First Drive: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta

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.

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The reason why people bought a VW in the past was the fact that it felt much more expensive than its pricetag would suggest. (Even though some weren't in the long run ...)With VW now 'de-contenting' its lineup, they'll have to watch out for the proverbial baby in the bathwater. If the new Jetta feels like it was designed by Rubbermaid, then even it's last bit of appeal will go overboard. But maybe some new customers can be lured in - those, who want to upgrade from a Chrysler Sebring ...
"Beauty" and "Exquisite Style"? If you like the Mk6 Jetta, you'll LOVE the soon-to-be-replaced Kia Optima...
Edward A. Sanchez
^ +1,000,000% with Orbit. VW needs to focus on quality, quality, quality. If making its cars less technically complex helps in that regard, then that's a good move. However, VW de-contenting the Jetta just as Ford is offering a whole new level of tech and features in the Focus looks like it could be a dicey proposition. And bringing back the old 2.0 8-valve? What were they thinking!?!?
Orbit9090 you are exactly right. The most expensive car I to operate I have ever owned in my 41 years of driving and one of the most enjoyable at the same time was a 2001 VW Golf GTI with the VR6. Loved the car but hated the expense of keeping it fixed.Cost about $112 per month extra the last 2 years I owned it. VW LISTEN UP!!!!
Good article. All tinkering aside, VW needs to focus 150% on getting their reliability and customer service up-to-par. Without consistent success in both the 'J.D. Power' and 'Consumer Reports' annual quality surveys, there isn't enough 'decontenting' in the world to help VW reach its lofty U.S. sales goals.

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