive — especially thanks to some enhancements to its features list this year. Nearly every Jetta comes standard with emergency automatic braking, a blind-spot monitoring system, a panoramic sunroof, and either leather or simulated leather seating. Prices start at $19,395.
Volkswagen further boosts the Jetta’s value with a long warranty and the aforementioned fuel economy. The new Jetta isn’t supremely executed, but it’s a worthy compact sedan — especially for those who prefer the European aesthetic.
2018 Ford Focus
There’s another unexpected way, however, to get a European driving experience for even less money. That’s the 2018 Ford Focus, which is priced from $18,825 and frequently available with steep discounts.
The Focus — sold as the tested four-door sedan and as a five-door hatchback — was designed by Ford’s European division, and it’s among the continent’s best-selling cars. And in fact, even though it dates all the way back to 2012, it offers an even better balance of responsive steering, agile handling and a smooth ride than the all-new Jetta. And a recent infotainment overhaul brought an advanced new Sync 3 system, keeping the car’s smartphone integration up-to-date.
However, while the Focus is still one of the best-driving and least expensive compact cars, it increasingly trails the competition in other ways. The rear seat is cramped, the interior feels cheaper than newer competitors, the EPA rates its fuel consumption at a terrible 28 mpg in mixed driving as tested (or a still-middling 31 mpg on some models), and the latest crash-prevention technologies aren’t available.
Overall, the Focus is far nicer to drive than other budget-oriented small sedans like the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla. But it’s held back by a mix of evolving standards and longtime design flaws.
2018 Chevrolet Cruze
Another American compact car, meanwhile, is a potential Jetta competitor. That’s the Chevrolet Cruze, which also boasts a smoother, quieter ride than the economy-car norm, along with natural-feeling (if not sporty) steering and handling. Overall, it feels solid and substantial, like a larger and more expensive vehicle.
The Cruze received some styling updates and new features for 2019 that weren’t included on the tested 2018 model. But every Cruze is comfortable, pleasant and decently spacious. The styling is restrained without looking out of date — though not everyone would like the optional blacked-out appearance package on the tested car — and cabin controls are user-friendly.
Most Cruze sedans and five-door hatchbacks use a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with 153 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission, with EPA ratings of 32 mpg in mixed driving. There’s also an optional diesel engine, like the Jetta used to offer before Volkswagen admitted to cheating on emissions tests.
However, its EPA ratings are merely OK in city driving at 31 mpg, standing out mainly on the highway at 47 mpg. Given that the diesel engine costs several thousand dollars more than the gas engine, and that diesel fuel is also more expensive and harder to find in D.C., the standard Cruze engine is probably the wiser choice.
Cruze prices start at a tempting $17,995, but common features quickly push up the price. And advanced safety features like autonomous emergency braking and automatic steering assistance — newly optional for 2019 — are offered only on the top Premier model. That’s better than the Focus, which doesn’t offer them at all, but a step behind a growing number of competitors that make them standard or widely available.