First Drive: 2011 Jetta VI

This is one of those rare times when writing an initial drive report for a brand new model is actually tough. It really shouldn’t be, because the formula is usually pretty consistent: Manufacturer A unleashes the all-new, next-generation version of its best-selling XYZ model, and almost always it is a genuine improvement over the outgoing model. But not so much this time. With the all-new sixth-generation Jetta, Volkswagen of America is attempting to realign its most popular model to make it more attractive to a broader range of buyers. While we applaud the effort to bring more buyers into the VW family, we fear the company may have lost the script that has consistently made the Jetta the most popular European nameplate in this market.

There has always been a major disconnect between the US and the world market when it comes to the Jetta, so this perceived need for repositioning comes as no surprise. It started life as a Rabbit with a trunk grafted on, and has been since the beginning something of an old man’s car in Europe, a car for retirees who wear flat tweed driving caps. Over here, however, the Jetta filled the role of the everyman’s BMW; a smart, clean and very practical sedan with the spirit of a GTI under the hood. By the time the second generation rolled out, Americans were forgetting all about VW hatchbacks and snatching up Jettas at a rate of roughly ten times that of Golfs. At the height of the Jetta’s growth spurt in its third and fourth generations, Volkswagen wasn’t even calling it by the same name in Europe, trying instead to change its image with monikers like Vento and Bora.

Clearly the American market best understands the very gestalt of the Jetta. So for the first time ever, Volkswagen AG (the German company that actually builds VW cars) gave free reign to Volkswagen of America (the company that imports and sells them) to come up with a Jetta that would better compete in the American compact segment. It would need to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Toyota’s Corolla and Honda’s Civic, the two class leaders.

The plan? Give it a look (and a platform) all its own, drop a lot of standard equipment (and the base price), and simplify the number of possible variants (by eliminating options). Here is how they executed it.

The last-generation Jetta looked nearly identical to the Golf, which itself wasn’t exactly well received when it first launched. This new model goes back a bit to the look of the third- and fourth-generation cars with squared-off headlamps and a look that clearly delineates it from the world’s most popular hatchback. In fact, as a clean-sheet design, this is the first Jetta with distinct separation from the Golf. The sheetmetal has a tailored look to it, stretched over a platform that is nearly three inches longer overall (most of it in the wheelbase) but roughly the same width. Thanks to a more horizontal treatment on the headlamps, grille, rear tail lamps and trunk, however, the car manages to look wider nonetheless. Volkswagen’s typical attention to narrow shut lines and minimal panel gaps is evident, lending an upscale feel to the exterior, which from some angles resembles a blanded-down Audi A4.

The interior, though, is a mixed bag. The overall design is very clean and well thought out, but it looks more expensive than it feels. This, more than any other area, shows where VW cut costs, and it will come as a bit of a letdown to anyone who has purchased a new Jetta in the last twelve years. Starting in the late 1990s, Volkswagen set the standard for superior interiors, often putting to shame much more expensive cars — but not this time. This interior would be more at home in a Skoda product than in a Volkswagen. It’s not just that the dash plastics are hard, they actually have a sheen to them more common in a three-year-old Dodge product. Compared to the about-to-be-replaced Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, its interior trim is more or less in the same ballpark, but compared to what Kia and Hyundai are currently doing (let alone what you get in a current-gen Golf) VW missed the mark.

At least all the switchgear has a very solid feel, carrying the torch for every Volkswagen built in that last decade or so. The steering wheel is nicely shaped, instruments are simple and clear, and the new RNS315 navigation system has very nice graphics that are easy to read despite the somewhat small screen. The seats are supportive (if a little flat) and Volkswagen’s “V-Tex” leatherette has a nice grain and touch that fairly well impersonate real hides. Actual leather, on the other hand, is no longer even an option except for the steering wheel, shift boot and handbrake lever in a “Convenience Package.”

Regardless of the material quality, there’s no denying the extra legroom — 2.7 additional inches in the rear — afforded by the new car’s longer wheelbase. A six-foot-tall driver, for example, can position the driver’s seat appropriately, and then jump into the rear seat with a good four inches to spare. This is one “compact” car that can haul four adults very comfortably for long distances.

This new model also uses a completely unique chassis that borrows its components from a variety of places, including the current Polo and Golf as well as the forthcoming new midsize sedan. Though larger overall than its predecessor, the new chassis sheds roughly 110 pounds of dead weight. Volkswagen has ditched the expensive, complex and heavy multi-link fully independent rear suspension on everything but the GLI model and has instead gone back to a torsion-beam rear with a panhard rod. Rear disc brakes have been reserved for the up market SEL model as well as the GLI, putting drums on the Jetta for the first time since 1999.

VW has also dusted off its ancient 2.0-liter, eight-valve four-banger — a low-tech, direct descendant of the original Golf powerplant — as the base engine, producing an underwhelming 115 horsepower and 125 lb-ft. The sacrifice for gutless performance ought to be amazing efficiency, but this old mill is only good for a so-so 24 mpg city/34 highway. Don’t expect to see many on dealer lots, however, as its role is to give the new Jetta an unrealistically low starting base price. Most will be endowed with the familiar 170-horsepower 2.5-liter inline-five carried over from the last Jetta and Golf, which delivers an equally ho-hum 23 city/33 highway.

Ultimately there will be five engine options available. The 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower TDI will also carry over to the new Jetta, becoming available later this year. Next spring VW will add the 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-four in the GLI only and a hybrid model will be available in 2012. Naturally-aspirated engines can be mated to either a five-speed manual or a conventional six-speed automatic. The 2.0T and TDI models will be offered with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG gearbox.

Our initiation drive took place outside of San Francisco and was limited to the inline-five engine, though we were able to sample both the standard and Sport Package (15 mm lower, stiffer dampers, “sport bolstered” comfort seats and aluminum pedals and door sill plates) setups. Out on the road the new Jetta still has a decidedly European feel, though both the steering and clutch pedal are endowed with a lightenss of feel more common in Honda or Toyota products. The light steering is the by-product of VW pulling its technically advanced (read: more expensive) electromechanical steering system out of the newest Jetta (it will still be available in the GLI) in favor of a conventional linear hydraulic system that seems over-assisted at higher speeds and a bit heavy in parking. It’s also a bit dead on-center and doesn’t seem to convey what is going on at the front wheels as much as the outgoing model. This is an unfortunate pox on an otherwise well-sorted chassis.

The chassis, despite the torsion rear setup, soaks up bumps well and is quiet, spliting the difference between a comfortable ride and inspiring handling nicely. Body roll in corners is better than the outgoing model, surprising us with its lack of drama and flat-cornering attitude. While sounding decided low tech (because it is), this setup works remarkably well, particularly in standard models where ultimate performance is not the primary purpose. Pushed to its limits, the Jetta naturally understeers, and lifting off the throttle mid-corner produces no drama, simply tightening the line a bit.

The 2011 Jetta will be available in four trim levels – S, SE, SEL and GLI. The Jetta S will start at $15,995 with the 2.0-liter engine, five-speed manual, air conditioning, cloth interior, ABS/ESP, and 15-inch steel wheels. The SE gets the 2.5-liter engine, 16-inch wheels (still steel), leatherette interior and a handful of additional conveniences for the base price of $18,195. For $21,395, the SEL adds rear disc brakes, chrome trim, 17-inch alloy wheels, trip computer, foglights, touch-screen nav, and keyless access. The TDI, when it becomes available, will only be offered in SE trim, but with some of the SEL equipment thrown in with the pricier motor. The outgoing Jetta had more than 148 possible trim variations, whereas new model has been reduced to just 18 possibilities (excluding colors and emission combos). This is the first of many moves that help bring the price down through reduced model proliferation.

The Jetta GLI (due May 2011) will certainly feel like an entirely different beast than its more pedestrian siblings when it arrives next spring. Not only will it get the 2.0T engine, multilink rear suspension, electromechanical steering and proper GTI chassis hardware, it will also benefit from a substantial upgrade in interior trimmings. Also look for a completely unique front bumper, 18″ wheels and a host of other visual cues. The European market won’t tolerate a Jetta with sub-par plastics and over-assisted steering, so they will only get similar GLI-spec cars. For most of our readers, the GLI is going to be the true Jetta successor.

Volkswagen of America must certainly be hoping that most new Jetta shoppers will be stepping out of older Civics, Sentras or Corollas and that past Jetta owners will have amnesia regarding their old car’s equipment and trim. And while the lower end of the model range might seem competitive with today’s Civics and Corollas, those cars are due to be replaced any minute now by no doubt better renditions on the theme. The good news is that Volkswagen can easily rectify the few shortcomings in an otherwise solid sequel. The question is will they? We say hold out for the GLI – that’s the one we’re waiting for.

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