We’ve heard a lot about the übercheap new Jetta and its ambitious plan to attract new buyers. This more expensive SEL model, though, has just as important a job: keep the buyers Volkswagen already has. At first glance, it seems more than up to the task. A perusal of the spec sheet finds all the niceties we’ve come to expect from the Jetta over the years, including a sunroof, aluminum wheels, and (nice) leatherette seating surfaces, in addition to new features like navigation and keyless start. All of this comes in a roomier car that costs some $500 less than last year’s SEL model.
I did not get to drive the Jetta as far or as fast as I’d have liked, but the driving dynamics seem to have survived the redesign more or less intact. Even in a bigger package, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder makes for frisky acceleration in traffic, and its throaty exhaust note remains a pleasant departure from the bland four-cylinder thrum of most compact cars. The manual shifter is precise, and the steering has a nice heft to it, although it seems to lose both its feedback and its on-center feel at speed. I was expecting a big penalty in ride due to the switch to a cheaper, twist-beam rear axle but I’d be lying if I said I detected any such degradation.
The drawbacks to VW’s higher-volume, lower price ambitions reveal themselves when you shut the door. It closes with a hollow, faint rattle. Slam the door on a new Chevrolet Cruze, which is trying its darndest to be a European car, and you’ll hear the difference. The Jetta’s interior looks nice but is executed several grades below what we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen products. Fit is iffy, and the only soft plastics are on the armrests. Even the pile of the carpeting seems to have suffered. Jettas used to have interiors worthy of $30,000 cars. Now it’s just a run-of-the-mill compact car cabin, if that.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
If you get past the fact that the interior materials are not nearly as high quality as they used to be, the Jetta a good little car to drive. It has direct, precise steering with a decent amount of feel. The engine is smooth and powerful. The clutch and brake pedal actions are smooth and linear. The gear shifter is fine, with relatively short throws. The ergonomics of the center stack are completely transparent. The seat heaters are typical German kickass butt-torching devices. The touch screen for the radio is intuitive and works well. The car corners flatly and rides very nicely. There’s plenty to like here. The interior of our test car, black on black with leatherette seats, is somber, even a little grim. The problem for the Jetta is the all-new Hyundai Elantra that I drove the day before: it cost $1000 less than this $23K Jetta, gets 40 mpg rather than 33 mpg on the highway, and was overflowing with luxury equipment and had a much more attractive cabin.
All that said, I heard so much over the past eight months about how Volkswagen de-contented the Jetta compared with previous generations that I had low expectations for the car. The truth is, it drives very well, even if its interior materials are nowhere near as rich in texture and quality as they used to be.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I think the base-level Jetta is fabulous. There is a great, German Teutonic feel to it that our top-of-the-line SEL test car shares. However, unlike the SEL, it wears a sub-$16 grand price tag. While the driving dynamics carry over from the fun and peppy previous generation, I echo Joe’s comments on the too-sober black, black, black interior that is not up to par with the outgoing Jetta’s. In a $16,000 car? Fine. In a $23,000 car? Not so much. Especially not with competition as tough as the new Elantra, Cruze, Focus, et al.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
If Volkswagen wants to ransack the interior and strip the European character out of its cars to sell them for a lower price, I’m fine with that; I’ve long thought that Volkswagens were overpriced. What I’m not cool with is Volkswagen building a lesser car and then selling it for the same price. Unfortunately, it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening here.
Case in point: In 2009, Automobile Magazine took delivery of a Four Seasons Jetta TDI Loyal Edition, an entry-level, no-options diesel. Price: $23,090. Order the same car in 2011 — a Jetta TDI with no options — and the price comes to $23,765. From the equipment and spec list, you’d guess the two cars are identical: heated, leatherette seats; a sunroof; power windows, locks, and mirrors; and the same powertrain. But sit inside either vehicle, and it’s clear that the 2011 should be a substantially cheaper car. Inside, it’s like the difference between shopping at Wal-Mart and Macy’s. The old Jetta was by no means a luxury car, but it was tasteful and upscale and was typically how you justified the extra cost of a VW. Volkswagen hasn’t quite dropped to the back of the pack in terms of interior finish — the graining and fit is decent — but the Jetta has abandoned every claim to having an exceptional cabin, and this black interior is bland and dour. You’ll also notice more wind noise, road noise, and engine noise with this new cost-cut Jetta. Sadly, the pricing proposition isn’t much different with this gas-fueled Jetta SEL, as you can surely find a much nicer car for $23,065.
It’s true that you won’t notice much of a difference in ride suppleness with the new torsion-beam rear suspension and the Jetta soaks up bumps with an impressive indifference. Unfortunately, the driving joy has been sapped by the poorly tuned electric power steering. It’s light, uncommunicative, and slow to respond on-center. It’s a letdown that’s unexpected since Volkswagen did so well with the electric power steering in the Golf and GTI. (And what’s with the dweeby, large-diameter steering wheel?) The one piece of good news I have for Jetta owners is that there is a cure for your heartache. If you miss Volkswagen’s near-luxury feel, go check out a new Hyundai Elantra. If you miss the Jetta’s driving dynamics, take a look at the new Ford Focus.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
This new Jetta has caught a lot of flack from journalists, including our own Jamie Kitman and Jason Cammisa. I can’t say that I disagree very much: the Jetta went from being a solid, fun-to-drive choice for savvy enthusiasts to a solid alternative to a Chevrolet Cruze. In other words, the Jetta is now mediocre at best. In what ways? Let’s see: the steering is overboosted and offers little feel; handling is acceptable but uninspiring (thanks in part to the downgraded rear axle); and interior materials feel inferior to those in Volkswagen’s own entry-level Golf (which happens to be a class leader in that department), let alone the previous-generation Jetta.
The Jetta’s base engine is now an old, normally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but I was actually pretty pleased with the performance of the 2.5-liter five-cylinder in our test car. It sounds tough and meaty, and it was paired with a fine-feeling, five-speed manual (where be the six-speed, though?). Exterior styling is anodyne but is starting to grow on me, although I agree that the car’s cabin is fairly grim.
In conclusion, the GLI edition can’t come soon enough.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
My colleagues have listed several of the Jetta’s shortcomings, but I find it a fairly pleasant car to drive. The 2.5-liter engine is sufficiently powerful, the handling is acceptable, the fuel efficiency is okay. It’s nothing to write home about, but a decent little car. On the plus side, it is now a little roomier, with more space in the back seat and a pretty good size trunk. The black interior on this test model didn’t show itself at its best, but the layout of the controls is all very clean and clear, and the materials, while not Audi-level, are not bad. I’d definitely avoid the base-level engine, but the 2.5-liter unit in the SEL can also be found in the $18,000 SE, which makes it seem like a much better deal. Styling-wise, the Jetta is pretty anonymous — VW can talk about its “dynamic and muscular” styling all they want, but really, to me it looks like just another sedan.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
2011 Jetta SEL w/ Sunroof
Base price (with destination): $23,065
Price as tested: $23,065
2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
Electronic stability control
Electronic differential lock
17-inch alloy wheels
Tire pressure monitoring system
Sirius satellite radio
Heated front seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Power locks and windows
Power sliding/tilting sunroof
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
Sport package — $1600
Sport suspension/seats/pedals and door sills
6-speed automatic transmission — $1100
Size: 2.5L I-5
Horsepower: 170 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Curb weight: 3018 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-inch aluminum wheels
225/45HR-17 Continental ContiProContact all-season tires