James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
From one generation to the next, the Volkswagen Jetta has seen a significant drop in sales — nearly 40,000 units, to be approximate. Despite being bigger, safer and more powerful, the fifth-generation car just hasn't resonated with buyers like its predecessor, which had helped fuel VW's resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The obvious culprit: styling. According to VW's head designer, Walter de'Silva, the brand moved away from the "timeless, unique and simple" design heritage that had helped make its cars successful.
The all-new 2011 Volkswagen Jetta attempts to recapture what has been lost for a generation with styling that is indeed simpler, more timeless and in line with VW's past. Regardless of generation, styling certainly hasn't been the main reason to purchase a Jetta, however. A high-quality interior, a refined driving experience and attention to detail have made the Jetta seem more special than other compact and midsize sedans. There has been such a premium feel to the Jetta that Edmunds.com data shows that a potential buyer has been just as likely to consider it alongside a BMW 3 Series or a Honda Accord. Unfortunately, the new 2011 Jetta has lost much of this premium feel, and the explanation seems to be obvious cost-cutting meant to make the car more competitive with Japanese-brand competitors.
For the first time in the Jetta's 30-year history, the 2011 model is not actually the sedan version of the VW Golf (oddly the Jetta Sportwagen continues to be related, however). Although it shares some platform similarities, the Jetta is now a unique vehicle — for better and for worse. Compared to the Golf, the new Jetta has a longer wheelbase (for better rear legroom), different steering (hydraulic versus electric), a torsion-beam rear suspension (versus four-wheel independent), a less powerful base engine and standard rear drum brakes. It also has an interior with notably cheaper materials and lacks some of those little details the Jetta used to have (and the Golf still does).
The Jetta's price is lower than before, the size is bigger than before and indeed the 2011 car gives you more stuff for your buck than a similarly priced Honda Civic. But we would argue that Jetta buyers were OK with spending a bit more to get a car that clearly felt like a bit more. While this new 2011 Jetta might look more like the Volkswagens we expect, it's lost some of those vital characteristics that truly made it one.
The base 2011 Volkswagen Jetta S comes standard with a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder, an engine that is making its reappearance after taking a generation off. We didn't miss it while it was gone, and although this new Jetta is actually lighter than the previous two generations, we don't suspect the base engine's acceleration potential will be anything other than glacial.
Instead, our money would go with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder, the choice for upper trim levels that has been carried over from last year. Producing 170 hp and 177 pound-feet of torque, this engine offers robust power for a compact car, although the noises it makes while accelerating aren't exactly endearing. With 170 fewer pounds to lug about for 2011, the new Jetta should be capable of acceleration that's quicker (the previous car's 0-60 time was 8.6 seconds, a reasonable effort). Its fuel economy has improved as well, as a 2.5 model with an automatic transmission achieves an estimated EPA rating of 24 city/31 highway mpg and 27 mpg combined, which is 2 mpg combined better than before and actually 1 mpg better than the 2.0-liter.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but a six-speed automatic is optional on all models. The auto is slow to downshift, but its Sport mode improves response. Unfortunately this transmission also responds oddly to the throttle. From a stop, the car jumps forward as soon as you lean on the accelerator, as if to impress you with the engine's power, but then the car seems to bog down, as if it's slipped into fuel-sipping mode. Be prepared to declare to your passengers, "It's not me!" as they wonder if you've just learned how to drive.
Great handling is what we've come to expect from the Jetta — secure and confident, although not indicative of a sport sedan — and the new Jetta seems adept enough. There's even a Sport package available that adds a retuned suspension, although we didn't notice a significant cornering improvement during our day-long drive north of San Francisco (though the ride was indeed firmer). Nor did we notice any decline in the Jetta's ride comfort now that it has a semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension instead of a multilink setup. The steering seems to be worse than before, though: first numb and uncommunicative during straight-line cruising and then elastic and strangely artificial in the corners.
With a wheelbase that's 2.8 inches longer for 2011, the size of the Jetta's backseat has become an asset in comparison to its competition instead of a liability. Legroom and headroom are sufficient even for 6-footers, and there's enough interior passenger volume to make the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta a worthy alternative to midsize sedans like the Honda Accord, let alone the compact Civic.
The wealth of adjustment for the driver seat and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel combine to provide a good driving position for most drivers (though shorter folks may struggle to get comfortable). The seats are firm and comfortable, with those included in the Sport package featuring bigger side bolsters.
The 2011 Jetta is the first car to get VW's latest electronics interface included with the SEL's standard navigation system. Combining a small touchscreen with a pair of redundant physical buttons and a rotary knob, it is especially adept at controlling an iPod. Even those who are tech-averse should be able to figure it out quickly. The climate controls couldn't possibly be simpler and are easy to decipher, though we miss the little thumb wheels that used to operate the Jetta's heated seats (the heat settings have gone from five levels to three).
One of the Jetta's best attributes has always been its large trunk, and this latest generation is no different. With 15.5 cubic feet of space, the trunk is actually larger than those of the Honda Accord and the VW Passat.
Design/Fit and Finish
We can't remember the last time (if ever) we said this, but this Volkswagen has a disappointing interior. In pictures, it looks to be of the same quality as the Golf and previous Jetta, but touch a few surfaces and it becomes clear how Volkswagen managed to reduce both the new car's weight and its price.
In place of soft textures with low sheens, the dash and doors are now covered in a hard, slightly shiny plastic. Even the parcel shelf is now hard plastic. While the 2011 Volkwagen Jetta's interior might be a bit nicer than a Civic, the VW's cabin used to be in the same ballpark as those of Germany's entry-level luxury cars — but apparently no longer.
Then there are the little things missing, such as rear-seat air-conditioning vents, infinite-ratio backrest adjustment for the front seats, a height-adjustable and sliding center armrest and a carpeted trunk lid. Such things might seem trivial, but they have made the Jetta stand apart from its cut-price competition in the past.
Who should consider this vehicle
With its bigger size, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is more of a family car, less one for its former demographic of upwardly mobile singles. And while the Jetta remains a more upscale alternative to compact cars like the Honda Civic and Mazda 3, those who once considered it a discount alternative to an Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series should look to the Suzuki Kizashi or the forthcoming 2012 Ford Focus instead.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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