General Motors, Hyundai, and Volkswagen are all hungry for a much bigger slice of the North American compact sedan pie. Their past offerings didn’t do the trick. So all three recently introduced cars much different than their predecessors. Having reviewed the Cruze a few months ago, and the Elantra last week, I was eager to see how the new Jetta, VW’s attempt to give North Americans what we seem to really want, stacks up.
It should come as no surprise that the new Jetta is nothing special to look at. After all, of the five preceding generations, only the fourth might be called stylish. The fifth too strongly resembled a contemporary Corolla. The first three generations were conventionally-styled three-box sedans, and the sixth returns to these roots. Except that while early Jettas were recognizably VWs—essentially the iconic Golf with a large trunk grafted on—the new car is utterly anonymous and forgettable. But why must the new Jetta appear so plain, even cheap? The exterior design of the upcoming new Passat, also driven by VW’s somewhat cynical interpretation of North American tastes, is similarly safe, but looks more polished and upscale. Hyundai’s surging sales demonstrate the appeal of highly stylized cars that appear more expensive than they actually are.
The new Jetta’s interior is styled much like that of the previous car, but finished with all-too-obviously lower grade materials. The door panels, the vinyl upholstery, the HVAC controls—everything looks and feels cheapest-in-class. The lighter the shade, the cheaper materials tend to appear, so the washed-out beige in the tested car is not the best choice for the new Jetta.
The driver’s seat initially feels oddly shaped and a bit squishy. Only the top SEL trim level includes an adjustable lumbar support; the SE’s front bucket seats are lacking in this area. But they do provide better lateral support than most in the class. Without the compromises often imposed by a stylish exterior, visibility in all directions is good. The beltline is low enough that there’s no sense of being buried in the car.
Switch to the back seat and discover the first of the 2011 Jetta’s surprises. The new car is three inches longer than the old one (182.2 vs. 179.3), and nearly all of this increase has been allocated to rear legroom (now 38.1 inches, up from 35.4). While the new Hyundai Elantra is a midsize car based on EPA classifications, and the Jetta is a compact, the tall adults will be much more comfortable in the latter’s back seat. The Cruze’s back seat isn’t in the same league.
For the sixth-generation Jetta’s base engine, VW resurrected the 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder last offered in the fourth-generation car (and outdated even then). Wanting to examine the car in its best light, I passed on the “two point slow” (as it’s not-quite-affectionately known) and requested a car with the 170-horsepower 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and the manual transmission, a five-speed. I’ve never been a fan of five-cylinder engines in the past, as they tend to sound agricultural. But in the new Jetta the five sounds smoother, and I enjoyed listening to its lower, huskier voice more than that of just about any four. As in the past, the VW 2.5 is about midrange torque, not high-end power, but for anything short of 8/10s it performs very well. The shifter isn’t tight and precise, but some thought seems to have been given to how it feels, which makes it better than most these days.
I cannot report observed fuel economy because only the SEL includes a trip computer. The EPA esimates 23 city / 33 highway, considerably better than the old car’s 21/30 but a far cry from the Elantra’s 29/40. Of course you’re getting a much larger, much torquier engine, but the 2.0 only manages 24/34. If you’re interested in excellent fuel economy in a Jetta, then the TDI (30/42) is the obvious choice.
The specs suggest that VW has sacrificed handling for the sake of cost and curb weight, as a torsion beam has replaced the previous multi-link rear suspension. And yet, even shod with the SE’s 205/55HR16 Hankook Optimo tires, the new Jetta handles far better than the new Hyundai Elantra. Perhaps it’s just been too long since I drove a MkV GLI, but even in SE trim I enjoyed the handling of the new Jetta more. With the previous car VW sought to provide the feel of a premium car, and except in the most aggressive driving it felt somewhat disconnected and numb as a result. The new car might be longer, but at just over 3,000 pounds (even with the five) it’s also 200 pounds lighter, and feels it. Given the tires and moderate tuning the new Jetta SE’s limits aren’t high, but feedback through the seat and steering wheel are so much better than the class average and the chassis handles so intuitively that driving it right up to these limits is child’s play. The Jetta’s steering feels a bit loose and light when pointed dead ahead but naturally weights up in turns—the total opposite of the Elantra’s system. Reach the Jetta’s limits—where understeer predictably overloads the outside front tire—and non-defeatable stability control kicks in. Defeatable stability control would be better for enthusiasts, but at least this system seems well-calibrated and isn’t overly intrusive. With lower profile tires and a sport suspension the Jetta SEL with Sport Package should handle even better, but for once I didn’t feel such an upgrade was necessary. As is, the Jetta SE is very enjoyable to drive.
Partly because its suspension is only moderately firm but expertly damped, the Jetta SE also rides very well, smoothly absorbing bumps and maintaining its composure over uneven pavement. The simplified rear suspension has no readily apparent ill effects. Hyundai should benchmark this car when reworking the Elantra’s suspension. One off-note: over bumps in hard corners the new Jetta’s front suspension twice produced a loud bang. The reason wasn’t clear. In general noise levels are reasonably low, if not as low as in the previous, more luxurious, heavier car.
One more surprise about the cheaper new Jetta: when equipped like the previous Jetta it’s not actually cheaper. The Base 2.0 trim might start at an attention-getting $14,995 (plus $770 for destination), but an SE with the 2.5 and optional sunroof lists for $21,565. The 2010 SE, with its nicer interior and slightly higher level of features (such as rear disc brakes, power reclining seats, and manual lumbar adjustments), listed for $21,145. A special Limited Edition model with nearly as many features cost even less, $20,045. Based on comparisons using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, the new Jetta 2.5 is priced about the same as the similarly powerful Mazda3 s after adjusting for feature differences. An Elantra costs less, while a Chevrolet Cruze costs more.
In the end, we have one thing that Americans value and the Jetta unquestionably delivers: rear seat legroom. Is this enough? Unless people are simply drawn to the idea (if not so much the actuality) of a $15,000 German-engineered car, apparently so—Jetta sales are way up this year.
Vehicle provided by Dan Kelley, Suburban VW in Farmington Hills, MI, 248-741-7903
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data