Many of Volkswagen's recent cars haven't really fit into established market segments, but the automaker aims to change that with the redesigned 2011 Jetta sedan, which is roomier on the inside and has a significantly lower starting price to better compete with mainstream models from Honda and Toyota.
Volkswagen has a dedicated following, and diluting some of the essence of the brand in search of higher sales — which is what the new Jetta does — is a risky move. The 2011 model will probably be seen as a step backward by Volkswagen faithful who've become accustomed to upscale interiors crafted down to the smallest detail.
In short, in Volkswagen's effort to be all things to all people with the new Jetta, it may very well lose some of its most ardent customers.
The redesigned Jetta sedan hits dealerships this fall and will be sold alongside the previous-generation wagon, which received styling tweaks last year but hasn't undergone the redesign that the sedan did.
I tested manual- and automatic-transmission versions of the uplevel 2.5 SEL trim, which starts at $21,395. You can always compare this trim with the base $14,995 version, the midrange 2.5 SE and the range-topping clean-diesel TDI.
Some observers might call the redesigned Jetta's styling bland, but I can appreciate the car's understated elegance, and the look was well-received by other Cars.com editors. The design doesn't call attention to itself, but it will still look good years from now.
The sedan's sheet metal is all new, and its lines are more angular than the outgoing model's. It also sports Volkswagen's new front-end design — a thin front grille bordered by the headlights — that's appeared on other cars, including the Golf hatchback.
The redesigned Jetta is about 3 inches longer overall, with a wheelbase that's increased by the same amount. (See all the old and new specs compared here.) All in all, it's a well-proportioned car with sloping C-pillars that finish at a short trunklid. The taillights have a bit of Audi styling to them.
Though I like the Jetta's understated looks, the design won't make the car stand out in the crowded compact-car segment — especially with the impending arrival of the redesigned Ford Focus, which is one of the prettiest cars to come along in this class in some time. Send me an email to let me know what you think of the new Jetta's looks.
An Underwhelming Interior
We've heaped considerable praise on VW interiors in the past because they generally offer exceptional materials and thoughtful details that surpass some so-called luxury cars. Unfortunately, much of that is gone in the 2011 Jetta sedan.
Take the dashboard: The previous Jetta's dash was finished in an upscale soft-touch material with nice graining. While the new sedan's dash retains the eye-pleasing graining, it's now made of a hard plastic that sounds hollow if you rap on it with your knuckles. This is less of an issue for me than it is for some people, as I don't spend much of my time in a car touching the dashboard. (And if you do, I suggest you seek professional help.) What's more problematic is that the upper part of the door trim — where you actually might want to rest your arm — is made of hard, uncomfortable plastic, too.
The prior Jetta also had a wonderful front center armrest that you could slide forward and backward and set at various heights. The armrest isn't adjustable any more, but rather just opens to reveal the storage bin beneath it. It's also set at an odd, downward-sloping angle that isn't very comfortable. Furthermore, the controls for the manual air-conditioning system have a sloppy, unrefined feel, and overall interior fit-and-finish doesn't seem as good as the old model's.
I understand that in an effort to make the Jetta more affordable, something had to give, but the problem is that these issues are present in the relatively upscale SEL trim, not just the low-priced base model.
Because the previous Jetta's interior quality was at such a high level compared with its mainstream competitors, the new sedan's less-refined interior is now just competent, as opposed to class-leading. There's no question the cabin represents a step backward on this front, and while it might not bother shoppers coming from a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, current Volkswagen customers will notice the changes right away — and they probably won't be pleased.
The Jetta's front bucket seats are supportive, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position. All models have manually adjustable seats, and it's nice to see that Volkswagen replaced the knob for reclining the backrest with a lever, though the lever is in an awkward spot on the side of the seat.
The sport seats that are part of the 2.5 SEL's optional Sport Package have more aggressive side bolsters to hold you when cornering, but the seats are wide, so they're not overly restrictive. Cloth upholstery is standard, but the seats in the cars I tested had Volkswagen's V-Tex simulated leather, which looks and feels quite a bit like the real thing.
Backseat space is where the Jetta has a clear edge over its competitors. When sitting in the back of models like the Civic, Corolla and Nissan Sentra, my knees generally touch or press into the back of the front seat. I'm 6-foot-1, and in the Jetta I had an inch or two of space between my knees and the front seat when it was positioned for me to drive. In combination with its large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk, the Jetta is roomy enough to comfortably carry four adults and their things.
Volkswagen expects the Jetta's top-selling engine will be the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder that was in the cars I drove. This engine is a decent workhorse; it feels strong enough on hilly terrain and has adequate power for passing on rural roads. Several editors appreciated the engine's torque delivery, but the five-cylinder doesn't so much shove you back in your seat as nudge you.
Despite the engine's odd number of cylinders, it's surprisingly smooth-revving, though it sounds a little coarse. The engine teams with either a standard five-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic transmission. Both setups have their pros and cons.
The clutch pedal is fairly light and engages easily, though one staffer thought the take-up feel was terribly numb. The manual shifter is pretty slick, with just a slight mechanical feel, and you can row it quickly though the gears. In this class, I still prefer the Mazda3's manual transmission, but the Jetta's more than gets the job done.
Teamed with the manual transmission, the inline-five-cylinder has some unpleasant power characteristics. It doesn't pull with much authority at lower rpm, but as you approach the 3,000-rpm mark on the tachometer the engine starts to pull strongly, like a turbo has just kicked in, even though it doesn't have one. This definitely enlivens the driving experience, but more linear power delivery would be preferable for everyday commuting; the on/off nature gets old quickly.
The automatic transmission, meanwhile, shifts seamlessly, and it willingly kicks down when more power is needed. The automatic includes clutchless-manual and automatic Sport modes, and the latter holds gears longer before upshifting for heightened engine response and engine braking.
The automatic, however, has a tendency to downshift too aggressively when powering out of a tight corner, which leads to engine speeds that are too high. The bigger issue with this drivetrain is the slight lag when accelerating from a standing start. The car moves out readily, but right after you get going there's a delay. It only lasts about a half-second, but it does make the car bog down momentarily.
Besides the five-cylinder, the Jetta will initially be offered with two other engines. The base engine is a 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, while the TDI trim is powered by a 140-hp, turbo-diesel four-cylinder. A turbocharged 2.0-liter gas four-cylinder arrives in spring 2011 in the upcoming Jetta GLI.
Ride & Handling
The Jetta still offers a relatively engaging driving experience for a front-wheel-drive compact sedan. Like we've come to expect from Volkswagens, the car feels solid and planted in corners, with limited body roll whether you have the Sport Package or not. Available for the Jetta 2.5 SEL, the Sport Package features a 15-millimeter-lower ride height, a sport suspension, the previously mentioned sport seats and alloy-trimmed pedals. Non-Sport models provide slightly better damping, but overall the Jetta's ride quality is pretty firm — it reminded me of the Civic, a car that's fairly sensitive to pavement imperfections.
The Jetta steers with a light touch, as the power-steering system provides quite a bit of assistance. The car's responses are relatively crisp, but I'm disappointed by the lack of steering feedback. It isolates you from the driving experience because you don't have any sense of what's happening where the tires meet the road.
The cabin is relatively quiet on the highway, without any excessive wind or engine noise.
The Jetta hadn't been crash-tested as of publication. It features a number of standard safety features like antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows, an electronic stability system and active front head restraints.
Jetta in the Market
Despite a starting price of just less than $15,000, most Jetta trim levels cost considerably more than that, so the new car will still be seen as a premium offering in the compact-car segment. That's a problem, because the interior isn't as nice as the one in the car it replaces. That nicer interior will live on for a while in the Jetta SportWagen, which is still based on the old platform, for now.
Other cars in the segment, like the Civic and Corolla, have made names for themselves not with their driving dynamics or luxurious interiors, but by being reliable year after year. Volkswagen is not in a position to do that right now because of past reliability problems that affect its perception today. In this class, that's a potential deal-breaker.
According to Tim Ellis, Volkswagen of America vice president of marketing, the new Jetta is symbolic of the path VW will take with its U.S. lineup. If that's the case, the road ahead may be bumpy. Volkswagen just needs to hope that the number of Jetta customers it adds is greater than the number of long-time owners it loses.
Starting MSRP $14,995 – $24,730
EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 23 – 30
Highway: 31 – 42
115-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (regular gas)
140-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (diesel)
170-hp, 2.5-liter I-5 (regular gas)
5-speed manual w/OD
6-speed auto-shift manual w/OD and auto-manual
6-speed automatic w/OD
6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
6-speed manual w/OD
New or Notable
• Redesigned sedan for 2011
• Significantly lower starting price
• Gas or diesel power
• Increased backseat room
• Wagon continues in previous form
What We Like
• Elegant, if understated, design
• Supportive front seats
• Solid, planted feel in corners
• Roomy backseat
• Big trunk
What We Don't
• Lower-quality interior compared with predecessor
• Throttle lag from a standing start with automatic
• Minimal steering feedback