Volkswagen Jetta — Get more, pay less

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Volkswagen Jetta for years has felt more upscale than its competitors, offering a premium vehicle experience not found in other segment cars. The all-new 2011 Jetta — at least in upper trim level — does a nice job of advancing the Jetta mystique.

As before, there’s a quality to the overall feel of the car that belies its new lower price.
The perception has been — for at least a decade — you may pay more for a Jetta, but you get more. Volkswagen has sought to keep the “get more” part of the equation intact for 2011 while tweaking the “pay more” part in favor of the customer.

Volkswagen says it has cut prices to the tune of $1,700 for the base model, which now starts at $16,765. And it’s possible to drive off in a up-level Jetta SEL with a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine making 170 horsepower matched to a 5-speed manual and loaded with such desirable amenities as navigation, keyless start, simulated leather, a full-featured audio system with satellite radio, Bluetooth, and a wide range of safety features for $22,165. Our SEL test car included a 6-speed automatic and a sunroof for a bottom line of $23,395. This is about $2,000 less than the comparable 2010 model, Volkswagen says. Prices do not include a $770 destination charge.

So this price cutting begs the question, from where did these savings come? We like to think Volkswagen has made better use of its resources, streamlined the manufacturing process, and passed the savings on to the car-buying public. This is certainly a possibility, but VW has also made changes to the car aimed at cutting cost.

On paper, some of these alterations appear to be taking a step backward, but we found through a couple of weeks of driving in Eastern North Carolina, Northern California, and the Los Angeles area that Volkswagen has done an excellent job ensuring that the Jetta has lost little of its Teutonic prowess particularly in the upper trim level.

Changes include: Replacing the independent rear suspension with a less expensive torsion-beam setup, replacing the rear disc brakes with drum-type brakes on the bottom trim levels, replacing the electric power steering with the more traditional hydraulic power steering, replacing the gas-strut linkage in the trunk with old-style gooseneck hinges, and offering far fewer equipment combination choices (reduced from 148 to 18).

Despite the perceived “downgrades,” we found the driving experience nearly identical to the well done 2010 model.

To address possible buyer concerns, we concluded that the steering is just as accurate with as much on-center feel as a 2010 model we recently drove, and despite the change in the rear suspension, the new Jetta seemed as lively and responsive as the previous car. Volkswagen has pulled off these modifications with no perceptible difference in overall performance.

Note that a few items that Jetta owners are used to getting that are not offered on the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla or even on such mid-size cars as the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion — which will also figure into the Jetta buying decision — are still in place. They include a one-touch up/down feature on all four windows.

There’s one big difference that should make current and former owners smile and prove a strong selling point even against the aforementioned mid-sized sedans — a noticeable increase in passenger space.

The wheelbase has been stretched 2.9 inches, addressing one of the big concerns with the previous iteration, giving backseat passengers mid-sized comfort. Rear-seat legroom has grown a substantial 2.6 inches from 35.5 inches to 38.1. No more cramped quarters even for a six-footer. At the same time, Volkswagen did not cut into the generous 15.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk.

The Jetta will eventually be sold in five trim levels. Three of those are now available — the base S, mid-level SE (which will probably be the most popular) and the up-level SEL. If you are looking for the excellent 140-horsepower diesel found in the 2010 Jetta TDI, it will be added by the end of the year. If you are a diesel fan, get your order in for the TDI and be first in line when they arrive.

A sporty GLI model will be available next spring featuring the award-winning 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Volkswagen said it is planning a hybrid edition for model year 2012.

For now there are two engine choices, the long-running 2.0-liter 4-cylinder generating 115 horsepower and a delightful 2.5-liter 5-cylinder making 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

The choice here is a no-brainer. We would look beyond the base model S, which comes with the 2.0-liter, and opt for the SE starting at $18,195 (plus $770 destination) with the excellent 5-cylinder engine, or if budget allows move up to the SEL.

We found that the 2.5-liter had rewarding performance in all driving situations mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It can accomplish a 0-to-60 run in around 8 seconds, excellent time for an engine rated at 24 mpg city and 31mpg highway. If you consider the smaller engine for gas mileage, forget it. It actually averages a mile per gallon less than the 5-cylinder.

The switchgear is intuitive, the gauges clear and easy to read, and the standard navigation system in our SEL test car was simple to operate. What we did notice inside was a little less Audi and a little more plastic than the previous car. But the workmanship — fit and finish — appeared first class.

We think the new Jetta styling offers a mixed bag — a bit disappointing to us, but safe and inoffensive. The Jetta lost some of its allure in 2005, especially with the younger generation, going from a somewhat timeless shape throughout the first half of the decade to a trendier look. Sales dipped and the fall-off was attributed more to the styling than any other single element.

Maybe that’s why the designers this time decided to present a conservative stance eschewing the trendy for a look that should stand the test of time and offend no one. The new Jetta is what we think of as handsome, but it won’t turn heads.

Base price: $16,765; as driven, $24,165
Engine: 2.5-liter 5-cylinder
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 177 pound-feet @ 4,250 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.4 inches
Length: 182.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,018 pounds
Luggage capacity: 15.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 32 mpg highway, 24 mpg city
0-60: 8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Suzuki Kizashi, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze

The Good:
• Excellent 5-cylinder engine
• Spacious interior with large trunk
• Retains upscale feel of previous generation

The Bad:
 • Rather bland styling

The Ugly:
• Base model with outdated 2.0-liter engine should be avoided