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2011 Volkswagen Jetta S Review by Steve Purdy +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Volkswagen Jetta

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

We get the feeling that Volkswagen is still trying to find itself in the U.S. market, first charming us all in the 1950s and 60s with the simple, cheap, functional Beetle, full of personality and quirkiness, then going mainstream with the conventional, but still fully German Rabbit and Golf. By the time of the ill-fated, full-zoot, mighty pricey Phaeton it seemed they had lost their way. Now we’re back to the entry-level segment with the new down-market Passat and Jetta.

This week we are living with Volkswagen’s compact entry-level Jetta S. This one has no options listed on the sticker so what we see is what you get with the base level car. Now remember, this one is competing with lots of new entries in that compact segment including Chevy’s Cruze, Ford’s Focus and Hyundai’s impressive Elantra. Until the last few years the compact segment of the U.S. market has seen little growth but its beginning to boom, so VW needs to be in that hunt if they want to meet their ambitious goal of becoming a leading brand here.

   • SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyers Guide

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression and that may be true. But, with the Jetta in my driveway my first impressions did not match my final assessment entirely, though it was not far off. I was already aware that this Jetta has been de-contented to bring the price down nearly two-grand from it predecessor to compete in that economy sedan market.

My first impression, of course, was visual. Poised in the morning shade it could have been any car. The only giveaway was, of course, the VW badge in the grill. The shape, stance and profile are nondescript, conservative and without aesthetic interest. As I lived with the Jetta for a week that conservative design sort of grew on me. Having been a VW fan in the old days I began to appreciate some of the subtle German qualities to the design. I had to remind myself we have here an entry-level car.

small>Watch the Jetta promo video

The Jetta S’s interior carries that theme as well – de-contented, conservatively designed, simple and unembellished. Seat fabrics appeared better than average, fit and finish were good, but materials were what we would expect in an economy car, that is, nothing special. Living in that cockpit for lengthy drives was comfortable and pleasant, but undistinguished.

My first impression behind the wheel did not change over the week, at least in terms of drivetrain and performance. My first trip to town set the tone – slow and steady gets you there. The Jetta S is powered by an efficient, but tepid, 2.0-liter, 8-valve engine with port fuel injection making just 115 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. That’s an old, low-tech engine out of which they’ve managed to get impressive mileage listed at 23-city and 29-highway, but with a zero-to-60 time of about 30 days (11 seconds actually). Driving carefully you can apparently get as much as 34-mpg with this 2,900-pound car.

One category has distinguished Volkswagens over the years and that is the fun-to-drive quotient. Here the Jetta S does fairly well. Steering is crisp and precise and suspension is well balanced, though this revised Jetta has gone from the more sophisticated multilink independent rear suspension to a twist beam setup. While I didn’t try any racetrack maneuvers I did drive as spiritedly as the anemic engine would allow and found much to like in terms of road manners.

Most impressive about this new Jetta, I thought, was the interior volume. The rear seat, in particular, felt roomier than its competitors and the ingress and egress were exceptionally good for a small sedan. In fact, the rear doors look large for the car, I thought. I wonder if that’s really the case. Trunk space is impressive as well with 15.5 cubic-feet to stow your stuff.

Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live talks about the interior spaciousness of the Jetta

Our test car shows a base price of $17,095 and we have no options listed. Test vehicles are usually loaded with extras so it’s good to be able to evaluate the basic version of a car, particularly one in the compact or economy segment. With the $770 destination charge we’re looking at only $17,865 on the bottom line.

For that price you get fabric interior, 15-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers, no cruise control and, as indicate earlier, a low-tech engine. But, you also get six airbags, six-way adjustable (not power) driver’s seat, AC, power windows, mirrors and locks, single CD player, auxiliary input and 4 speakers, tire pressure monitoring, 60/40 folding rear seat backs, tilt and telescopic steering wheel and all the chassis dynamics (ABS, ESP, TC, etc.) we get in most cars these days.

Volkswagen’s new car warranty covers the car for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the powertrain for 5 years or 60,000 miles.

The Jetta is assembled in Puebla, Mexico with virtually no US/Canadian content.

So, my bottom line is based on living with the Jetta S for a week and lots of miles. The price is good, acceleration not so good and handling very good. Overall, if you’re comfortable with the conservative, no frills design and believe in the charm of German engineering you might like the Jetta S, particularly if you’re seldom in a hurry.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved