VW’s New Jetta Brings Style and Content at a Bargain Basement Price
If I’ve learned one lesson in my long time on this planet, it’s that life is never fair. Take Europeans, for example. They have guaranteed health care, a superior K-12 education program, great food and fabulous public transportation. But of all the European things I most envy, it’s their seemingly limitless access to affordable European cars. Vauxhall and Opel, Peugeot and Renault, Skoda and Alfa Romeo — they have dozens of choices. We, on the other hand, have a mere two: MINI and Volkswagen. And, if you’re in the market for something with four doors and trunk, the short list is reduced by half. Perhaps this is why the Volkswagen Jetta has been such a maddeningly popular car here in the States. I say “maddeningly” because while people love it for its sporty handling, cool features, sophisticated design, and available diesel engine, the car’s lackluster reliability record and tiny rear seat — aspects VW loyalists lovingly refer to as quirks — have kept more mainstream buyers at bay.
Well, someone over in the Fatherland has been doing their homework because the all-new 2011 VW Jetta not only eradicates those pesky quirks, it does so in a platform that is larger where in counts and smaller where it counts even more. The biggest news is the huge backseat (well, huge by Jetta standards) and the amazingly low entry level $16,000 price tag. And that doesn’t get you a stripper, mind you, but a rather nicely equipped sedan with one-touch up/down power windows at all four doors, keyless entry, air conditioning, heated side mirrors, a fairly decent AM/FM stereo with CD and auxiliary input controls, six airbags and standard traction and stability controls. A comprehensive standard equipment list like that pretty much puts to shame competitors from Honda and Toyota, although the Kia Forte delivers a bit more in the way of features for the same price.
Spend a little more for the SE or SEL and you can have cruise control, V-Tex leatherette seating (a leather substitute so good it will have vegans rejoicing), a power sunroof, Bluetooth, iPod integration kit, keyless access with push button start, navigation and even a Sport Package featuring a lowered suspension and comfy bolstered front seats.
Volkswagen will continue to offer the Jetta in four trims: S, SE, SEL and TDI. Later in the year, the GLI will debut as its own line. Engine choices start with a timid 115-horsepower 2.0-liter in the base car, a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter engine for the SE and SEL with a 200 horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter optional, and a 140-horsepower turbodiesel 2.0-liter engine for the TDI, which VW estimates will pull in better than 40 mpg on the highway. A five-speed manual is available on all but the TDI, which has a six-speed manual. Jetta’s equipped with either the 2.0-liter turbo or TDI will offer a six-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) automatic; all other trims offer a standard six-speed automatic transmission.
I spent a day driving the SEL with the 2.5-liter engine and the automatic transmission. I must admit I was impressed by the car’s power, its quiet interior and its overall build quality. To bring the price down, VW has equipped the Jetta with a less sophisticated rear suspension and replaced the rear discs with drums brakes on the base cars. Still, the Jetta hustles through curves and twists with relative ease, although I was not impressed by the overly assisted and nearly numb feel of the electrically assisted power steering. Having driven a MAZDA3 to the Jetta event — a car that also substitutes an electric motor for the traditional hydraulic power steering pump — I can say the Mazda design is far superior.
The new touch-screen radios are really well designed and user-friendly; the same goes for VW’s newest touch-screen DVD navigation system. While the interior materials appear first rate, I have to question the wisdom of not offering cloth seats on any of the trims. People who live in Palm Springs and Palm Beach will probably not be very happy with this decision. And what’s with the awkward placement of the rear power door lock switch (it’s a single switch mounted on the back of the center console instead of on the doors where it belongs) and the stalk-mounted cruise control (its hard to see at night)?
Nitpicks aside, this car is a lot of Jetta for the money. And, although many VW enthusiasts like myself will no doubt whine about the car’s increased size and perceived loss of “Jettaness”, the upcoming GLI trim will most likely fill that void nicely, leaving the Jetta to reel in more mainstream buyers and swell VW’s market share, just as the Fatherland intended.