Trying to review the new Mk6 Jetta, I'm faced with a terrible dilemma. Actually we're all faced with it...
On the one hand, it has a sophisticated exterior, more grown up than previous models, with crisp and tight lines. The rear lights are a big improvement over the Mk5 but we couldn't come to terms with the three-sided front spoiler. The car is also considerably bigger if you're looking for more space, with nearly 3'' of extra legroom in the rear - that's almost the same as a 7-Series!
The increased size is thanks to the PQ35 Long chassis (as it's known internally). It's the first Jetta not based on the Golf platform. The aim was to produce a larger car to meet the demands of the North American market following VW customer clinics where American consumers requested more space and didn't care about interior quality.
As a result, the Jetta 6 is certainly large for the segment, but hard plastics on the dash and doors is perhaps best described as Skoda-esque. It creates a rather unwelcoming environment that might surprise traditional VW loyalists. The GTI-style steering wheel is excellent and the optional V-Tex pleather option softens the ambience, while you can also improve matters with brighter interior color choices.
Price In addition to creating a larger car, VW also wanted a cheaper car to compete with its main rivals (Civic, Corolla, Mazda 3). So while the Jetta starts at $15995 (plus $760 destination charge), the price is offset by cost-cutting and de-contenting the overall package. For that money you'll be driving a Jetta S with a revised 115hp/125 lb-ft 2.slow engine, torsion beam axle, 15'' steel wheels and rear drum brakes. You do get A/C and ESP (although it can't be switched off) and six airbags. We learned there's even a $14995 version without A/C for rental fleets if you're a masochist.
While there were apparently 148 Mk5 Jetta variants, the new car only has 18 to make the purchasing process simpler. The next step is the Jetta SE with the 2.5L motor, 16'' wheels, V-Tex trim and cruise control. Then there's the SE with Convenience package, which allows keyless entry and ignition, followed by SE with Convenience and sunroof.
The SEL has the same 2.5L but finally gets disc brakes all round, 17'' wheels, onboard computer and new RN5315 touchscreen navigation. There are several SEL variants up to the Sport package at $22995 that includes slightly lower, stiffer suspension, better seats and pedals.
The $22995 TDI will be arriving next year, with a hybrid in 2012. The GLI is here in the spring and gets the 200hp 2.0T plus independent rear suspension and maybe electro-mechanical steering. It also has a more luxurious European-spec interior and should include a leather option. We also hear it will be cheaper than the current GLI. And if it looks like the New Compact Coupe Concept revealed at January's Detroit Auto Show, it should be a handsome car.
Talking to German engineers, the basic European models will be better equipped than the US equivalent, but that will probably be reflected in the price. They quietly admitted to us that the stripped-down Jetta wouldn't be well-received over there.
Driving We grabbed the keys to a manual Jetta SEL and headed for the hills. Fortunately, the Mk6 is 110 lb lighter than the Mk5 so, despite its dimensions, there's no loss of performance. However, we never been huge fans of the 2.5L and it doesn't shine any brighter here.
The handling hasn't suffered from the torsion beam rear axle, and body roll is remarkably well controlled. The only detraction from an otherwise stellar performance was light steering that was woolly in the straight-ahead position.
With the black-on-black trim in our car, the interior wasn't welcoming. Those hard plastics felt like a retrograde from the Mk5, despite the nav screen and leather wheel. There were, however, acres of room in the rear and that, according to VWoA, is where this car will resonate with customers.
Whether this US approach to designing a European car will resonate with VW enthusiasts remains to be seen. We'll have to wait for the GLI to decide whether it can stand alongside the excellent Mk6 GTI. But squint at the Jetta and imagine 19" wheels with air-ride and perhaps it has a future after all...