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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Review/Preview

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta

SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyers Guide


2011 Volkswagen Jetta

The world press launch of the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta was a long, multi-wave affair recently concluded in San Francisco, California. Since I was scheduled for one of the later waves, curiosity got the best of me and I read some early online reports on the car.

Something to the effect of "Volkswagen wants to be the next Toyota and so has made the new Jetta bigger, softer, and more bland and boring" caught my attention. And no I don't recall where I read that. If true, a bad sign as VW's success in the US market has been tied to the sporty nature of its cars. Uncommonly, Volkswagen is a working class brand about which people are passionate. It has succeeded here by not building bland and boring cars. Gaining market share is good; but doing so at the risk of alienating your core customers is a mistake.

After spending a day driving two examples of the new Jetta up the California coast north of San Francisco and then back via the inland freeway route, I have to wonder just what car the author of that report drove. Yes, the 2011 Jetta, due in showrooms in September, is noticeably larger than any before. Yes, the styling is very different. Underneath is an all-new chassis structure. Yet it feels and works just as a proper Volkswagen should.

That said, even thought the new Jetta is a Volkswagen through and through, VW would indeed like to increase market share. According to the presentation given to the press, market research determined that many people who might have bought a Jetta in the past were put off by the price. So the price, especially for the entry trim level, will be dropped -- to $15,995 base plus a $770 destination charge. Does this mean that the car is a de-contented "stripper"? Hardly. That model, the S, comes with power windows, mirrors, and door locks (with remote entry), a pollen-filtration air conditioning system, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, AM/FM/CD/auxiliary jack audio, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, six airbags, head restraints for all five seating positions, active for the front seats, and a tire pressure monitoring system as standard equipment. Upholstery is cloth, not cheap vinyl -- and the upper-range models have "V-Tex" synthetic that just shows that German artificial cows look and feel more like cows than some other automaker's cows.

How was that done? The 2011 Jetta is "German-engineered", but production is at the Puebla, Mexico plant -- same as the previous generation sedan. And perhaps some of the interior materials cost a bit less -- the instrument panel top and door trim are hard textured plastic, not the soft-touch material of the previous generation, and there are other similar details. Which make little or no difference to the way the car works, or feels to the driver and passenger.

Some of the cost reduction is from simplified mechanical specification - the previous independent multilink rear suspension is replaced by a semi-independent torsion beam axle, and lower trim levels get rear drums instead of disc brakes all around. Which sounds ominous, but in everyday driving should make very little difference. More of the cost reduction can be attributed to manufacturing efficiencies from a simplified product lineup. According to a VW spokesman, there are 148 ordering combinations for the current, 2010, Jetta. There will be 18 possible trim level and option package specifications for the 2011 version.

Which does not mean austerity. The S, previously mentioned, looks to be well-equipped for its modest price. Above it is the SE, at $18,185 base, and expected to account for half of the cars sold here. Where the S has the old (as in previous to previous generation) 2.0-liter, 115-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the SE gets the 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder from the previous generation, now with 170 hp. It also gets upgraded interior trim and further possible upgrades in the form of Convenience and Convenience with Sunroof option packages.

The SEL, expected to make up 10% of the mix, goes from SE Convenience and adds further standard interior and exterior enhancements, including pushbutton start/stop and a touchscreen navigation system. Options are limited to a sunroof and the Sport Package, featuring a firmer suspension, more-bolstered sports seats, and aluminum pedals. It also gets four-wheel disc brakes. Base price $21,155.

That's the initial lineup. Two more variants will debut later in the model year. The TDI, with VW's lovely 2.0-liter turbo-diesel mit 236 lb-ft of torque and rear discs, equipped equivalently to a fully-optioned SE, is expected in December at around $22,995 base. It's expected to account for a quarter of sales -- which seems high but the Jetta TDI is much-loved by its owners, and can challenge some hybrids in fuel economy while giving a much better driving (as opposed to mere operating) experience. The first half of calendar year 2011 will see the GLI, with the 2.0-liter, 200-hp turbocharged and direct fuel-injected gasoline engine familiar from the GTI and an independent rear suspension -- and of course four-wheel discs.

But wait, there's more! Did someone say "hybrid"? Think 2012 for that. And for those of you waiting for a new wagon, all anyone from VW would say is that the current wagon will stay on sale for the foreseeable future. Unusually for its segment, but in accordance with its fun-loving VW nature, all models of the new Jetta will be offered with a choice of manual (5-speed for gasoline, 6 for TDI) or 6-speed automatic (torque converter for gasoline, DSG twin-clutch automated manual for TDI) transmission. The GLI will use the DSG for its automatic.

Exterior comments: if simplified, more well-defined, and more angular lines mean "bland" to you, then the 2011 Jetta is bland. To me, it looks crisply Teutonic.Yes, there are hints of Audi, and even BMW, in some of the lines, but the whole is cohesive and distinctive. Styling cues first seen on the Up!Lite concept car -- trapezoidal headlamps, a thin grille, strong shoulders, and sculpted sides -- see production. The protruding, "tray-shaped" front spoiler is distinctive. And the car looks much better live than in pictures.

The new Jetta sounded good from the PR description, but first-hand experience is always better. And that came from a drive across the Golden Gate and up scenic, and indifferently-paved and twisty, Highway 1. Knowing that road reasonably well, I signed up for a car with manual gearbox and the Sport Package, with an automatic for the return trip on the US 101 freeway. All available cars were SELs.

You might notice the torsion beam axle on a racetrack, but VW's experience with this rear suspension shows in a positive light in the real world. It's a non-issue, and if you're a VW fan and demand IRS, you're likely waiting for the GLI anyway.

Which ought to be quite the sweetheart, as the SEL Sport was a complete joy on the mostly motorhome-free mid-week Highway 1. Firmer shocks and springs, slightly lowered, are correctly matched for a fine combination of comfort and cornering ability. It handles poor road surfaces with impunity. The 2.5's 170 horses and 177 lb-ft of torque are made on unleaded regular, and although it doesn't mind a run up to redline, it has plenty of healthy midrange torque for instant response and gearchange-optional driving.

So no surprise that the automatic had minimal effect on performance or driving pleasure on the open road. The standard suspension, while softer than the sport, is firmer than that of most older VWs and so allows for plenty of fun without scraping the door handles. And the automatic is a definite advantage in city traffic.

Interior notes: yes, the dash is hard plastic, not the level-above soft-touch material of the previous Jetta. Still, it's better-looking than the similar materials in the popular Japanese cars that Volkswagen has targeted as competition -- the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Design is pure VW. Fit and finish in the pilot (early build on the assembly line but perhaps not completely production-spec) cars used in the introduction was very good, meaning that production models should be even better. And the new Jetta is roomier than its acknowledged competition.

The Jetta is already VW's core model in the US market. With the 2011 version, VW has ambitious growth plans -- and with its attractive price, good content, and wide variety of offerings, that just may come to pass. Without alienating the VW faithful.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

Base Price			$ 23,755 (with Sport Package)
Price As Tested			$ 24,525
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 20-valve
				 inline 5-cylinder
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 151 cu. in.
Horsepower			170 @ 5700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			177 @ 4250 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
				 (6-speed automatic optional)
Wheelbase / Length		104.4 in. / 182.2 in.
Curb Weight			14.5 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		17.8
Fuel Capacity			3018 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				205/55 HR16
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				  ABS, ESC, Brake Assist standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
				  semi-independent torsion-beam axle
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway 			23 / 33 / (24/31 auto)
0 to 60 mph				8.2  sec / 8.5 auto (mfg)