In spite of its name and the fact that it’s the one of the largest automakers in the world, Americans tend to see Volkswagen as something of a niche manufacturer. Certainly Volkswagen’s reputation in this country is for making cars that conform to our ideas of “European-ness.” Unfortunately for Volkswagen, relatively few Americans want to spend extra for the taut suspension, high-quality interior and refined ambiance of a European car. So, with the 2011 Jetta, Volkswagen decided to give America what it was asking for: more car for less. Sounds hard to resist, right?
In a way, tailoring the Jetta to US tastes was almost inevitable. In Germany, the Jetta is known as the “backpack Golf,” and is forever in the shadow of its iconic hatchback sibling. Stateside, the Golf is as rare as lederhosen, selling about a quarter of the Jetta’s volume in a good year. And with a sedan-oriented Chinese market on the rise, a larger, cheaper Jetta makes all the sense in the world.
By now Volkswagen enthusiasts are probably starting to get scared… and well they should be. This car was not designed with them in mind: it was designed with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and a $16k price-point in mind. From the outside, there’s little family resemblance to its brand-mates beyond a sense of disciplined cleanliness that some will call restrained and others will call dull. Though pictures don’t do the comparison justice, a Kia Forte that wandered into one of the launch event parking lots was nearly indistinguishable in the crowd of 2011 Jettas. Take that as you will.
As with most cars that are built to a price point, the compromises don’t leap out until you actually sit in the thing (with one all-too familiar exception). And in the 2011 Jetta they don’t so much leap out at you, as sulk around waiting to be caught. At first glance all seems nearly right with the world, as the interior design is satisfyingly VW-like. But then you notice the simple instrumentation, an awkward seam by the window switch, the distinctive shapes and proportions of molded hard plastic. By the time you start touching things, it’s clear that there’s no point in even comparing this car to its predecessor.
But how many consumers out there knock on a car’s dashboard during the buying decision? Volkswagen is clearly betting that not many do, because the shockingly hollow-sounding experience does not inspire confidence. On the other hand, plenty of consumers do use HVAC dials, and the Jetta’s wiggle when you grab them, like skinny Elvis after a handful of dexedrine (or, to use a less indulgent simile, like a Scion xD’s). In fact, nearly everything you touch will tell you that VW has taken a page from Toyota’s consequence-free decontenting spree, and that any sense of European charm is strictly coincidental.
So how much Euro flavor has been left in the drive? On paper, the switch to a torsion beam rear suspension proves that money has been saved, but the experience is blessedly competent. The steering is not “Corolla light” as some reviewers have indicated, but is well-weighted for a solid, progressive feel. Unfortunately, the steering’s heft isn’t well-connected to what’s happening on the road, and things feel somewhat vague and uncommunicative when the road starts winding.
The Jetta’s suspension is also better than many of its mass-market competitors. Body lean is surprisingly well-controled, without sacrificing cruising comfort. On rough, potholed roads, strong progressive damping smothers even the harshest bottom-out, as if Volkswagen slipped a few extra slices of American cheese into the shocks. And since the Jetta is slightly lighter than its predecessor, everything feels well-controlled, despite the absence of a truly nailed-down “Euro” feel.
On the engine front, Volkswagen had little scope for decontenting. Our well-equipped SEL model was powered by the 2.5-liter iron-block five-pot that comes standard on all but the bare-base and GLI-spec Jettas, and has long been a whipping boy for Euro-obsessed VW fans. If you know anything about VW’s European TFSI engines, the 2.5′s lazy grunt and throaty five-pot gargle will seem unforgiveably proletarian. Most Americans, on the other hand, will appreciate its good power (170 hp, 168 lb-ft, 0-60 in about 8.5), slightly musical engine note, and tolerance of regular gas. On an objective basis, a slight bogging in first gear followed by an abrupt rush of power at 3,000 RPM is the only real annoyance we found (although weak-for-its-class fuel economy can be expected).
What we’re looking at with the new Jetta then, is not a budget taste of German sports-sedan nirvana, but a more value-oriented commuter. Skip the slightly-vague five-speed (like you need to be told), lean back in your faux-leather “V-Tex” seat, and cruise in the detached American style, and you’ll not be wildly disappointed. Nor will your rear-seat passengers, who will doubtless appreciate the extra 2.7 inches of rear legroom (resulting in a BMW 7-Series-competitive 38.1 inches, thanks China!). Trunk space is also remarkably good, although the rear seats don’t fold flat to optimize the center pass-through.
Given this competent cruising focus, one can’t help but return again and again to the savagely cheapened interior. It’s one thing to give Americans old-school engine and suspension technology, and a homogenized version of the European driving experience, but who says that we don’t want to touch nice things? Were the Chrysler-built Routan minivan a stunning sales success, the 2011 Jetta’s similar-quality interior would make sense. Instead, VW’s justifications for the accountant-grade plastics and flimsy switches are convoluted and difficult to swallow.
First, let’s deal with the price issue. VW insists that, despite favorable impressions of the car, American consumers haven’t considered Jetta due to its high price alone. Fine. But in order to reach its $15,995 base MSRP, the Jetta “S” needs more than a Wal-Mart interior… it needs to travel back in time. In addition to the torsion beam rear-suspension, base Jettas are also saddled with rear drum brakes, and the old “two-point-slow” two liter engine, making 115 horsepower with minimal mileage improvements over the 2.5. Needless to say, Volkswagen didn’t bring a single “S” model to the San Francisco launch, but on paper we’re looking at a Jetta III with more room and a worse interior.
In order to make this questionable achievement possible, every other Jetta including our $23,395 SEL with sunroof is saddled with the same $16k-competitive-ish interior. The only exception is the forthcoming GLI, which should also offer a more rewarding drive thanks to sports suspension with a multilink rear setup, and the GTI’s 2.0T engine (not to mention a hefty pricetag bump). Over the weekend launch, VW’s reps constantly dangled the GLI as the cure for our SEL’s sub-Euro performance and handling shortcomings, but were cagey about exact interior improvements… at least until we asked about a wagon version.
Instead of offering a new wagon, Volkswagen will continue to offer the previous Sportwagon alongside the new 2011 Jetta. With its new Golf-alike fascia, the Sportwagon now more closely resembles a European-style “Golf Variant” look, and offers everything that VW’s accountants stripped out of the new Jetta. Which is handy, considering that the vast majority of Sportwagons are ordered with TDI engines. In other words, all of Volkswagen’s premium-enthusiast Euro-appeal has been stripped from the Jetta, and been concentrated into the higher-quality, better-driving, more-expensive Sportwagon that true Euro-enthusiasts would have ordered anyway.
Volkswagen invited us to a weekend-long press event for this review. They paid our airfare, put us up for two nights in one of the nicest hotels in San Francisco, plied us with several excellent meals, and picked up our bar tab every night. The last point alone is projected to have dropped the company’s global profit by at least two percentage points.