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Friday
Jul152011

2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

By Christopher A. Sawyer

The  2011 Volkswagen Jetta is something of an enigma. Larger than the outgoing model, it offers the largest rear seat in the compact segment without growing unduly large. Interior volume is up more than three cubic feet, but trunk space is down by less than one-half of a cubic foot in a car less than three inches longer than the one it replaces. So it’s larger (inside) than a compact, but smaller (outside) than a mid-size car.

VW kept the four main models (S, SE, SEL, TDI) and recently added the GLI sport sedan to the lineup. A naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline four is the only engine available in the $15,995 Jetta S, and it’s good for a claimed 0-60 mph run of 9.8 seconds with the standard five-speed manual transmission. (It takes a claimed 11.0 seconds for the six-speed automatic-equipped version.) Move up to the SE or SEL, and you get VW’s slightly discordant (it has an odd number of cylinders and is, therefore, not inherently balanced) 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine mated to the same five-speed manual/six-speed automatic combination. Quoted 0-60 mph times drop to 8.2 (manual)/8.5 (automatic), with little harm to the EPA city/highway ratings. (The S is rated at 24/34 (manual) and 23/39 (automatic), while the SE and SEL return 23/33 and 24/31.) Diesel fans will happily note that their favorite oil burner is back, producing the same 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque as last year’s Jetta TDI. It returns an EPA-rated 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway, runs from 0-60 mph in 8.7 seconds, and tops out at a surprising 130 mph. GLI buyers will get even more performance from its turbocharged 2.0-liter four. Like the TDI, it offers the choice of either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. But…

2.5-liter inline five is discordant at higher revs, and the main engine for the Jetta.

To get the base price down within $395 of the base Toyota Corolla and make each model more price competitive, VW turned its back on its recent history. VW chairman Ferdinand Piech used to brag that he could add content to his least costly models by making items standard across the entire VW Group lineup. Greater volume meant a lower cost per unit, and suddenly items like silicone-damped grab handles began popping up on even the cheapest VW vehicles. Similarly, soft-touch plastic could be found on even the lowliest models, as could four-wheel disc brakes and standard bright trim around the windows. Not any more. The new Jetta is a model of how a company can de-content a car in order to chase price-conscious buyers and raise sales volumes.

Order the top line SEL, and the overhead storage for your glasses comes with a silicone-damped cover......while SE buyers have to make do with a sharp-edged cubby.

Despite the de-contenting, Jetta sales are up 77.2% for the first half of 2011, to 76,498. However, VW also has been pushing incentives pretty hard. Why? VW has plans to outsell Toyota in the U.S. by the end of 2018, meaning it will have to raise its U.S. sales by nearly 300,000 over its highest sales years on record; a record set when the original Beetle was still in production. Good luck with that. The competition isn’t about to give up ground without a fight, and the “rush to the broad middle” of the market could cause VW to sacrifice some of the things that make their cars unique in the mind of buyers.

Spend the extra $36 for the optional exhaust finishers, which should be standard on the SEL but aren't.

For example, the 2011 Jetta loses much of its chrome trim below the SEL range, does away with the 2010 model’s independent rear suspension (IRS) on all but the GLI in favor of a twist beam rear axle (Hyundai did the same with the 2011 Elantra), trades rear disc brakes for drums (Hyundai kept the Elantra’s four-wheel discs, as does the Jetta GLI), drops the standard AM/FM/CD 8-speaker audio unit (the S gets a four-speaker AM/FM/CD four-speaker unit, the SE an AM/FM/6-CD six-speaker audio system), adds a standard full-feature Bluetooth system on all but the base car, and replaces soft-touch interior trim with hard plastic that looks similar. Volkswagen has definitely gone backwards on the new Jetta, right? Not so fast.

Metallic trim brightens the interior of the SELs, especially when the dark interior is chosen......but the two-tone option can make a lowly SE look very nice.

The soft-touch plastics feel better, but the graining on the hard parts that replace them is so similar the difference will be minimal to most buyers. Plus, the hard parts are easier to clean. (Just stay away from the glossy Armor All that makes the parts look like the hard plastic pieces they are.) Also, the old interior had a soft-touch upper instrument panel cover over a hard plastic lower panel. So the only thing that has changed is the move to a hard upper instrument panel and inner door panel caps. VW saved cost here, but not at a great cost to the customer. Elsewhere, this isn’t the case.

The multiplicity of audio options on the 2011 has to be costing VW money since it costs more to design, develop, assemble, warehouse, and fit multiple systems. So while it saved money on the per-unit price, the systems cost (which includes all of the costs involved in the change) undoubtedly is higher. Ditto for changing to rear drum brakes for all but the GLI. On a front-drive car, the lightly loaded rear brakes don’t have to be discs to perform well. However, brake suppliers claim a correctly designed and costed four-wheel disc system fitted across-the-board is no more expensive than a disc/drum setup. As for the rear suspension, a twist beam axle can be tuned to give a more supple ride and designed to maximize trunk space, both of which the 2011 model has. However, by making room for the IRS fitted to the GLI model, that slight trunk space advantage is lost. VW probably kept the multi-link IRS for the GLI as removing it would have caused understandable howls of protest from potential buyers.

And that is a problem. It’s apparent VW has had a bit of trouble deciding what it wanted the Jetta to be. Two generations ago, it was a well-equipped, German-engineered small sedan that appealed to proto-Yuppies and those who were tired of, or didn’t want another, Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic and were willing to pay a premium. This surprised the management team back in Germany, where the Jetta was a Golf with a trunk, an entry-level sedan for students and small families. Unfortunately, VW never could build on its German roots and make its cars uniformly cool at a price a larger number of buyers in this segment were willing to pay.

The 2011 Jetta leaves the ultimate expression of cool to the top of the line GLI and, to a certain extent, the TDI diesel while it chases sales volume with the rest of the line. The Jetta isn’t the cheapest, most fuel-efficient or most exciting vehicle in the segment. (Hyundai’s Elantra and Ford’s Focus look positively radical in comparison to the blandly handsome Jetta, though the Jetta’s reserved looks are handsome.) However, the 2011 gives buyers the chance to step out of a Corolla or a Civic, an older Ford Focus or Chevy Cobalt or the dated weirdness of Nissan’s Sentra.

Subtly handsome whether SEL (left) or SE (right).

Though the plastics are hard, the rear suspension unsophisticated and the rear brakes antique, the 2011 Jetta is no penalty box. The ride is pliant with a hint of Germanic firmness. Only when pushed hard or driven over wavy surfaces do you notice a slight reluctance of the rear to follow the front. A touch more rear roll stiffness would help, but 90% of Jetta buyers will never notice. The S, SE and SEL all have the same shock valving and spring rates, but the difference in tires (from the inexpensive 15-in. tires on the S to the somewhat “squishy” 16-in. Hankook tires of the SE to the firmer 17-in Continentals of the SEL) set the models apart, and give buyers an incentive to stretch the budget for the higher line models or get new wheels and tires from the dealer.

Meanwhile, as the auto industry in general moves to a world in which manual transmissions are replaced by automatics of one sort or another, the Jetta makes sure all models get the choice of either a manual or an automatic transmission. Say what you will about the shift to automatics, offering a manual apparently is important in the compact sedan segment. Ford, which launched the 2012 Focus with limited manual transmission availability, will be adding a manual option to each trim level next year. Sure, the smooth and positive six-speed manual found in VW’s own GTI would have been preferred to the slightly vague and sometimes rubbery five-speed, but the choice is appreciated. If you’re shiftless, VW’s six-speed automatics are on par with the best the competition has to offer, and well ahead of some of its older Asian rivals’ four-speed and five-speed offerings or CVTs.

The deal maker: a rear seat so big the Jetta feels like it's one size larger inside.

Then there’s the interior. Visually, it looks like what you’ve come to expect from VW. The shapes are crisp, clean and mature, and highlighted (in all but the S) by metallic accents. [The black interior of the Jetta S is as dark and dreary as a politician’s heart.] Front seat room is nearly identical to the 2010 Jetta, while rear seat legroom grows by 2.7 inches. That puts it nearly five inches ahead of the sharply creased 2012 Ford Focus, and—until measurements for the next-generation Toyota Corolla are published—ahead of every car in the compact class. (It’s as big many mid-size cars.) Couple that with split-fold rear seats that open onto a 15.5 cubic foot trunk, and the 2011 Jetta can be both a flexible cargo and people carrier. For a lot of compact car buyers, that is very important.

For VW to reach its “beat Toyota” sales targets, it will take more than pencil-sharp cost accounting to get buyers to consider, and keep buying, its cars. While the Jetta lacks the visual panache of the Focus and Elantra, its reserved but handsome looks don’t offend. Its interior is handsome, roomy and flexible, despite not being made of the “mini Audi” level materials found on the last generation Jetta. And it performs its everyday chores quickly, quietly and efficiently. However, a butler is not a friend, and the 2011 Jetta is a bit closer to being an efficient man-servant than it is to being a trusted confidant. Ruthlessly cynical equipment packaging reminiscent of Detroit’s darkest days isn’t going to make customers look fondly upon their new Jetta. Nor is being equal in some respects and better than the competition in others going to attract hordes of buyers to VW showrooms as they shop value for the dollar. If that’s the only measure, most buyers are likely to stay with the brands they currently own than switch. VW needs to discover how to offer more, not less, for comparable money while retaining its better Germanic traits. If it can’t, it runs the risk of being Toyota in all but sales numbers.

 

TVD Rating: 3.25 out of 5

A solid, roomy, easy to live with German compact sedan that, in some ways, unfairly will be judged by its somewhat boring looks and personality—and its predecessor’s more generous standard equipment list.

 

2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL w/Sunroof

 

Pricing

MSRP: $22,295

Options: $0

Destination charge: $770

Price as tested: $23,065

 

Powertrain

Engine: Transverse-mounted 2.5-liter inline five cylinder. Cast-iron block with double overhead cam aluminum cylinder head and four valves per cylinder.

Horsepower: 170 @ 5700

Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4250

Transmission: Front-drive five-speed manual. (Six-speed automatic optional.)

EPA mileage rating: 23 city/33 highway

 

Steering, Suspension and Brakes

Steering: Hydraulically power-assisted rack and pinion.

Suspension F/R: Independent MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar/Twist beam, coil springs, gas-pressurized shocks, anti-roll bar.

Brakes F/R: Vented 288x25-mm discs/230x32-mm drums. Three-channel ABS with electronic brake force distribution.

 

Dimensions (in inches)

Length: 182.2

Width: 70.0

Height: 57.2

Wheelbase: 104.4

Fuel capacity (gallons): 14.5

Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 15.5

Tires: 225/45 R17 all-season radials on alloy wheels.

 

Warranty

Anti-Corrosion: 12 year/Unlimited mileage.

Powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles.

Vehicle: 3 year/36,000 miles.

Roadside Assistance: 3 years/36,000 miles with no-charge scheduled maintenance.

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