2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

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

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As a VW enthusiast I find this new direction completely appaling. Maybe it will work out for them but I suspect not. "Come see the new VW's! Not as awful as you think!"
I drove both the MK5 and MK6 Jettas as loaner cars from my VW dealership. Both were equipped with the auto-trans and 2.5l engine and were similarly equipped. While the MK6 seemed quieter, and didn't have the occasional creaks, groans and odd mechanical noises of the MK5, the MK5 seemed to be the better vehicle overall. But, if you have your heart set on purchasing a new Jetta, go with the manual trans. While the automatic set-up on the MK5 seemed to be something a person could live with, the auto on the MK6 was a total joke. The "manual" and sport shift modes were no different performance-wise than if you left it in "D". I would suggest looking at other vehicles in this class before purchasing a Jetta, especially with the auto-trans. Performance is noisy (grainy) and lack-luster. There are better cars out there in this class. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming GLI version will be improved with the interior, DSG and performance bits borrowed from the GTI.
I still think it is funny that VW decided to make the Jetta more "American" at exactly the same time that everyone else decided to make their small cars more like the old Jetta. In styling, creature comforts, fuel economy, and price, the new Elantra crushes the new Jetta.

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