The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is more than just a redesigned car -- it represents a whole new mission for Volkswagen's compact sedan. The new Jetta has been designed to bring more buyers into Volkswagen dealerships, with more space, more equipment and a lower price. But price cuts have to come from somewhere, and the new Jetta has been -- to use the automotive vernacular -- "decontented". Was moving the Jetta down-market a smart move? Read on. $16,765 base, $23,765 - $24,865 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 22-24 city, 31-34 highway.
First Glance: Jetta gets a new mission
Over the past few years, I became quite a fan of the old-shape Jetta. It was sensibly sized, easy to live with, and great fun to drive, especially with the manual transmission. It may have been pricier than the competition, but it had a premium feel that I thought made it worth the extra dough.
That may have been enough for me, but it wasn't enough for Volkswagen, who has apparently tired of being a niche player. VW wants to go mainstream in the US, just as they are back home in Germany, and they've redesigned the Jetta accordingly.
Volkswagen's goal for the 2011 Jetta is to deliver the same upper-class appeal as the old car with more practicality at a lower price. Compared to the outgoing Jetta, the new car is bigger and cheaper. You can now get a Jetta S for $16,765 (including destination fee), which is a) $1,720 less than the cheapest 2010 Jetta and b) within shouting distance of the least-expensive Honda Civic -- and the Jetta is better equipped. The entry-level S model comes with power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning with pollen filter, 4-speaker CD stereo, and electronic stability control. The only option is an automatic transmission ($1,100), and power comes from a 2-liter 4-cylinder engine. (No, this isn't some whiz-bang new high-tech powerplant; it's the same old 115 horsepower engine that powered the 1999-2004 Jetta.)
VW expects most buyers will go for the $18,965 Jetta SE, which adds the 170 hp 2.5 liter 5-cylinder engine (link goes to photo) from the 2010 Jetta, cruise control, faux-leather seats (VW calls it "V-Tex"; I call it vinyl), and better interior trim. A $1,400 "convenience package" adds alloy wheels, heated front seats, 6-speaker stereo with iPod input and Sirius satellite radio, and Bluetooth phone connectivity; $1,200 on top of that gets a "Sunroof Package" with an even nicer touch-screen stereo, 6-disc CD changer, and, of course, a sunroof. That jumble of equipment and numbers may not mean much to the Honda buyers among us, but for a Volkswagen, that's a lot of stuff for the money.
In the Driver's Seat: The true cost of a lower price
The Jettas I sampled were the top-of-the-line SEL models, and frankly, I was a bit disappointed. Not with the equipment levels, mind you; the $22,165 SEL gets all the same stuff as the SE with Convenience Package plus keyless push-button ignition, touch-screen navigation, bigger wheels, fog lights, a trip computer, and rear disc brakes (S and SE models get drums in the rear, which means slightly worse braking performance in wet weather). All the Jettas I drove had a sunroof, available as a standalone option for $900 or as part of a $1,600 Sport Package.
No, what I didn't like was the ambiance, or the lack thereof. Jettas have always had dour interiors, but in order to keep the costs down, Volkswagen swapped the old Jetta's soft-touch dash for shiny, hard plastic, which looks and feels cheaper. (During my test drive, I stopped at a VW dealer to compare new and old, and the old Jetta's interior looked and felt quite a bit nicer.) The cheaper trim might be OK in a $17,000 Jetta S, but not in the SELs I drove, one of which was optioned up to almost $25,000. That said, SE models lack the metal-look trim and S models don't even get a chrome VW badge on the steering wheel, so they probably feel even more Spartan than the SEL. (Volkswagen didn't bring any S or SE models to the press preview I attended, only SELs, so one wonders how much confidence they have in the cheaper models.)
A climb around the Jetta did improve my opinion somewhat. The back seat is huge; legroom is up 2.7 inches from last year's car, and while the trunk is smaller than that of the outgoing Jetta, it's still pretty big at 15.5 cubic feet. But bare-metal trim on the trunk lid and old-fashioned luggage-crushing gooseneck hinges (instead of the fancy non-intrusive articulating hinges on the old Jetta) serve as a constant reminder of the cost-cutting necessary to bring the Jetta down to a $17,000 price point.
Still, one doesn't spend much time in the trunk of one's car (unless perhaps if your friends are mobsters); we spend our time in the cabin, and while Volkswagen may tout the Jetta's superior value-for-money compared to the humble Honda Civic, the Honda still has better ambiance.
On the Road: Still better than a Toyota
Volkswagens are best known for being fun to drive, so how does the new Jetta stack up? It's certainly not as dull as a Toyota Corolla. Handling, steering feel and response, and tire grip are all first rate -- a nice surprise, considering the new Jetta uses a twist-beam rear suspension, which is a cheaper setup than the independent rear suspension found in the old Jetta. Electronic stability control is standard, but it doesn't seem to be too obtrusive; I hammered the Jetta as hard as I dared in the curves, and the ESC system never once cut in to spoil the fun. That's good, because there's no way to turn if off.
Unfortunately, ride quality isn't quite as good as the old Jetta. Though usually firm and composed, the Jetta floats softly over bigger bumps like an old Buick. The optional Sport Package cures this problem, although it's only available on the top-of-the-line Jetta SEL.
I regarded the manual transmission as a must-have on the old Jetta, but that's not the case with the new car. I'm not sure what's changed -- maybe it's me -- but I thought the 6-speed automatic brought out the best in the 2.5 liter engine, which sounds fantastic and pulls eagerly right up to the redline. Actually, the 5-speed stick-shift has some rather big gaps between the upper gears, so power delivery is better with the automatic, although the light clutch, precise shifter, and a hill-holder feature (which prevents the car from rolling back on steep grades) are all arguments in favor of the manual.
Journey's End: The right choice? Maybe for some...
So what we have is a bigger Jetta and a more affordable Jetta. But is it a better Jetta? I suppose that depends on who you ask. When I stopped at that VW dealership, I chatted with a sales manager who was pleased with the cut-rate Jetta. "We have a hard time competing on price," he told me, and when I voiced my objections about the chintzy dash, he pointed out that the door panels and other trim aren't much different than the outgoing car.
What about the cheaper suspension and braking setup? That, too, can be justified. Keep in mind that the new Jetta is aimed at Honda and Toyota buyers, who will find the Volkswagen's handling a revelation. Sure, Jetta purists may balk, but they can always get an SEL with the Sport package -- and if they're seasoned VW buyers, they probably won't even blink at the $24,000-ish price tag. For the truly hard-core, Volkswagen plans to re-introduce the Jetta GLI, which gets a 200 hp turbo engine and reinstates the soft-touch dashboard and fully independent rear suspension. (The diesel-powered Jetta TDI is also slated to re-join the lineup.)
At the end of the day, the new Jetta was probably a good business decision. The lower price should attract more buyers, and the free maintenance program, which covers all scheduled maintenance for 3 years or 36,000 miles, should ease concerns about Volkswagen's mediocre-but-improving build quality.
Still, I can't help but see the new Jetta as a step backwards, and I suspect it will erode the Jetta's existing buyer base -- the folks who are willing to pay a premium price for a premium product. The old Jetta was a cut above the competition, but just as the Jetta is moving down, the competition is moving up. Kia's new Forte boasts outstanding safety and value-for-money, while the Mazda3 offers more creature comforts at a comparable price, and both offer a driving experience on par with the new Jetta. And if you're simply looking for a premium car at a cheap price, it's hard to beat the new Hyundai Sonata. I'd pick any of those three over the new Jetta. -- Aaron Gold