2011 VW Jetta

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They say you can’t go back – but sometimes, maybe, you can.

VW’s trying, anyhow.

A few years ago, the “people’s car” company decided to see whether it might become the rich people’s car company – with models like the $80k Phaeton ultra-luxury sedan. It was a very lux car indeed. But it was also still a VW and das Volk (in German, the people; the everyday Joes and Janes) weren’t looking for $80k anythings – and the rich people who were weren’t going to spend $80k on a “people’s car” – no matter how lux it may have been.

Lesson learned – and back to the program.

The just redone 2011 Jetta being Exhibit A.

WHAT IT IS

The Jetta is VW’s entry-level FWD sedan. It’s available with two different gas engines and a high-efficiency (42 MPG highway) diesel engine that’s a great alternative to a higher-cost hybrid.

Prices start at $14,995 for a base model with 2.0 liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. A mid-trim SE with the larger 2.5 liter gas engine and five speed stick starts at $18,195.

The TDI diesel Jetta has a base price of $22,995.

WHAT’S NEW

A major redesign transforms the formerly compact-sized, Golf-based Jetta into a physically larger car that’s closer to being a mid-sized sedan – with a much roomier back seat than it had before.

Lower prices across the board. The previous Jetta started out closer to $18k than $15k – and topped out around $25k vs. the new model’s not-quite-$22k max price.

In addition to the new chassis/body and MSRP cut, the 2011 Jetta also has an all-new interior with updated features and equipment, including ” dial style” audio system that mimics the look of an old-school radio and “line of sight” display with the optional GPS that shows you how the road ahead is going to unfold – and also tells you what the speed limit is wherever you happen to be driving.

WHAT’S GOOD

Cost-cutting returns the Jetta to the people.

Multiple engine/transmission choices.

Available diesel engine gives Jetta a major selling point over competitors that don’t offer one … which means, over all of them because none offer a diesel engine (as of this writing at least).

All Jettas deliver very good gas mileage; TDI-equipped Jetta delivers superb gas mileage.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Cost cutting shows in places. The Jetta is still a perfectly nice car but no longer stands out from the pack in terms of feel/refinement/materials – or performance – when compared with similarly priced competitors.

New standard engine is smaller and much less powerful than previously standard engine.

Turbo 2.0 liter engine is gone.

Only the diesel-powered version of the Jetta gets a six-speed manual transmission; gas versions come with five-speeds.

UNDER THE HOOD

The standard engine in the 2011 Jetta is no longer the previous 2.5 liter four. In its place, there’s a smaller 2.0 liter engine rated at 115 hp. It comes standard with a five-speed manual, which you can de-select in favor of an optional six-speed automatic, if you prefer. And you may prefer to do this because the automatic-equipped version is actually more fuel-efficient than the stick version: 24 city/34 highway vs. 23 city/32 highway. That extra gear in the optional six-speed automatic makes the difference, overcoming the natural economy advantage that a manual transmission usually has.

SE and SEL Jettas come standard with a larger, more powerful 2.5 liter engine – the same engine that used to be the Jetta’s standard engine. As before, it gives 170 hp and is also offered with either the five-speed stick or the six-speed automatic. A nice thing about this engine is there’s virtually no fuel economy penalty to pay for the much higher output – and much better performance (0-60 in about 8.3-8.4 seconds vs. close to 10 for the 2.0 liter Jetta). EPA says the 2.5/stick Jetta can return 23 city/33 highway – and 24 city/31 highway with the more efficient six-speed automatic.

But for the longest legs, the optional 2 liter, 140 hp turbo/direct-injection (TDI) diesel is like Elliot Ness – untouchable: 30 city, and 42 highway. You get near-hybrid real-world economy (most hybrids don’t deliver their advertised MPGs unless you drive them almost exclusively at puttering around speed – and almost never on the highway).

And – if you’re money-smart – an engine that ought to last for 300,000-plus miles, which isn’t likely with a hybrid.

Unfortunately, the formerly available high-performance 2.0 liter, 200 hp turbocharged gas engine is off the roster.

ON THE ROAD

The new Jetta still has the firm-riding/Euro-handling feel that for years gave it an edge over other cars in its price range. It had an almost-BMW, nearly Audi-ish combination of suppleness and agility – for a lot less money than BMW or Audi charged for the experience.

The problem for VW is that the other cars in its price range – especially the Japanese-built ones but also the newest Korean and even the American-built ones – have so greatly improved their handling/ride quality characteristics that it’s no longer possible to honestly say that one of them is clearly the pick of the litter, let alone noticeably different. The truth is they’re all very good – in terms of feeling “tight” and “precise,” with communicative steering, no tire squeal or heaving during moderate cornering – all that stuff you read about in car reviews.

In terms of everyday driving, the differences are becoming negligible.

Some reviewers have nattered about VW going back to drum brakes on the back end of the base versions of the 2011 Jetta (one of the ways costs have been cut). But drum brakes work fine in the everyday driving most people do in this country at least (high-speed European roads may be another matter, but that doesn’t matter here) and they are without question more durable and cost less to re-shoe when the time comes because usually re-shoeing is all you have to do. Cast iron drums are all-but-indestructible and should last the life of the vehicle; disc brake discs are not – and probably won’t. Anyone who has had to pony up for a new set of disc rotors (possibly warped into ruin by a greasmonkey with an air gun) can tell you all about this.

The optional six-speed transmission is really the only way to go. It not only gives you better gas mileage, it gives you snappy performance when you want it. Just ease the gearshift all the way back into S mode and let it do its thing.

I normally prefer – and recommend – the manual transmission, especially in an economy-ish smaller car with a smallish engine. I break my rule in this case. Buy the six-speed. It’s worth every penny – and not just at the pump, either.

AT THE CURB

The big news here is how much bigger the 2011 Jetta is.

It’s about three inches longer overall now (182.2 inches vs. 179.3) and the wheelbase has been extended to 104.4 inches from 101.5 previously.

It is thus now much closer in size (and interior room) to mid-sized sedans like the Honda Accord than compact sedans like the Honda Civic. It thus straddles the middle, like several of the new “big compacts” such as the Kia Forte and Suzuki Kizashi.

Spreading out room for rear seat occupants in particular is considerably greater than it was in the previous (Golf-based) Jetta. There is almost three inches more legroom, for example (38.1 inches vs. 35.4 in the ’10 Jetta). However, rear seat headroom is actually slightly less than before (37.1 inches vs. 37.2 inches) and taller people (like me) may find that their heads are brushing up against the headliner.

Trunk space is also slightly less than before: 15.5 cubic feet vs. 16 cubic feet in the 2010.

Still, the car is more passenger friendly now than it was before – in addition to being more budget-friendly.

THE REST

I like the simple, functional rotary dial controls for the AC system. You can easily adjust fan speed and temperature without taking your eyes off the road. I also like the way the optionally available GPS map shows you what’s ahead – in addition to where you are at the moment. The unit will show you curves coming up well before you reach them, for example. Also elevation changes, as you roll.

To me, this layout is much more informative and intuitive than the more common “look down” map layout.

The Jetta’s keyless ignition system is unusual in that you must hold the button down to keep the starter going until the engine actually starts. With most other such systems, you just touch the button once and the starter spins automatically until the engine fires. It’s no big deal and you get used to it almost as soon as you figure it out – but at first, you may wonder how come the engine’s not starting… .

Also: The Jetta still has a traditionally placed, manually controlled pull-up parking brake lever mounted right there on the center console. I much prefer this to the increasingly trendy electric-controlled/automatic parking brake, for two reasons: One, electric parking brakes add another layer of not-necessary cost/complexity; something that can and probably will break – and cost you a lot of money – sometime down the road. Two, it’s not as safe. In an emergency, such as failure of the main brakes, a manual pull-up handle could literally save your life. You can also modulate the tension/brake force applied – which you cannot do with those push-button, electric parking brakes.

Yes, the optional “premium vinyl” seat covers do look a little dull and plasticky – as do the new hard, um, plastics used on the dash and door panels. But on the other hand, the door jambs, trunk lid and other areas not normally visible are just as nicely painted (and clear coated) as the exterior panels. No cheaping out there.

Finally: Buyers should take note that the base Jetta does not include AC. That’s only standard in S and higher trims.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s good to see VW returning to its roots.

The previous Jetta was snappy and stylish but cost too much for a “people’s car” – and was probably too small, too.

No doubt, some people are going to miss the performance of the old 2.0 liter turbo engine, but the revised engine lineup is competitive with other cars in this class – while the TDI is still in a class by itself.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  5 comments for “2011 VW Jetta

  1. adam
    May 17, 2011 at 1:37 am

    My son drives a VW Jetta and loves it. Loves the fact he’s almost done paying on it too. I like the looks,the manual 5 speed transmission and ergonomics a very classy car. Problem is the kid won’t let the old man drive it around so much.

  2. Fritz
    May 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for the first realistic review of this car. I just got the TDi manual and, not because I’m biased, just felt all the reviews of the car exist only to claim that it’s just absolute garbage. Every other review is identical, word for word at times. What I’d like to know is how the hell a car feels “numb on center”? It doesn’t turn or respond when you hold the wheel straight? Say it ain’t so!

    But I drove one anyway, and prefer the more direct feel it gives over the last model, actually. The clutch has some feedback now and the steering has more precision and connection to the road.

    Anyway, I guess it takes someone who drives a car for the purpose it’s intended to properly review a car on it’s intended purpose. Toyota/GM must be feeling the heat and sending out checks with their memos to the paper rags. Hard to beat a fully loaded real car for $25K, that out ehm pee gee’s hybrids, while pulling 16′s through the quarter, stock.

    Now to figure out how to get Prii out of the passing lane while going up a hill faster than 40mph…

    • May 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Hi Fritz,

      Thanks – and, amen!

  3. ed tiesenhausen
    May 18, 2011 at 4:14 am

    We own an 06 jetta and love it (diesel).The only beef I have with the car is that it is rather cold-blooded in the winter. I live in northern Canada and when the temps hover between -20 Celcius and -40 celcius (thats about -30 Farenheit for you Yanks) you almost have to pinch the rad hoses off if you want to get any heat in the car.

    • May 18, 2011 at 9:32 am

      I’m also a big fan of VW’s TDI engine. Excellent power/performance/refinement – as well as economy. It’s also great that most new diesels are also “50 state” diesels – available anywhere in the US and not just in some states. My only beef with it – current model – applies to all current diesels and it’s not their fault, really. I’m referring to the the so-called “clean diesel” requirements that have made them more expensive both to buy and to operate (fuel especially) and reduced their economy noticeably.

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