After years of poorly made products and an indifferent dealer network, Volkswagen is struggling to re-establish itself as the maker of fun, value-conscious vehicles in the face of so much emotional baggage. It’s doubly embarrassing since corporate sister Audi has swung back so positively into buyer minds with stylish, must-have products that are mostly sterile to drive.
1. The 2011 Jetta starts at $15,995; which is $1,710 cheaper than the 2010 model.
2. The base engine is an archaic 2.0L 8-valve 4-cylinder that makes just 115-hp and gets 24/34-mpg (city/hwy).
3. The SE trim starts at $18,195 and comes with a 170-hp 2.5L 5-cylinder.
4. Significantly larger than the old Jetta, the 2011 model gains 2.7-inches of rear seat legroom.
VW’s plan is to have North American-only products that are better focused on our wants and needs, which is what led the company to build a new manufacturing facility in the United States. The plant in Tennessee will eventually crank out a new Passat model, designed specifically for our market with a larger overall size and a lower base price.
NEW JETTA IS UP IN SIZE, DOWN IN REFINEMENT
But another offering in that plan is at your local dealer right now: the larger, roomier, and cheaper 2011 Jetta. Those are not usually words that find themselves in the same sentence when dealing with a new vehicle, but the company’s goal was to get back to its People’s Car history.
Here are the basics. The new Jetta is three inches longer than before, which also stretches the wheelbase for a larger cabin. That makes it one of the largest vehicles in its class, and helps contribute to a 2.7-inch increase for rear-passenger legroom, something that was already adequate. The big tail hides the class-leading 15.5 cu-ft trunk, which gets significantly larger when the 60/40-split rear seat is folded down.
Standard equipment is halfway decent too, with air conditioning, power one-touch windows, keyless entry, a touch-screen audio system, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six airbags, ABS, traction- and stability control. Throw in a base price that’s a fiver under $16K – easily Volkswagen’s least-expensive vehicle and $2,000 less than the cheapest Golf hatch – and this starts to look like a real bargain.
So what’s the catch?
Unsurprisingly, there are a few.
The previous Jetta was Volkswagen’s sharpest to drive, and best built yet. But that all costs money, and to bring the price of entry down while simultaneously bulking up the body meant sacrifices had to be made. The excellent multi-link rear suspension has reverted back to a simpler twist-beam affair that proves less nimble and harsher over rough roads, but is less expensive to build.
The interior, long a place of Volkswagen pride, has taken the brunt too. Gone are the acres of soft-touch materials and real metal trim pieces, replaced by hard, textured, hollow plastics that don’t score well on the haptics scale. Only the door cards and center armrest are covered in anything worth touching.
Finally the real source of ire will be the not-really-new new standard engine. While the old Jetta’s entry-level 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is still available, it’s in the $18,195 SE trim level, a significant price boost over the headline-gaining $16K base sticker. The torquey ‘five’ has been supplemented with the Reagan era 2.0-liter eight-valve four-cylinder. Not seen here for years – other than in Canada’s exclusive City Golf and City Jetta range – it’s an unpleasant reminder of how far Volkswagen has come in nearly three decades. It produces a measly 115 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque, and is matched to either a five-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic.
While a base 2.0-liter Jetta is 150 lbs lighter than a 2.5-liter Golf, (2,804 lbs. vs. 2,968 lbs.), comparably equipped with five-cylinder engines sees the Jetta 50-lb heavier. The base Jetta only beats the SE by one mpg in both the city and highway (24/34-mpg vs. 23/33-mpg) so it’s not like the base engine is a fuel miser either. No, it’s purely a cost-cutting, fun-killing decision, designed to boost walk-in traffic with “low, low prices!” Acceleration is tepid, especially with the optional automatic, hitting 60 mph in 11 seconds and making the Prius feel fast by comparison. And the slush-box loses five mpg on the highway too, which seems like VW is missing the point.
SOMEHOW AVOIDS BEING TERRIBLE
As a whole, the rest of the package is comfortable. The seats still have the excellent range of adjustment that’s been a VW hallmark for years. Visibility is good, and the general ergonomics are great. Unlike many of its competitors, the Jetta still uses hydraulic assist for its power steering, which means it’s better than most. However, the base high-profile 15-inch all-season tires don’t do much for raising your adrenaline levels.
And the looks? Split decision. From some angles, and in certain colors, the Jetta is quite attractive. Handsome, even. In others? Hard-pressed to stand out in a parking lot. A few neat touches include the squared-off front splitter, which you won’t notice until you’re looking down on the hood from above, and the wide front grille and headlights. Head-on, it mimics the changes made to the Golf, Eos convertible and Touareg SUV. From the rear? Unremarkable. Could be anything.
But ‘beige’ sells – the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla account for over a half-million units a year – so maybe Volkswagen figures that by ironing out all the personality, to make the Jetta more of an appliance, it has a better shot at market success.
The Jetta isn’t a bad car, it’s just a disappointing one. If you’re the kind of customer who buys by the inch, you’d be hard pressed to find a better bargain. But if you’re looking for driver satisfaction and a little joie de vivre, shop elsewhere.