If you think about it, it's really quite surprising that we, as a country, love the Volkswagen Jetta as much as we have. It's been VW's most successful car here for thirty years, and yet it's been an afterthought this whole time. Take a Golf -- one of the most popular cars in the world, but never embraced by the U.S. public -- add a trunk, and voila, you have a bestseller.
VW has changed the recipe slightly for the sixth generation of the Jetta. Instead of being a near-identical twin of the Golf with a trunklike appendage on the rear, the Mk6 Jetta is more like a close cousin, no longer actually sharing parts and components with the Golf.
And the biggest change is one of philosophy: for the first time, the Jetta was designed principally to suit the demands of its biggest market, North America. To that end, VW looked around at the Jetta's competition (the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Toyota Corolla, principally) and found ways to make sure that the new car can compete better than ever.
Of primary importance to buyers in this segment -- and one of the reasons potential buyers don't consider the Jetta in the first place -- is price. And with careful decontenting, VW has been able to put the Jetta's pricing in line with its competitors. That means you can kiss the previous-generation Jetta's independent rear suspension good-bye.
The 2011 Jetta returns to VW's tried-and-true torsion bar rear suspension, and while that may seem like a step backward, in reality it's probably appropriate for most buyers. The really cool news is that buyers of the forthcoming Jetta GLI, which debuts next spring with the GTI's 200-hp turbocharged 2.0T four-cylinder, gets an independent rear end. That's having your Fahrvergnügen and eating it, too.
Last year's 2.5-liter inline-5 and 2.0-liter turbodiesel return to the party with minimal, if any changes. And the old 2.0-liter, crossflow eight-valve engine -- known affectionately by enthusiasts as the Two-Point-Slow -- also makes a surprise comeback. With the same ol' 115 hp it made since the year of the flood (1993, to be exact), VW promises 0-60 runs as spectacularly slow as 11 seconds (with the optional six-speed automatic) and only a 1-mpg bonus over the five-cylinder. Which has 50% more horsepower. Whatever floats your boat.
We drove both five-speed manual and six-speed automatic versions of the 2011 Jetta, both with the 2.5-liter five, and can't say that it drives appreciably better or worse than last year's car. That's a very good thing, because as stylistically challenged (read: ugly) as the Mk5 Jetta was, it drove brilliantly. An optional sport suspension stiffens up the Jetta's body noticeably, but on back roads, the Jetta is composed, quiet, and capable, with fantastic steering and very good brakes.
Of course, our top-of-the line SEL model came with four-wheel disc brakes. S (2.Slow) and SE (2.5) models use drums. (The TDI and GLI will also use the discs.)
So where's the decontenting? It's there, if you look carefully. The interior materials look nice -- perhaps best in segment, but don't feel nearly as cushy or high-quality as those in the Golf. The heavy hood no longer has struts to assist you in lifting it. The parcel tray behind the rear seats is plastic, not cloth -- something we can't recall ever seeing before. There appears to be no option for an upgraded stereo system, HID xenon headlights, or leather seats -- although the leatherette on the SE and SEL models is very nice. There's also no ESP-disable button. Like the Mk5, the rear-seat bottoms don't fold to allow the seatback to form a perfectly level load floor. You can keep the key in your pocket with VW's first keyless-go system, but you can't hold the unlock button to put the windows down.
Are we picking nits? Probably. Volkswagen seems to have done a really good job at isolating the things that are important in this class and saving money where it could. The parts most important to the Jetta have carried over intact, which means the new model feels expensive, drives (mostly) like a Golf, and has a comically enormous trunk. Just like all the old Jettas.
But this one, thanks to a wheelbase stretch, has an enormous back seat, too. Oh, and there's one more thing: it's no longer ugly. In fact, designer extraordinaire Walter de Silva has captured the beauty of previous Jettas in a very modern way: like the Jettas of yore, the 2011 is an all-business, conservative design, but one that's handsome enough to run in circles with cars costing twice as much. It may not be as pretty as the Golf, but the new Jetta makes all of its competition -- especially the smiling Mazda 3 and the space-ship Civic -- look like toys.
Thanks to careful engineering and exquisite style, the Jetta -- which should start under $17,000 and top out at $25,000 -- can finally compete on size and price. Letting go of the Golf might have been the best thing to ever happen to Volkswagen's compact sedan*.
*With the caveat, of course, that the GLI gets a dose of the magic that has made the GTI our Automobile of the Year.