The Volkswagen Jetta has historically bridged a gap between salt-of-the-earth compact cars and Germany's entry-level luxury sedans. In the past, people who bought a Jetta were just as likely to have also considered a BMW 3 Series or a Honda Accord. There was a premium quality to the Jetta that its buyers recognized as worth the extra cost of admission. Even so, Volkswagen believes this price premium also kept more people from considering its compact sedan in the first place, so the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta represents a dramatic shift in philosophy.
For the first time in the car's 30-year history, the 2011 Jetta is not the sedan version of the 2011 VW Golf. On the positive side, the new Jetta has a longer wheelbase for more rear seat room. But we're not fond of the revised steering, standard rear drum brakes and the base model's 2.0-liter engine. Additionally, the Jetta's interior no longer boasts the upscale materials and thoughtful little details that used to give it a premium feel.
So why all these changes, when in most ways they make the Jetta less desirable? The answer is price. The new base model Jetta S costs less than $15,000, and VW points out that it's actually $1,700 cheaper than a 2000 Jetta when you consider inflation. At the same time, the Jetta also boasts more standard features for the money than a Honda Civic. Add this to its big-car interior and you have a super-sized Jetta for American consumers who expect the kind of value you get at Costco.
Simply taken as it is, the 2011 VW Jetta is a solid choice for a small or midsize sedan. With its spacious interior, plenty of standard features and exclusive offering of a fuel-efficient clean-diesel engine, the new Jetta holds its own against other top choices like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Mazda 3. But for every customer who will notice the Jetta's smaller price and bigger size, we think there will be just as many previous VW customers put off by the new car's obvious cost-cutting.
We've heaped considerable praise on VW interiors in the past because they generally offer exceptional materials and thoughtful details that surpass some so-called luxury cars. Unfortunately, much of that is gone in the 2011 Jetta sedan.
Take the dashboard: The previous Jetta's dash was finished in an upscale soft-touch material with nice graining. While the new sedan's dash retains the eye-pleasing graining, it's now made of a hard plastic that sounds hollow if you rap on it with your knuckles. This is less of an issue for me than it is for some people, as I don't spend much of my time in a car touching the dashboard. (And if you do, I suggest you seek professional help.) What's more problematic is that the upper part of the door trim � where you actually might want to rest your arm � is made of hard, uncomfortable plastic, too.
The prior Jetta also had a wonderful front center armrest that you could slide forward and backward and set at various heights. The armrest isn't adjustable any more, but rather just opens to reveal the storage bin beneath it. It's also set at an odd, downward-sloping angle that isn't very comfortable. Furthermore, the controls for the manual air-conditioning system have a sloppy, unrefined feel, and overall interior fit-and-finish doesn't seem as good as the old model's.
I understand that in an effort to make the Jetta more affordable, something had to give, but the problem is that these issues are present in the relatively upscale SEL trim, not just the low-priced base model.
Because the previous Jetta's interior quality was at such a high level compared with its mainstream competitors, the new sedan's less-refined interior is now just competent, as opposed to class-leading. There's no question the cabin represents a step backward on this front, and while it might not bother shoppers coming from a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, current Volkswagen customers will notice the changes right away � and they probably won't be pleased.
The Jetta's front bucket seats are supportive, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position. All models have manually adjustable seats, and it's nice to see that Volkswagen replaced the knob for reclining the backrest with a lever, though the lever is in an awkward spot on the side of the seat.
The sport seats that are part of the 2.5 SEL's optional Sport Package have more aggressive side bolsters to hold you when cornering, but the seats are wide, so they're not overly restrictive. Cloth upholstery is standard, but the seats in the cars I tested had Volkswagen's V-Tex simulated leather, which looks and feels quite a bit like the real thing.
Backseat space is where the Jetta has a clear edge over its competitors. When sitting in the back of models like the Civic, Corolla and Nissan Sentra, my knees generally touch or press into the back of the front seat. I'm 6-foot-1, and in the Jetta I had an inch or two of space between my knees and the front seat when it was positioned for me to drive. In combination with its large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk, the Jetta is roomy enough to comfortably carry four adults and their things.
Completely redesigned, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is 3 inches longer than the previous-generation models, with a wider track.
The 2011 Jetta is considerably more shapely than before with curves that are subtle and sweet. The shape stands out in white, and appears most elegant in that color, prettier than the black and silver SELs that we tested. There are body-colored door handles and there's little chrome trim, going against today's grain, sticking to the traditional notion that clean is beautiful. It is, and it shines on the new Jetta. Even the new grille is anti-chrome, with black horizontal bars that look good in basic black, as well as a tray-shaped front spoiler under the front bumper that suggests the splitter on a racing car. It's an upscale improvement over the previous Jetta's bigger mouth.
Nowhere is the new Jetta overstyled or oversculpted; VW has it over BMW in that area. The lines are expanded and more graceful, while still being totally Jetta. They are crisp and precise, with strong wheelwells, smooth roofline and attractive C pillar. The new nose and shoulders, viewed from the side of the car looking forward, give the front end an attractive Infiniti-like roundness.
At the rear, there's a neat aerodynamic lip at the trailing edge of the remote-opening trunk, and powerful taillights.
The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta S ($15,995) comes with the 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Standard Jetta features include cloth upholstery, four-speaker audio, heated mirrors, halogen headlamps, 60/40 split folding rear seat.
A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on all models, a 6-speed automatic is optional ($1100). All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturers Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include the destination charge and may change at any time without notice.
Jetta SE ($18,195) upgrades to the 170-hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. Jetta SE trim also adds V-Tex leatherette upholstery, cruise control, 16-inch wheels, interior storage and lighting, pass-through to the trunk. The Jetta SE with Convenience package ($19,545) upgrades to leather trim, heated seats, six-speaker audio with MDI media device interface with iPod, Sirius and Bluetooth, steering-wheel controls, alloy wheels.
Jetta SEL ($21,395) adds navigation, 17-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, chrome trim, fog lamps, keyless entry, and lumbar adjustment for driver.
Jetta SEL Sport ($22,995) features a firmer suspension, sport seats, aluminum pedals, and sunroof.
Jetta TDI ($22,995) uses the turbocharged diesel engine. The TDI Navigation ($24,195) adds navigation, keyless access, foglamps, chrome trim and rear disc brakes.
Safety features on all Jetta models includes six airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Stability Control, and the mandated tire monitor.
The 2011 VW Jetta comes standard with traction and stability control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. All Jettas have antilock brakes with brake assist; however, the S and SE have rear drums. The SEL and TDI get rear discs. In Edmunds brake testing of an SEL, the Jetta came to a stop from 60 mph in a better-than-average 117 feet.