Review: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
review 2011 volkswagen jetta

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.

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  • Cabriolet Cabriolet on Dec 04, 2011

    I am driving a 2009 VW TDI that i purchased new and the car is still running like new. A family member purchased a basic 2011 VW "S" series with an automatic and loves it. I noticed all the hate posting from the Toyota/Honda crowd so i went over this car with a fine tooth comb. What the car sold for it's a great buy. Makes a Toyota Corolla look crude. Check the various consumer sites and you will see from approx 2006 and up the electric problems do not appear. If anything check the latest Honda & Subrau recalls. That is some bad s**t.

  • Sharty Sharty on Dec 07, 2016

    I read this entire page and had to laugh at the people who care about how hard a dashboard is. Especially the one guy who said "The only reason I bought it is because of the great looks of the inside, that soft feeling dash, and the way it was set out." Bahaha he bought a car "only" because of how the interior "looked" and a soft-touch dashboard? What kind of nut buys a car based upon how hard or soft the dashboard is? That's insane. I got a used 2013 Jetta 2.5L with Convenience in early 2016 because I thought it was fantastic looking from the outside and because the interior had all the stuff I wanted and none of the stuff I didn't. I love the 2.5L engine because it's extremely reliable and 170HP is all I'll ever need. It gets me around town and sometimes out of town in comfort. People who lower this car are morons. In fact, people who lower any car are morons. Another thing. People here say "Just buy a Hyundai" or something. I'll tell you, I will never own a Hyundai or Kia. For any reason. They're uncool and will be for the foreseeable future. They might be good cars (now), but they're still uncool. The Jetta is still cool and now it's affordable. I also did not want to buy an Accord or Corolla. They're boring. More reliable? Yes. But dull. I'm a single 40 year old guy with no kids. I still date and young chicks think VWs are cool because they have a very slight Euro exotic charm. It's slight, but it's there. I like my girls to be "soft touch," not the stupid dashboard in my car LOL. Also, I love all the little refinements that this car has over Japanese and American cars. I've owned Japanese & American cars; this is my first German car and I'm constantly astonished at the smooth ride. I'm not a "car enthusiast" by any means, thank god. My vehicle doesn't need to be a wannabe race-car. I have no interest in owning a car that's "fun to drive." I get my kicks at my destination, not on the way there, thanks. This car is comfortable, powerful enough for driving on the public roads, is super smooth and has lots of storage space. That's all I want and this delivers.

  • Master Baiter "...but the driver must be ready to step in and take control. The system is authorized for use during the day but at speeds lower than 40 mph..."Translation: It's basically useless, and likely more stressful than piloting the car ones's self.
  • Alan My friend has a Toyota Kluger (made in 'murica). A Highlander. These things are based on a Camry platform. I have driven the Kluger we had at work and I find them quite boring even for a SUV. An appliance. I hope this will deliver some driving pleasure. I found the Camry a better boring vehicle.
  • Alan Most Lexii look good to reasonable.....................until you see the front ends with their awkward grilles. It actually would look normal on a GWM, LDV or any other Chinese vehicle.
  • Tassos These last months, every day seems to be another great, consequential piece of news for Tesla, who does not just DOMINATE, it OWNS the US and FREE WORLD BEV market.It is the ONLY (repeat ONLY) maker that builds its huge best sellers at a PROFIT, ie, SUSTAINABLY. FOrd EV is bleeding 3 billion in losses. GM hides theirs, and I bet they are even HIGHER. VW has spent a huge no of billions and its ID series has been an UTTER FAILURE.Toyota, already 12 years too late, is yet to try. I doubt they will succeed to dethrone TESLA.
  • Tassos Again: I never took VOlvo seriously in the last 20 or so years.Chinese Volvo-Geely has a dizzying number of models, I have lost count how many,YET its sales and market share in the US has always been DISMAL these last 20 years.It ranges from a pathetic 0.5% to 0.8% of the US market.For comparison, Toyota has 15% and GM has even more. Tesla has almost 10 TIMES VOlvo's share, with a PITTANCE of really TWO Models, the 3 and the Y, as the S and the X hardly sell any copies any more.So why do we keep reading articles about Stupid VOlvo?Because they have the best PR department of any maker.