First Drive: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta [Review]

Do VW's aggressive cost cutting efforts take too much from its redesigned 2011 Jetta? Let's take a look to see if this perennial favorite still has what it takes.

Get used to this 2011 Volkswagen Jetta. In just eight years, highways and byways all across the United States might be filled with the German automaker's people's sedan.

As long as VW's ambitious goal to sell 800,000 cars annually by 2018 pans out as planned. VW, which sold around 200,000 cars in the U.S. last year, says that its redesigned and slightly repositioned Jetta is a major part of its expansion plans.

As its current best seller here, the Jetta already enjoys a loyal following and strong brand recognition. Two generations ago, the Teutonically crisp four-door sedan cemented itself as an entry-level Audi of sorts, offering above-average features and performance ensconced in materials and style befitting a luxury car. It brought attention to the small car market by saying that buyers could fork out less than the average new car price but still get all the extravagance and well-thought out touches of a German luxury car.

Two generations on, however, VW has changed its focus. In order to become one of the top-selling brands in the U.S., it took a lesson from GM, Ford and Toyota: Slash costs and add space. Last year's cheapest Jetta listed for $17,735. A base 2011 will run you just $15,995.

Cost cutting hardly a novel idea. But after spending some time hugging the Pacific coast north of San Francisco, we're a little disheartened.

The Volkswagen Way?
First impressions are positive. The 2011 Jetta looks great, taking away the bubbly look of the outgoing model and replacing it with a uniquely VW face.

An elegantly detailed front fascia gives way to a sculpted, but simple side profile. We're less impressed with the tail, which possesses intricate tail lamps but somehow still manages an anonycar lack of distinct style. It's as though the design team ran out of ideas - neither ugly nor especially beautiful, the Jetta's tail is simply there.

The 17-inch alloy wheels on our range-topping SEL test car look great and nicely fill the large wheel wells. We haven't seen a 2011 Jetta with the standard 15-inch or 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, nor have we seen one with the optional (on midlevel SE models) 16-inch alloy wheels.

So we love the wrapper. But do we like what's inside?

Again, first impressions are fairly strong. The dashboard is simple, with high-mounted audio and climate controls and very basic gauges. Optional sport seats (pictured) are wrapped in reasonably-convincing vinyl. VW says most buyers think they are actually leather; we don't really agree, but they don't feel all that low rent, either, though they do lack the classy sheen of the outgoing car's vinyl.

Just keep peering through the window glass if you want to keep your impression positive. But if you dare open a door and climb inside, you'll be greeted with rock hard plastics throughout. We couldn't find a soft touch surface. The outgoing car's vinyl covering the door panels is gone, as is its nifty silver-painted trim.

We wouldn't necessarily mind this cost cutting if it was relegated only to the base model. But the vehicles we sampled on the automaker's media launch were all range-topping SEL models. At $21,395 for an SEL with a stick and no moonroof (it's an option), the Jetta went from class leader to also-ran. You want nice plastics at this price range? Find a Mazda Mazda3 or a Chevrolet Cruze.

But it's not just in the tactile feel of the materials where the Jetta's interior fails. The 2010 had a large trip computer display in the instrument cluster; the 2011's is much smaller and more basic. The '10 had rear seat climate control vents. Gone. Last year's car had an home-style AC adapter. Adios. What happened to the stability control off switch? Vanished - stability control stays on, whether you like it or not. Cruise control isn't even offered on the base Jetta S.

On the bright side, the rear seat is considerably roomier than before (although the rear center console-mounted lock switch seems like an afterthought). The standard-on-SEL in-dash navigation system boasts a bright, high resolution screen. And the Jetta still offers some premium features that aren't necessarily on the competition, like available heated seats and mirrors and ambient lighting in the overhead console.

We could forgive the 2011 Jetta's interior for taking a page or two from the "Handbook of Cheap Plastics and How to Use Them in an Automobile" (a collaborative effort by Ford and Toyota) if it continued to offer a sophisticated driving experience.

Oh, about that. VW chose to offer only the top-level SEL trim level for its media launch, meaning we'll have to wait before passing judgment on other models. But a look at the spec sheet isn't promising.

The base Jetta S brings back VW's entry-level 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a 115-horsepower 8-valve unit that was last seen as the Jetta's base engine in 2005. It wasn't a bad engine when it was introduced (about 20 years ago), but it's now in charge of motivating a 2,800 lbs. four-door sedan.

Not good. But at least SE and SEL models come with the automaker's reasonably robust 170-horse 2.5-liter five-cylinder. And VW's spectacular 2.0-liter turbodiesel returns in the TDI.

Then there are the brakes. Jetta S and SE models trade last year's four-wheel discs for a set of drums out back. Jettas were exclusively offered with four wheel discs beginning about a decade back. At least SELs and TDIs see discs all around.

It doesn't get better. All models eschew the previous generation's fully independent suspension for a basic twist-beam rear axle.

This is some serious cost cutting.

It's low tech, but does it all work?
We try to not be judgmental, so we set off on a drive route through the hills north of San Francisco with an open mind.

Jetta SELs come with a push button start; located just in front of the shift lever is a button that must be held down until the engine fires up; most similar arrangements require just a tap before the electronics take over. Other Jetta models use a standard key ignition.

Once we were moving, we discovered that we were pleased with the all-disc brake lineup. The brakes are powerful and easy to modulate. They feel like German car brakes. Very good, ja.

But something was amiss in the steering. The outgoing Jetta's steering is precise if a bit overboosted, but the new car simply feels vague. The light effort tiller offers little clue as to what is going on up front, even with the optional sport package that includes a more buttoned-down suspension.

On the bright side, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder offers good power throughout the rev range and it will playfully produce a refined growl all the way up to redline. The standard five-speed stick's clutch is light and its third gear is too high, but the lever itself snicks its way into gear with typically Germanic precision. We were more impressed with the $1,100 six-speed automatic, which offers separate shift-it-yerself and sport modes.

Over most terrain, the Jetta's more basic suspension proved well damped and nicely controlled in both the sport and standard configurations; the difference between the two is small. Again, we'll have to wait to evaluate a Jetta with the standard 15 (S) or 16-inch (SE, TDI) alloy wheels. When the road turned twisty, however, it quickly became evident that this Jetta is a reluctant dance partner. Even with the athletic suspension, we noticed lots of lean that, combined with the loose steering, didn't give us as much confidence as we would have liked.

Don't think that the Jetta drives poorly, though. The way most drivers - those VW apparently covets - will use it, the redesigned sedan is a satisfying and somewhat premium-feeling car. But for those loyalists who want an upscale and sporty compact car - a downmarket Audi - the 2011 Jetta will undoubtedly disappoint.

Why you would buy it: $15,995 for a German-badged new car is a heckuva deal. Plus, it looks pretty darn sharp.

Why you wouldn't: Like us, you equate "German" with premium performance.

Leftlane's bottom line
In its quest to conquer the world, VW has brought out its most vanilla product ever. Gone are the things that made the Jetta special to those who cared: A luxury-class interior, upscale features and a driving experience that fell just short of an Audi. Instead, VW has created a Jetta for the masses - those who buy Corollas and Civics will find that they can take home a German product with a huge warranty and stylish looks for the same price.

We're optimistic that the upcoming Jetta GLI - due out early next year with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and an independent rear suspension - will renew our faith in the Jetta. And it's worth noting that the Jetta Sportwagen will continue as a facelifted version of the outgoing Jetta (including its premium features) for the foreseeable future.

For now, though, we're in mourning.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta base price range, $16,995 (S) to $22,995 (TDI).

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.