The Bottom Line
The big story about the all-new 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is the low price: $16,765, almost 2 grand cheaper than the old-shape Jetta. My first 2011 Jetta test drive took place at VW's press preview, where the only cars available to drive were top-of-the-line SEL models. I was disappointed; I thought the Jetta SEL felt a bit too cheap for its $22k-$25k price tag, but I surmised that the base-model Jetta S might be a better value. Volkswagen responded by letting me test a bare-bones Jetta for a week on my home turf. Did the $17,000 Jetta make a better impression? Read on.
- Inexpensive (for a Volkswagen)
- Roomy back seat and trunk
- Retains some semblance of a fun-to-drive factor
- Uncomfortable ride
- Still expensive for what you get
- "S" is the entry-level version of the new 2011 Jetta
- Price range (S model): $16,765 - $17,865
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter 8-valve four-cylinder, 115 hp/125 lb-ft, 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 24 MPG city/34 MPG highway
- Observed fuel economy: 26.3 MPG
- Best rivals: Mazda3, Kia Forte, Suzuki Kizashi
Guide Review - 2011 Volkswagen Jetta S test drive
I like cheap cars, but I don't like them to look cheap, so the Jetta S made a good first impression. Aside from black side mirrors (link goes to photo), plastic wheel covers, and a lack of chrome trim on the grille, the Jetta S is indistinguishable from pricier Jettas, and from a distance it's nearly impossible to tell them apart.
Inside, the cheap, hard, shiny plastic dashboard shared by all Jetta models doesn't feel quite so out of place, although it's still cheap, hard, and shiny. Metal accents around the air vents and shifter break up the monotonous gray cabin, and the seats are covered in good-quality cloth, although the steering wheel's thin, hard-plastic rim is a throwback to the 1970s. Most cars in this price range have nicer interiors, but few can match the Jetta's roomy back seat and excellent all-round visibility. Standard equipment includes power windows, mirrors and locks, air conditioning, a decent CD stereo, and electronic stability control; the only feature I really missed was cruise control.
While other Jettas get a 2.5 liter 5-cylinder engine, the Jetta S gets a 115 hp 2-liter 4-cylinder. A 20 year old relic from VW's corporate attic, this engine belongs in a museum, not in a modern automobile. Acceleration is dreadfully sluggish, and while the Jetta S will easily cruise at 70 MPH, my test car's 6-speed automatic downshifted at even the merest hint of a hill, making for a jerky ride. Speaking of which, the suspension does the Jetta no favors, either; it's firm and busy, and on sectional freeways the Jetta jostles and jitters like a pickup truck.
That said, out on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, the Jetta S proved that it's still a Vokswagen at heart. Whatever little speed I managed to build up could be carried into the corners with a respectable amount of grace, albeit accompanied by a healthy dose of tire squeal. Steering feel was pretty good, thin plastic steering wheel and mushy tires notwithstanding. I've always said that when it comes to driving enjoyment, a lousy VW beats a good Toyota any day -- and now we have the lousy VW to prove it.
For all its shortcomings, the Jetta S isn't without merit. Simple controls, excellent visibility, feeble engine and standard electronic stability control make it a great choice for young, inexperienced drivers. For parents looking to put their teenage kids on wheels, I'd recommend the Jetta S -- its limited abilities make it hard to get into trouble.
For everyone else, though, I'd keep looking. The Jetta S may be inexpensive for a VW, but it's still not inexpensive. My automatic test car listed for $17,865; you can get a better-equipped Kia Forte or Nissan Versa for less, and the vastly superior Mazda 3i Touring can be had for about a grand more. All have better interiors and powertrains than the Jetta. But what about that intangible German-ness that set the old Jetta apart from its rivals? Unfortunately, that too has fallen victim to the Jetta's cost-cutting program. -- Aaron Gold