2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

America loves sedans. In Europe hatchbacks and wagons rule. Travel there and it’s like an alternate universe, one where women wear sensible shoes and men watch movies without explosions. So while Volkswagen sells a lot of Golfs around the world, we in the US prefer Jetta with its defined trunk. It’s so important here in the Land of the Free, Vee Dub is holding it’s global launch for the new 2011 model in San Francisco. Expect it in showrooms this fall.

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Americans also expect cars to be inexpensive and the past Jetta was much more expensive than Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Mazda3. Buyers paid the price because of the great solid German driving dynamics and high quality VW interiors. Good news for penny pinchers, VW has dropped the price of the new 2011 model by around $1,800.

That’s real money, leveling the playing field and enticing those who felt German engineering was so expensive they’d have to dress up to step foot in a showroom. Jetta’s MSRP starts at around $16,750 with destination (and yes, air conditioning). Go check the couch for change.

Less expensive yes but is it the same VW?

VW compares Jetta most often to Honda Civic and moving up through the models of both cars prices parallel each other. Kinda. Sorta. Nothing ever lines up perfectly. An example? In most trim levels Jetta is more powerful, but where Civic has leather seating Jetta gets synthetic V-Tex (which is not bad, it’s great stuff).

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How do you cut $1,800 off the price of a car? Jetta now breezes down the road on a torsion beam rear suspension and lower models stop with drum brakes in back (though they perform as well or better than the competition VW claims). They also changed some of the interior materials, reduced option combinations from 148 to 18 and build it in Mexico.

Clean exterior.

VW is happy to leave extroverted direction to others. Jetta is a classic looking sedan, a German that’s perfect for the American market. It flows simply and carefully with no stray lines anywhere. Every crease, every shape seems to have been agonized over. Outgoing models have a pinched “shield” grille. 2011s have a horizontal face that plants the stance securely.

Some might describe it as generic or plain but studying it during 2 hours of photography the purposeful Jetta should age very gracefully. It’s about three inches longer this time around with Audi A4 influence in the tail. The chin juts out, doing its best Jay Leno imitation. SportWagen will live on with its current platform, the sedan’s architecture is unique.

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Clean interior.

Inside the look is classic VW, again, conservative but attractive. The instrument panel and door panels have lost their soft touch feel and climate knobs on these preproduction models aren’t very silky but the overall ambience is upscale… and German. Seats are well sculpted with a lever for adjusting rake, not the tedious Volkswagen dial used since the dawn of time.

Modern electronic conveniences such as Bluetooth, iPod integration and navigation are available. The navi system, standard on the SEL model I’m driving is especially intuitive to use. In fact the whole car is so simple and elegant in operation it makes a guy wonder why luxury cars are so complicated. One feature MIA? Auto climate control. Unless you normally swap out back seats for subwoofers the audio system standard with SEL should satisfy. Lighting on the IP is red, the gauges glow clean white.

Power times 3 (for now).

Buying a gas powered Jetta? Choose between a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. These are hooked up to 2 different engines, the most popular being a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder (yes, 5) that makes 170 horsepower and 177 ft-lb of torque at 4250 RPM. The base engine is a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 115 horsepower but 125 ft-lb of torque at 4000 RPM should be good for a little grunt off the line. Sorry, didn’t get to drive it.

For clean diesel fans the TDI powerplant pumps out 140 horses and a bountiful 236 ft-lb of torque at 1750-2500 RPM. Got to love that. Transmissions are different here- a 6-speed manual and 6-speed DSG automatic type unit. Volkswagen has announced a Jetta hybrid, available sometime in 2011.

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Do you speak German?

The 2.5-liter provides good power. The seat of my pants says 0-60 easily happens in a brisk 8.5 seconds and pushed hard the engine remains smooth. It’s also quiet for a car in this class, no need to raise your voice at 70 miles an hour. The automatic always seems like it’s in the right gear kicking down fairly quickly when the throttle get throttled. The manual has a solid feel rowing through the cogs, just wish there was one more. Fuel economy for this engine is good, estimated at 23 city, 33 highway. The 2.0 engine gets 24/34.

Driving dynamics? To me, Jetta’s vibe has a little less of that German gravitas now, with some mainstream modern American dialed in. The steering effort seems lighter with on-center feel less locked in and robust. It’s tough to really wring a car out hard enough on public streets to judge the simplified rear suspension. Perhaps that’s a hint that unless track day is common in your household, Jetta’s very good road manners should be fine for everyday use. With the Sport Suspension option it’s solid, crisp and responsive, arguably best in class. Just not as “German” as I remember the outgoing model.

Remember, lower trim models come with rear drum brakes. The 4- wheel discs on the SEL stop effectively with good pedal modulation. Jetta has all the expected electronic stability controls and 6 airbags.

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Good news for the carpool gang.

The back seat area is larger now by nearly 3 inches. VW says legroom rivals another German, the BMW 7-series (though shoulder room is another story). The seats themselves are sculpted and comfortable. Often times a folding center armrest is nixed when cutting costs but that remains. So does a power port for charging cell phones and iPods. Only one map pocket though. Lock controls move off the rear doors to a central location. With releases in the trunk, seat backs split and fold on all models to help you tote longer stuff (hmmm, maybe you don’t need a hatchback after all). VW offers optional rear side torso airbags on some models but say the take rate is low so Jetta is denied.

Since I’m in San Francisco there’ll be no TP trunk test. Can you imagine the cost of that checked luggage? The cargo hold is large though, eyeballing it I’d say it’a 6 packer at the very least. Nicely trimmed too. My only gripe here is gooseneck hinge arms that take up room and pinch luggage.

Lucky? Or smart?

Maybe VW is both. Stop and think about it and the new Jetta couldn’t come along at a better time. The next generation Civic has been delayed a year. Park a Corolla next to Jetta and the Toyota’s materials look a full class lower. But price isn’t. It takes years to engineer a car, VW says it was always planned this way. Still, Chevy Cruze and a new Ford Focus and are right around the corner and rumor has it they are very very well done. Let’s not forget Hyundai and Kia. Competition is good.

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In the past Jetta has been known by many as a Golf with a trunk. Now they ride on different platforms. Tailored and tuned to North American sensibilities, some will call it dumbed down. Others will see it focused on the US customer like a laser beam.

Hard core Volkswagen fanboys might feel Jetta isn’t as Teutonic this time around but for them a sporty GLI version with fully independent sport suspension and GTI’s motor is just around the corner. For the rest of America, VW delivers an excellent blend of value, performance and yes, German engineering. Jetta’s new price point and 3 years of free scheduled maintenance should make it a force to be reckoned with. Shopping for a compact sedan? The 2011 Jetta deserves to be on the test drive list.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  STILL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY VOLKSWAGEN.

3 Comments

  1. SB9T says:

    interior doesnt look truely “german”

  2. crash says:

    Oh ya….despite being disappointing and commenting on the cheap interior….I actually like the faux leather…..I wish more cars would offfer this….my leather gets KILLED with my dog in the back seat!

  3. crash says:

    What a bland car…and from what I’ve seen a massive step backwards for interior quality (too much hard plastic). I get that the price has come down – but this does nothing for me at all…now, the CC….damn!