2012 Volkswagen Jetta SE Review - By Carey Russ +VIDEO
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2011/12 Volkswagen Jetta SE
Volkswagen made a major change of direction with the debut of its latest Jetta a year ago. What had for years been positioned as an upscale alternative to the common compact and small mid-sized sedans was radically revised to be direct competition with the Asian and American brands that dominate the class. Prices were dropped, and the car was redesigned for broader appeal.
Compared to its immediate predecessor, the 2011 Jetta was de-contented. Something has to give for lower cost… The previous generation's independent rear suspension was replaced by a torsion beam axle, as used previously to that. Its four-wheel disc brakes gave way to rear drums, at least for the low- and mid-level cars. The "class above" soft-touch materials used in the interior gave way to textured hard plastics. Such facts caused consternation among some members of the press and the Volkswagen Faithful.
There was no problem with that from the buying public. Sales rose dramatically, as in nearly 75% compared to the previous year. Volkswagen was obviously doing something right.
The 2011 Jetta started with a simplified lineup, S, SE, and SEL sedans with a 2.0-liter, 115-hp four-cylinder engine in the S and 2.5-liter five in the SE and SEL. A turbodiesel TDI variant was a late introduction. Model year 2012 sees the next logical step, the performance-oriented GLI, with 200 turbocharged and intercooled horsepower from its direct-injected 2.0-liter four. Also new for 2012 is the availability of a premium Fender/Panasonic audio system. Yeah, that Fender…
Small wagons are a small niche in the American market, as are diesels. Combine the two and you get the Jetta TDI Sport Wagon, which, if the numbers I've seen locally are any indication, is outselling the 2.5-liter five-cylinder S and SE variants handily. A small niche, but Volkswagen absolutely owns it.
But this review is about the Jetta sedan, and in particular the mid-level SE. Which is the most popular model. And that is for good reason. It's notably larger, and roomier inside, than any previous Jetta, with a roomy trunk as well. If conservative, its styling is distinctive, and handsome. The unusual five-cylinder engine has grown in power output since it's introduction back in 2005, and now puts out 170 horsepower, and is matched to a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. With a couple hundred pounds of weight shed (see, "de-contenting" isn't all bad!) that means better performance than the previous generation, and better fuel economy.
My test car was an automatic SE with no options. None really needed, although a $1365 Convenience Package and $2600 Convenience and Sunroof Package add niceties like alloy wheels, leather trim for the steering wheel and shift knob, heated front seats, audio upgrades, and power tilt-and-slide sunroof. Keeping in the spirit of value and financial economy means keeping those extras out, and the Jetta box-stock is not only a good value, it's a good Volkswagen. The suspension changes are largely meaningless in the everyday world, and, especially in Sport mode with the automatic, performance is Volkswagen, not generic. "Boring" not spoken here, there's still plenty of character, a rarity in a class full of appliances.
Watch the VW Academy Jetta Overview with Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader
APPEARANCE: Welcome to the new face of Volkswagen. It's not flamboyant, it's conservatively well-designed in a way that should age well. "Simple" seems the operative word, and in a good way. Nowhere is the overly-complex styling favored by some Asian competitors evident. The gentle curve of the hood and passenger cabin is complemented by angular shoulders. Prominent fender flares and lower sills hint at performance, perhaps, but they also add strength and rigidity to the body sides. Wide, low taillights and a crisp lip to the rear of the trunk lid show some similarity to the Jetta's distant cousin Audi A4, although the two cars share nothing but corporate ownership.
COMFORT: Oh dear, hard plastics and vinyl upholstery. In the wrong hands, that's a recipe for esthetic and comfort disaster. Here, well, here's the way to do it right. Other than being hard to the touch, the materials used for the main part of the instrument panels and door interiors look just like their more-expensive predecessors. The texturing helps reduce glare, always good. German synthetic cows are more like cows than some other allegedly real cows - VW's "V-Tex" leatherette feels more like leather than many leathers in the price class, without the price. In the SE, the steering wheel is textured plastic, but it grips well, and is adjustable for both tilt and reach. The front seats are manually-adjustable, the driver's cushion height included. All windows are one-touch up and down. See, the really important features were not de-contented. As outside, interior styling is conservative, and even more familiarly Volkswagen.
The three-inch stretch in wheelbase brings happiness to the rear seat, although a high central tunnel and front console that extends far to the rear (with a power point and some storage for rear passengers) does make the center position a short-term proposition. Which is not unusual for any sedan today. The seatback folds 60/40 for times when the large trunk isn't quite large enough. A space-saver spare is found under the trunk floor.
SAFETY: The Jetta has driver and front passenger frontal and seat-mounted side airbags plus full-length side curtain bags, plus standard antilock brakes. It gets a four-star rating from NHTSA for front, side, rollover, and overall crash performance.
RIDE AND HANDLING: In theory, the newest Jetta is a step backwards, as the independent rear suspension of the previous generation has given way to a torsion beam axle, as used in Jettas up to 2005. Perhaps that might matter on the track, at the limit, perhaps… in the real world I noticed the slightly less compliant shock damping more than any minimal effects from an unpowered non-independent axle. And that's more a poke at (lack of) local road maintenance than Volkswagen's suspension development. In SE trim, the Jetta is not intended to be a sport sedan (see GLI for that) but it's far more fun that your basic transportation appliance. And yes, those are steel wheels and drums in the rear - so? More people buy alloy wheels for appearance than reduction of unsprung weight, and for a street car there's little real weight savings in alloys anyway. Front brakes do the majority of braking work, and if you feel you need discs, they're standard in the SEL and GLI. The S and SE's antilock disc/drum system works just fine for everyday use. Want IRS and four-wheel discs? GLI is your answer.
PERFORMANCE: VW's 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder is the perfect engine for this car. With 170 horsepower (at 5700 rpm) and torque peaking at 177 lb-ft at 4250, it's significantly more powerful than the S model's 115-hp 2.0-liter four. Think of it as the four with one more cylinder and a dual overhead cam, four-valve head instead of the four's SOHC two-valve design. It's especially strong in the midrange. If it seems a little weak and hesitant in D, that's likely because the transmission programming is meant to maximize fuel economy. Just put it in S, and it can take care of itself much better, with recourse to manual shifting only really necessary in ultra-tight, low-speed corners. Let loose like that (or better, with the five-speed stick), it sings its unusual tenor five-cylinder song and provides plenty of good old Volkswagen go power. Even with driven like that, gas mileage was a respectable 25 mpg overall, with as little highway driving as possible. I never did any better in my `69 Bug, which was far smaller, less comfortable, much slower, and we won't even mention brakes…
CONCLUSIONS: Rumors of the VW Jetta's de-contented de-evolution were premature.
2011/2012 Volkswagen Jetta SE
Base Price $ 19,295 Price As Tested $ 20,065 Engine Type DOHC 20-valve inline 5-cylinder Engine Size 2.5 liters / 151 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 5700 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 177 @ 4250 rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic® manual and Sport modes Wheelbase / Length 104.4 in. / x in. Curb Weight 3082 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.1 Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P205/55R16 91H Bridgestone Turanza CL400 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, ABS standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle with coil springs Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 24 / 31 / 25 0 to 60 mph 8.5 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination Charge $ 770