|-First look review courtesy of USA Today. Pictures below.
|It's hard to overstate the importance of the new Jetta to Volkswagen in the U.S. Jetta generates about half of VW's U.S. sales, and the redesigned 2011 Jetta must take the lead if VW is to hit its mark of trebling sales the next few years.
So, VW has made the 2011 Jetta, on sale this October, bigger, much roomier, more refined and less-expensive than the model it replaces to lure new customers. So far, so good.
But VW also has made some changes that could rile its core cadre of loyalists who've been buying its cars all along.
Among changes to keep costs down, items likely to be vilified as evidence Jetta has been "dumbed down" to get more mainstream buyers:
•Rear suspension is a so-called "semi-independent torsion beam" instead of true "multi-link" independent rear suspension on the previous version. The latter is valued because, when properly executed, it improves ride, handling and steering. A GLI sport version due next spring will have independent rear suspension.
•Rear brakes are old-style drums on most models, not the discs of the 2010. (VW insists third-party tests show its drums stop as well as, or better than, rivals' discs.)
•Trip computer, the device that tells you miles per gallon, miles to empty and so on, isn't offered on the lower models, though is standard on the top version.
•Far fewer combinations of equipment and trim are available — 18 vs. 148 previously, not including color choices. Such simplification is cheaper for VW. It also makes it more likely a dealer will have one you want in stock — if your wants are defined by the 18 choices.
•No leather upholstery is available, even though rivals such as Civic offer it. VW insists that its "leatherette" (textured vinyl), perforated to let your backside breathe, is just as handsome and comfortable. It did seem more than OK in our drives.
The base Jetta, at about $17,000, is $1,700 cheaper than the 2010 base model, thanks to such cost-cutting.
(For a full model-vs.-model price comparison, see the July 24 post in our Drive On blog.)
It could be that most people won't care about Jetta's apparent technical backsliding.
Evidence: The test cars drove great. Smooth, nimble, quick, comfortable, assured, refined. Everything you want in a vehicle with sporting pedigree and premium image.
No low-level models were on hand, however, to see just how de-contented the new base Jetta feels. We tested SEL sedans with six-speed automatic transmissions, one level above the SE model that VW expects most people to choose. The SEL testers had trip computers and disc brakes on all wheels.
Judged by time in the testers, and from a general perspective rather than a VW partisan's view, the new car kicks the old one — and many rivals — right off the road.
In fact, the 2011 was so roomy and pleasant and premium (in the SEL) that you could reasonably consider it a lower-price, higher-mileage alternative to bigger cars such as Honda Accord or Ford Fusion.
• The five-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine that'll be in most versions has been transformed from a cranky workhorse to a smooth, gutty performer with a you-betcha personality. Teamed with the crisp-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission, it delivered a very satisfying drive, both in San Francisco traffic and out on Highway 1 along the twisting Pacific coast.
• Honestly roomy back seat provided more knee and leg room than most midsize and even large cars. More than some big SUVs, in fact. That's courtesy of a 3-inch stretch of the car vs. its predecessor.
• Driving feel appeared not to have suffered from the rear-suspension change. In fact, the Jetta testers steered, stopped and cornered with the convincing aplomb of higher-price machines.
Bigger cars aren't as nimble as smaller ones, and the driver's mind quickly adjusts expectations accordingly. Thus, it's likely that the mental recalibration because of the 2011 Jetta's larger size camouflages any compromises you might otherwise feel from rear suspension changes.
• Power windows are one-touch up/down on all four windows. That's a high-end feature you seldom get outside the true luxury segment. Not only convenient, it minimizes the chances that you accidentally will leave a window down and wind up with a sodden interior from an unexpected rain.
• Sweet, sleek, stylish appearance; a grown-up persona. Not stodgy, but mature, as if the car's now suitable for a refined, somewhat older driver who has learned to appreciate a car more as an overall package than as a tally of its individual parts.
What we hated: automatic door locks that didn't automatically unlock. And VW folks on hand said they can't be reprogrammed to work otherwise.
You come to a stop, hop out of the driver's seat and yank the back door handle to retrieve your briefcase, gym bag, whatever and the door won't open. You have to reach back in at the driver's door and hit the unlock button to get the three other doors to unlatch.
Otherwise, judging the overall package based on the test cars, we'd have to say that the 2011 Jetta will be VW's best car.
ABOUT THE 2011 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA
What? Full remake of the most popular VW. A front-drive, four-door, five-passenger compact sedan. Gasoline-engine models available with five-speed manual (5MT) or six-speed automatic (6AT) transmission. TDI diesel: six-speed manual (6MT) or six-speed DSG automatically shifted manual.
When? Gasoline models on sale in October. Diesel later this year. GLI sport model late spring 2011. Gas-electric hybrid in 2012.
Where? Made in Mexico.
How much? Base S with manual transmission starts at $16,765 including $770 shipping. Typically equipped: $19,000 to $20,000.
How potent? Base 2-liter four-cylinder rated 115 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 125 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000.
•2.5-liter five-cylinder: 170 hp at 5,700, 177 lbs.-ft. at 4,250.
•2-liter TDI diesel coming later this year: 140 hp at 4,000, 236 lbs.-ft. at 1,750.
•2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder GLI coming next spring: 200 hp, 207 lbs.-ft.
How big? A big compact: 5 inches longer, an inch wider than Honda Civic. Jetta is 182.2 inches long, 70 inches wide, 57.2 in. tall on a 104.4-in. wheelbase.
•Gas models weigh 2,804 to 3,082 lbs. TDI diesel: 3,161 (6MT) or 3,210 (DSG) lbs.
•Trunk: 15.5 cubic feet.
How thirsty? VW forecasts government mpg ratings of (city/highway/combined driving):
•2.0: 23/32/26, 6AT, 24/34/28 5MT
•2.5: 24/31/27, 6AT, 23/33/26 5MT
•Diesel: 30/42/34 6MT and DSG
•Trip computers in 2.5-liter, automatic-transmission test models showed 20.3 and 22.2 mpg in separate legs mixing San Francisco traffic and rural two-lane roads.
•All models hold 14.5 gallons.