Jason Kavanagh, Senior Vehicle Test Engineer
Think back a few years. Two generations prior to the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta was the Mark IV Jetta. They were everywhere, and it seemed like 80 percent of them were being driven by insanely attractive young females. Volkswagen couldn't have bought better advertising with all the money in Germany.
With the 2011 Jetta, Volkswagen is hoping to recapture some of the magic of the Mark IV car. This time, however, it's all about attracting your sensible side rather than the part of your gray matter responsible for sex appeal.
Shifting the Focus
The typical approach taken by automakers is to move their models upmarket over time. With this Jetta, Volkswagen did the opposite by pricing the 2011 model lower than its predecessor. For an automaker, a downmarket move such as this can create a double-edged perception situation. We can see the marketers stroking their chins — we're giving them the panache of a Jetta at a lower price!
There's never a free lunch, though, and the signs of cost-cutting are evident. But a new car should be judged on its individual merits, as comparisons to what came before can be precarious even if they provide a worthwhile frame of reference.
Familiar in Its Newness
Let's start with the price. The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SEL with a sunroof starts at $23,065, which includes navigation, keyless entry/ignition and heated seats.
Its 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, which is one step up from the base 2.0-liter four, churns out 177 pound-feet of torque and 170 horsepower with the characteristic intake warble that only a five-pot mill can produce. Here it's bolted to a five-speed manual gearbox, where it returns 23/33 city/highway EPA mpg.
At a quick glance, the new Jetta's mild creases and edges suggest it could be an escapee from Audi's design center. Give its form time to saturate and those big-brother pants appear to droop a bit on the Jetta's proportions, revealing that the sheet metal is quite conservative. Boring, even. However, when you sidle alongside the blobular, Corolla-aping outgoing car, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta exhibits genuine styling flair.
The cabin's general layout doesn't stray from the theme of the outgoing Jetta — it's sober and upright and laid out well. The central display screen is crisp and bright, if a touch small. It's all very familiar until you notice that most of the surfaces you don't regularly touch are now comprised primarily of shiny, hard plastics and the center console has vanished.
However, every interior panel is, in fact, aligned with millimeter precision and the controls you use all the time — you know, the steering wheel and shift knob — are wrapped in supple leather that feels quite nice. Its manually adjusted seats are firm, wind and road noise have been admirably shunned and the car drives with a substance that belies its asking price. Fret not, VW faithful — this is still a German car.
Five-Cylinder Engine Not the Best
We clocked the 3,077-pound sedan to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds (8.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and through the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 85.5 mph.
Had VW fitted an "Off" button to the stability control, the Jetta could have launched harder out of the hole and shaved a few tenths off of both performances. So while its measured straight-line thrust is a few ticks behind a Hyundai Sonata or a Suzuki Kizashi, its real-world full-whack performance feels a bit more vigorous than its numbers suggest.
It's at part-throttle where the five-cylinder engine feels stodgy, like it's a low-compression turbocharged engine from the '80s that's always waiting to come up on boost. Its tall gearing exacerbates this sensation, and you find yourself mashing the throttle to the floor during routine driving. Why VW implemented such a sluggish and rubbery throttle calibration is anyone's guess.
A Good Compromise
It turns out the switch from the outgoing model's fully independent rear suspension to a twist-beam axle wasn't such a bad decision after all. In conjunction with a near 3-inch increase in wheelbase, the cleaner packaging of the simpler suspension's hardware has freed up a lot of cabin space. Backseat legroom is generous — 6-footers fit with shin room to spare. The trunk, long a Jetta strong point, is even more cavernous than ever, although the car's gooseneck hinges impede on usable volume.
The rudimentary suspension underpinnings don't result in the Jetta recoiling in horror when you throw a curve at it either. Initial turn-in is soft and so the car rewards deliberately measured inputs; let it take a set and the chassis shows that it isn't all squish. And this is without the optional Sport package.
Its nondefeatable stability control might sound like a total buzzkill for enthusiasts, but on real-world roads it's not so bad. You can feel it working to snub understeer by braking an inside tire or two, inducing a yaw moment to help point the nose where you want it to go. It works pretty unobtrusively and is a genuine aid to hard charging. That is, until the brakes overheat. That's the smelly, fade-inducing downside of a car that relies in part on its brakes for it to turn.
Traditional Volkswagen Brake Feel
Even when the brakes aren't being worked hard, the action of the middle pedal is unsatisfactory. It's got a long, squishy and vague feel as if connected at one end to, um, something gluteal. Stopping from 60 mph consumed 117 feet, which is a good showing, so even as the pedal feel is lacking, the outright braking performance is not. The steering likewise has a dead spot around center and isn't the most feelsome tiller, but is geared agreeably.
At the test track we measured a 65.8-mph slalom and 0.80g on the skid pad. Again, the nondefeatable stability control intervenes in both tests, but that's a solid slalom performance for such a low level of grip. The Jetta's 225/45R17 Michelin Primacy HP summer tires no doubt contribute to the athleticism even if they do lean toward the low-rolling-resistance side.
I Swear I Haven't Changed
Yes, it's laced up some sensible shoes in this latest iteration in acknowledgment of the increased competition in the segment, but the cost reduction efforts haven't fundamentally altered the Jetta's character.
The more things change the more they stay the same, and the new 2011 Volkswagen Jetta's driving character is largely reminiscent of the outgoing car. As before, enthusiasts will want to wait for the GLI for sharper responses but in this base model the new Jetta remains a solid, if not nearly as charming, entry-level sedan.
Given its size and styling, it probably won't attract the same numbers of stylish college girls, but Volkswagen is looking at the bigger picture these days. It's hoping you are, too.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation.
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