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.