New Cars + New Gear + New Technology First Drive We've always considered the Volkswagen Jetta an integral part of the European car community. Since its first incarnation 25 years ago, the Jetta served as a foundation for many aspiring European car owners. It was the "anti-Corolla," a chance for Joe Anyone to experience a well-engineered German machine. Light on its feet with lots of interior space, the Jetta represented all that was good with Volkswagen... for America anyway. Europe never "got" the Jetta where models like the Golf and wagon variants reigned supreme. Whatever. We still got a great, utilitarian car that was fun to drive. That was just fine with VW, which depended on robust Jetta sales to feed its people. And while the Jetta has continued to dominate VW's U.S. sales, it's not dominating hard enough. Volkswagen says it wants to sell more than 800,000 units per year here in the U.S. by 2018, a significant number for any carmaker. To meet that goal, VW had to create a its own "Toyota Corolla" of sorts, trade some of its European-bred mojo for accessibility. And as much as we love cars like the Phaeton, R32, and Touareg V10, they aren't paying VW's bills. Lessons from the ubiquitous aircooled Beetle might do well here.
In its most basic form, a Jetta S will cost $15,995, placing it just south of a like-equipped Toyota product. Compared to the Corolla, the Jetta sports numerous advantages including cost, legroom, rear legroom, and trunk space. VW had several basic S models on hand, all clad with normally aspirated 2.0-liter engines, 15-inch steel wheels, rear drum brakes, cloth seats, and five-speed manual gearboxes. How much European car could one get for $15,995? How many corners had to be cut, how much performance sacrificed? How compromised would the product be?
In short, the base Jetta S is pretty good. Compared to its Asian-built competition, the Jetta comes off as a polished Euro, combining good ergonomics with a balanced chassis. You'll really need to flog the engine to make things happen, but what do you expect from an aging eight-valve mill? Like most front-hookers, the Jetta will push in hard corners and come back in line by lifting the throttle. Although the Jetta S has reverted to the older hydraulically-assisted steering, it still retains a good feel, perhaps a bit light in the middle but nothing serious. Although I had no issues with five-speed manual gearbox, my co-driver did. She mis-shifted several times, nearly launching me though the windshield. Of course, she blamed the car. Truth is it's a decent manual transmission with a fairly light clutch. The brakes work just fine and while the car would dive a bit under hard deceleration, the suspension is firm, especially for a Jetta.
Inside, this car feels big, almost Passat big. It's about three inches longer than the previous generation and a bit wider. There's a feeling of space between the driver and passenger and people in the rear will benefit from three more inches of legroom.
The cabin is tastefully trimmed, a bit spartan but that's OK; the important stuff is where it needs to be (no extraneous gadgets or gear). VW has covered the inside with new materials that appear less luxurious than on the previous model but few will notice (unless they owned the previous model). The new cabin comes off as a nice piece, especially the sporty three-spoke steering wheel. Perhaps my only gripe were the seats. Apparently they were designed for folks with really big butts. In any case, getting in and out of the new Jetta is a breeze. (Perhaps that was the goal all along).
The 2011 Jetta will be available in four trim levels-S, SE, SEL, and GLI. As noted, the Jetta S will start at $15,995 with a 2.0-liter engine, five-speed manual, air conditioning, cloth interior, ABS/ESP, and 15-inch steel wheels. The SE gets a 2.5-liter engine, 16-inch wheels (still steel), leatherette interior, and a handful of additional conveniences for a base price of $18,195. For $21,395, the SEL adds rear disc brakes, chrome trim, 17-inch alloy wheels, trip computer, foglights, touchscreen nav, and keyless access. When it becomes available, the TDI will only be offered in SE trim, but with some of the SEL equipment thrown in with the pricier motor. The outgoing Jetta had more than 100 possible trim variations, whereas this has been reduced to just 18 in the new model (excluding colors and emission combos). This is the first of many moves that help bring the price down through reduced model proliferation.
I've followed enough of the VW fanboy sites to learn the new Jetta has caused more than a little consternation among the VW faithful. And rightfully so. No Volkswagen enthusiast wants to see his favorite chassis regress. Truth is, this car isn't designed for them. Volkswagen wants all those Toyota owners to step into something a little more engaging. If VW can match Toyota's bulletproof build quality, it just might work.
All you hardcore Jetta lovers will want to wait for the upcoming GLI with its 2.0-liter turbo engine, electro-mechanical steering, and independent rear suspension. I'd also wager Volkswagen will dress the body with snarky new aerodynamics to distinguish it from its lesser-equipped brethren. Or hell, try the TDI Jetta. For the money, the TDI Jetta is hands-down the best value in the turbodiesel arena. It's quick and quiet and gets absolutely phenomenal mileage. No, it won't be as inexpensive as the base Jetta S, but it represents as significant step forward in the Jetta's evolution. Stay tuned.
2.0-liter I4, dohc, 8-valve
Five-speed manual; optional six-speed automatic
MacPherson struts and coil springs (f), torsion beam axle and coil springs (r)
Curb Weight: 2,804 lb
Peak Power: 115 hp @ 5200 rpm
Peak Torque: 125 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
0-60 mph: 11 sec.
Top Speed: 120 mph