Thumbs Up: It’s a lot of car for a reasonable price, styling is much sharper than outgoing model.
Thumbs Down: No cloth or leather seating option, numb steering.
Buy This Car If: You can translate “Farhvergnügen” and want a solid value in an entertaining compact sedan.
I like Volkswagens, and have owned or driven my share over the years. My wife loves them, too, and still misses her 2002 VW Jetta Wagon. The date we sold the car is circled in black on our kitchen calender, and no amount of flowers can pull my wife from her funk on that particular day. I get it, since the car was like a member of the family, through good times and bad, and never gave us an ounce of trouble over the five years we owned it. It got through the worst northeast winters without complaint, and would go places with snow tires mounted that SUVs feared to tread. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to drive the new Jetta, but it certainly had some big shoes to fill.
Volkswagen has done quite a bit of marketing to promote the new Jetta’s low entry cost. Indeed, a starting price of just $15,765 (including destination charge) seems almost too good to be true. Even my range topping, gas-engined SEL stickered at a modest $24,400, and came equipped with just about everything you could want in a car. As you’d expect, there’s a catch, and there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Unlike Jetta’s of old, soft touch interior materials are replaced by hard plastic. It doesn’t look bad, but it’s not pleasant to touch and I wonder how squeak-and-rattle free the interior will be over time. That’s a minor complaint, since you can always fix things with some WD40 or double sided foam tape. My real gripe was a lack of cloth or leather seating, which forces the buyer to settle for VW’s V-Tex “simulated leather” vinyl seating.
I know that manufacturers have improved the look and feel of vinyl seating over the years, but I’ll say this up front: I don’t like it, and it’s kept me from buying cars in the past. Cloth seats are my preference, since they’re warm in winter and cool in the summer. They age well, and the don’t cause second degree burns or strip flesh on a hot day like leather or vinyl seats do. Vinyl seats don’t breath, and they feel like you’re sitting on a textured rubber inner tube. I understand that using vinyl saves money, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’d actually pay more for nice cloth seats than I would for cheap leather, and I suspect I’m not the only car buyer who feels that way.
Those gripes aside, I have to say that I really like the looks of the 2011 Jetta. The new styling gives it a more aggressive and contemporary appearance than the outgoing model, which had gotten stale compared to offerings from competitors like Hyundai. Not only is the new Jetta a better looking car, but it’s also a larger car; compared to the 2010 model, the 2011 is three inches longer in overall length and in wheelbase length. That gives a bit more interior room, especially for rear seat passengers, but drivers won’t notice a huge difference behind the wheel. If anything, the 2011 is a little quicker and bit more nimble, thanks to a curb weight that been reduced by over 400 pounds. A lighter car is more fuel efficient, and the 2011 VW Jetta doesn’t disappoint here, either: the EPA rates the car’s fuel economy at 24 MPG city (20% better than last year) and 31 MPG highway (nearly 10% better than last year). I can tell you that the EPA numbers are conservative, since I saw 31.8 MPG in primarily highway driving.
Inside, the Jetta is a mixed bag. The interior still looks good, but it’s not nearly as pleasant as previous Jetta interiors. Gone is the “Audi for $10k less” feel that earlier Jetta models pulled off, replaced by an adequate interior built for a price point. The front seats are comfortable and reasonably well bolstered, but don’t breath well at all. Worse, the V-Tex vinyl has an almost rubbery feel to it. I’m sure it’s a durable material, and it does allow the use of a heating element in the seats, but I’d much rather have standard cloth and optional leather seating.
Back seat leg room is surprisingly good, and the rear bench-style seat accommodates two adults comfortably, or three for short trips. Headroom for rear seat passengers is good as well, and only those substantially taller than six feet will feel cramped. Rear HVAC vents, standard on the 2010 Jetta sedan, are missing from 2011 models, which may prompt requests from passengers to crank the A/C on hot days.
The dash shape is familiar to previous Volkswagen owners, and the three spoke steering wheel is a joy to grip. Other manufacturers, please take note: Volkswagen has built a steering wheel that’s perfectly sized and shaped and should be the standard on which all steering wheels are built. The dash’s center stack houses HVAC controls below and an infotainment system above. The touchscreen display shows audio settings and map settings, and is one of the more intuitive systems on the market. I’d have liked clearer markings on the knobs and buttons below the screen, but they’re easy to figure out when you’re changing settings within a display. I really liked the “rotary” touch screen audio channel selector, which gives the driver a lot more music options than the standard six or eight buttons below the radio, yet still retains ease of use.
The instruments are functional but bland compared to earlier Jettas. The tachometer sits on the left of the instrument binnacle, with the speedometer on the right. Splitting the two is the driver’s information display, which shows the time (redundant, since this is also displayed on the audio system), trip information (range, average fuel economy, current fuel economy, time on trip, etc.), trip odometer and fuel gauge.
On the road, the Jetta still drives like a Jetta. The 2.5 liter, inline five cylinder engine in my SEL model tester is good for 170 horsepower and 177 ft lb of torque. The car feels a bit anemic off the line, but the engine begins to make power soon enough (at about 3,000 RPM), and pulls reasonably hard to 5,000 RPM or so. That’s good enough to get the car from zero to sixty in 8.4 seconds, a few tenths of a second quicker than the outgoing model equipped with the same engine. The 2.5 liter engine isn’t the smoothest, and it doesn’t particularly like to wind to redline, but it does make sufficient power and it does return great fuel mileage. The Tiptronic transmission rewards drivers with relatively quick shifts, especially in Sport mode. If you prefer a manual for weekend driving, but need an automatic for weekday, rush hour commuting, the Tiptronic gearbox is one of the better “manual” automatics.
The Jetta’s handling was on par with other mid-size sedan offerings, but the steering could be improved with a heavier feel. Granted, the Jetta SEL isn’t a sport sedan (we’ll have to wait for the GLI version, hopefully coming in 2011), but I’d like a bit more weight in the steering at speeds between 20 MPH and 50 MPH. Strangely enough, Volkswagen doesn’t refer to the power steering as variable assist, but it certainly felt that way. It was nicely weighted below 20 MPH and above 50 MPH, but somewhat numb in between.
My tester was a range-topping Jetta SEL version, complete with sunroof, and carried a base price of $24,165 including destination charge. Options were limited to the $235 floor mat kit (four carpeted floor mats, trunk liner), for a total sticker price of $24,400. By comparison, a comparably equipped Mazda 3 would cost $25,940, a comparable Chevrolet Cruze would sticker at $25,540 and a comparably equipped Toyota Corolla would sell for $25,702. That makes the new VW Jetta one of the price leaders in the compact sedan segment.
Is that enough? Will the Jetta’s revised pricing bring new buyers to the brand, or will their de-contenting alienate previous Jetta owners? VW’s taking a huge gamble on building cars specifically for the U.S. market, and they wouldn’t do so without doing their homework. I suspect the lower price point will do exactly what VW intended, so expect to see a lot of new VW Jettas on the road in the coming years.