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2011 Volkswagen Jetta: Gaining size, losing some luster

Posted by Dan Roth  December 23, 2010 12:38 PM

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(Dan Roth for Boston.com; all others Volkswagen). Click photo for larger version.

Many people have happily remained faithful to the Jetta, purchasing successive generations of Volkswagen's Wunderkind compact sedan, though you and your friends may be in for disappointment when taking a look at the 2011 model.

The Jetta's near-premium feel has usually been especially evident in the interior, but not this time around. All of the soft-touch, finely-crafted goodness that Jetta owners have raved about for years is gone from the 2011 Jetta. Instead, you get hard, shiny plastic that looks especially cheap in the bituminous Titan Black theme my Jetta SEL sampler had. Scuffs on the door panels might be less prominent with the tan interior theme instead.

What you get is a $15,995 base price slashed by $2,000 over the 2010 model's, along with a significantly larger car that packs a lot more cachet than other vehicles in that price range.

The 2011 Jetta has been given a three-inch wheelbase stretch. Rear seat passengers now have the best legroom in the class. The Jetta's 15.5 cubic foot trunk is a veritable cavern, too, that bests biggies like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

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Styling takes an evolutionary step forward. Handsome and clean, with prominent wheel arches and a well-defined shoulder, the Jetta's rectilinear looks are the new Volkswagen family duds, and it comes off classy. The Jetta has always tended to look like it costs more, and the new one continues that tradition, even channeling a bit of Audi's premium good looks.

The Jetta's seats are comfortable, and the perforated V-Tex upholstery is leather-like enough to fool you. Gone is Volkswagen's long-serving seatback adjustment knob, replaced by a hard-to-reach lever. Whereas in the past you could set the seatback exactly where you want it, you're forced to choose between detented angles. Not a huge gripe, but a gripe, nonetheless.

Most of the controls are easy to figure out and adjust without taking your eyes off the road. For SEL buyers, the exception to this is the RNS 315 navigation system. The nav is fiddly to program and uses a 5-inch LCD that's smaller than the Honda Civic's 6.5-inch display, but larger than the Mazda 3's tiny screen, and a match for Nissan's 5-inch unit in the Versa and Sentra. Generally workable, the navigation system doesn't display as much detail as you might want until you're zoomed well in. Street names and points of interest could be shown at lower zoom levels to make this system more useful. Faster response and map redraws would also boost usefulness.

From behind the wheel, the low-rent interior plastics don't matter much. Volkswagen has smartly saved money in the chassis with the simpler axle and rear drum brakes in lower trim levels of the 2011 Jetta, and it's gotten away with it. The rear seat is far roomier than it ever has been, in part due to the torsion beam rear axle that takes up less space than other suspension designs.

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The Jetta has not lost its appetite for devouring sinewy pavement, and this latest generation handles with aplomb. The SEL I drove had four wheel discs that dug in tenaciously, feeling like the kind of brakes you'd expect in a premium European sport sedan. The steering is overly light, and the ride a bit harsh, though neither are deal breakers.

A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine comes out of retirement to provide a creaky 115 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque for standard Jettas. A more modern 2.5-liter five-cylinder provides 170 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque for SE and SEL Jettas. With the six-speed automatic, the five-cylinder achieves 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, which is better than the base engine with the automatic. The five-cylinder has an offbeat rhythm and isn't silent as it goes about its business, but it delivers good power and is well isolated.

The upcoming Jetta GLI will have a more fiery 2.0-liter turbocharged engine sporting direct injection and 200 horsepower, along with a fully independent rear suspension and cushier interior. That model, however, will push the Jetta north of $24,000.

Despite a break from the past trend of interiors that felt more opulent than they cost, Volkswagen's downward pressure on the base price while offering a larger car with some personality still makes it a winner. Optioned up, the Jetta costs as much as the sharp-taloned Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion, though it slots into that Goldilocks category of "just right."

Dan Roth writes for Autoblog.com and can be reached at dan@otitis-media.net.


2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $23,265/$24,165
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 24/31 city/highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 23 mpg
Drivetrain: 2.5-liter I-5, 6-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Body: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 177 ft.-lbs @ 4,250 rpm
Overall length: 182.2 inches
Wheelbase: 104.4 inches
Height: 57.2 inches
Width: 70.0 inches
Curb weight: 3,082 pounds

THE GOOD
Lower price, Audi looks, good handling, large trunk space

THE BAD
Downmarket interior, frustrating navigation, noisy engine

THE BOTTOM LINE
Disappointing in some areas, the Jetta still offers a winning combo: More for less.

ALSO CONSIDER
Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Sonata

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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