2011 Volkswagen Jetta

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Reviewing cars has led me to expect luxury features such as heated steering wheels, blind spot monitoring systems and smooth-as-silk acceleration in every car I get in. None of these elevated expectations are good since I drive a beat-up minivan in real life. In light of my heightened expectations, I began to ponder the possibility of finding anything sexy at a lower price point. Less than $30,000 would be a great threshold. This is precisely when the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL landed in my driveway.

I drove this car first and then checked the price. I was awestruck: Here was a fun, powerful car with a great sound system, heated seats, push-button start and a great navigation system for less than $25,000. I've had to look at the price a few times to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. Sure, there's no heated steering wheel, but for the price, the 2011 Jetta is great.

The Jetta drove in a way that belied its low price tag. It felt smooth and zippy, and it handled the roads in a sportier fashion than I'd expect from a car that costs less than $25K.

The 2011 Jetta has been redesigned. A few inches have been added to the overall length, and the price has been lowered from just upward of $17,000 for the 2010 base model to just under $16,000 for the entry-level Jetta this year. The SEL trim I tested is the highest Jetta trim aside from the TDI diesel and it starts at $23,395. With the optional sunroof, my test car clocked in at $24,165.

Of course, when you get a discount on price and an increase in size, you have to give something up and the 2011 Jetta takes some less luxurious turns than in past years. But on the whole, the 2011 Jetta is a solid car for a great price.

EXTERIOR

The 2011 Jetta looks cool enough for anyone to drive. Parents will feel stylish in it whether they take it to the carpool lane or to work. Even the most brooding teenagers would secretly enjoy being seen in the 2011 Jetta. This is not to say that it's outlandishly lovely, but thanks to some slick spoke work on the SEL's wheels and to a lesser but still noticeable degree on the lower trims' wheels, the 2011 Jetta is able to stand slightly apart from the Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas of the world.

My test car was painted in Reflex Silver, which is another name for b-o-r-i-n-g silver. In fact, one of the few complaints I have about the 2011 Jetta is its dull exterior paint colors. They simply don't live up to the fun factor — I believe the technical term is fahrvergnugen — Volkswagen cars are supposed to embody.

The SEL I tested came standard with some upscale features like 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lights. It also included power heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals and windshield wipers with heated washer nozzles, both of which came in handy on a couple of cold Colorado mornings. A few other notable niceties include the trunk that pops open automatically, which is nice when your hands are as constantly full as mine are; passenger doors light enough for my 4-year-old to handle; and, a low step-in height that allowed my teeny 2-year-old to get in and out of the car on her own.

The entry-level Jetta has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that only delivers 115 horsepower, but the SEL model I tested came with a 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder engine that delivered 170 hp. It gets an EPA-estimated 24/31 mpg when equipped with the six-speed automatic. I probably averaged about 30 mpg in mixed driving. Adding to this great fuel economy is the fact that the 2011 Jetta requires good old regular unleaded gas. Unlike the fancier cars I'd been getting accustomed to that require premium fuel, it felt good not having to pony up the extra cash for the better fuel.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On

INTERIOR

The interior is where I began to realize how Volkswagen could offer the 2011 Jetta at such a low price. It doesn't live up to the upscale Jetta interiors of years past. Even on my near-the-top-of-the-line SEL, the black- and silver-colored plastic dash and accents looked and felt cheap.

The 2011 Jetta also has a slew of standard features that help it outshine many others in the small and midsize sedan class. Since my family and I just moved and I'm unfamiliar with our new town, the navigation system with a touch-screen that worked like a charm was a welcome standard feature on the Jetta SEL I test-drove. The standard Bluetooth connectivity with dial-by-name capability and an easy iPod/USB hookup in the glove box were also impressive. Even with these features, the dashboard looks sparse, but the center-stack controls are within easy reach and user-friendly.

The five-seater didn't have leather upholstery as an option, only leatherette. As you know, the leatherette indicates a faux leather, which is great for vegans, but perhaps not for anyone who likes the buttery-soft feel of real leather while driving. The front seats are heated, though.

Because a few inches were added to the Jetta, it's roomier than ever, which translates into more legroom for you and your passengers. Cupholders and cubbies were also in good supply in the cabin. None of us ever went thirsty with drinks ready by our sides, and the cubbies held enough toys and snacks to make everyone happy.

Speaking of spacious, the 15.5-cubic foot trunk is large enough to hold anything you might need. My stroller fit without a problem, as did eight bags of groceries and a few shopping bags — all at the same time! There's also a pass-through in the rear seat, which is always a convenient feature for those of us who live in ski-friendly climates or those who keep things like extra diapers or snacks in the trunk.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SAFETY

The 2011 Jetta has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. To earn this safety award, a car must receive the top score of Good in frontal-offset, side-impact, rear and roof-strength crash tests as well as have optional stability control, which is standard on the Jetta.

The Jetta comes with a host of standard safety features such as front-wheel drive, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control, active head restraints in the front row and six airbags, including side curtains for both rows.

The lower Latch anchors weren't as easy to use as they used to be. I owned a 2005 Jetta that had some of the most accessible Latch anchors I've ever used. Those are nowhere to be found in the 2011 model. It was a struggle to find the two sets of lower anchors because they were deeply embedded in the seat cushions, but the three top tether anchors were easy to use. MotherProof.com's car-seat testers put the 2011 Jetta through their Car Seat Check. See the results here.

My forward-facing convertible and rear-facing infant-safety seat fit easily; though don't even think about trying to fit three car seats in the backseat. Even with my daughter's infant seat installed, the front passenger still had ample legroom.

 
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