The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta arrived with a thud, followed by a chorus of boos and catcalls from the Vee-Dub faithful. Boring. Cheap. We’ve already detailed all of the fruits and faults of the plain-Jane Jetta here, but we’ll boil it down again. Larger, more spacious, class-leading rear-seat and trunk space, but a de-evolution in its technology, materials and presentation.
1. While the body and chassis have changed, the 2011 Jetta TDI relies on the same powertrain as last year, with 140-hp and 236 lb-ft of torque.
2. Fuel economy ranks an impressive 30/42-mpg (city/hwy).
3. The base price of the new Jetta may have gone down significantly, but the TDI model has actually increased slightly to $22,995.
4. Much larger than the old Jetta, the 2011 model gains 2.7-inches of rear seat legroom.
To hit its new lower price of entry, the finished product is rougher around the edges compared to previous VW releases. A simpler, less expensive rear suspension that makes for a rougher ride, hard plastics in the interior and a return of the basic-but-ancient 2.0-liter four-cylinder are not positives. All done in an effort to deliver more value for the money and get more potential customers interested through a sub-$16,000 price tag.
TDI BRINGS TORQUE AND FUEL ECONOMY
Leave the sub-standard base model behind, though, and the Jetta improves, first with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, and later in 2011, a 200-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. But for now, the sweet spot has to be the excellent 2.0-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine in the top-line TDI model.
Although it’s carried over from the previous Jetta, it’s hard to criticize the 140-hp unit, especially when it produces 236 lb-ft of torque from a low 1750 rpm. With either the standard six-speed manual transmission or the optional six-speed DSG dual-clutch semi-automatic, the TDI hustles the 3,160-lb Jetta to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, with a top speed limited to 130 mph.
Although the TDI turns the Jetta into a mean passing machine thanks to the extraordinary torque, the real benefit is fuel efficiency: 30-mpg in the city and 42-mpg on the highway, which smokes both the four- and five-cylinder engines in the less expensive trims.
That’s smoking not in a literal sense either. Unlike older diesel engines and semi-trucks, you won’t detect a whiff of anything coming out of the Jetta’s tailpipes. The high-pressure fuel rail runs at up to 1800 bar, and piezo-injectors regulate the fuel injection up to seven times per cycle. The result is a smooth-running, quiet diesel engine. The exhaust is cleaned up using a special catalytic converter, and the resulting gases easily pass the BIN5/ULEV2 emissions standards, meaning it’s 50-state legal.
SOME COMPROMISE ON HANDLING
The downside is that the diesel engine itself is heavier than the gasoline ones, which means the Jetta handles a little differently. Just a little more push through the front wheels, but nothing dramatic. Like any German car, it’s stable at speed, and an excellent highway cruiser.
While the last Jetta’s detractors pointed to its remarkable design similarity to a Toyota Corolla, the new version is improved. The body is tasteful and sleek, if bland from the rear. The big rear overhang does mean a huge trunk, though. At 15.5 cu-ft it’s the largest in the class, and the 60/40 split-folding rear seats can expand that space into the cabin if needed.
DIESEL WILL COST YOU
Befitting its range-topper status, the $22,995 TDI starts out very well equipped with 16-inch aluminum wheels, a blacked-out front grille, and heated exterior side mirrors with integrated turn signals. The interior features power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, a six-speaker touch-screen sound system with Sirius Satellite Radio, heated seats, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel and moonroof.
The only options are chrome trim and fog lights outside, and inside, keyless push-button ignition, adjustable lumbar for the driver’s seat and a navigation system. Choosing the DSG transmission increases the price by $1,100, and adds steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. In this guise, the TDI has enough creature comforts to entertain on long commutes, but even with all the extras, the Jetta’s cabin materials don’t improve on the base model. There are still hollow plastics on the doors, dash, console and pillars, and the seats are wider and less supportive than before.
In terms of competition, it’s difficult to find any since it’s the only small diesel-powered car in North America (apart from the Golf TDI). And the other high-mileage technologies, like gasoline-electric hybrids, have completely different focus. The diesel does well on highways and at speed, while hybrids excel in urban environments where their big batteries and stop-start technologies squeeze every penny out of a tank of gasoline. Think hard about your driving patterns before investing in either.
The changes VW made for 2011 are – for better or worse – designed to appeal to a larger part of the buying public. For now, the diesel engine is the Jetta’s raison d’être. Without it, there are other compact sedans on the market that should be more reliable, more fuel efficient and more fun.