The first Volkswagen Jetta was introduced to the world over thirty years ago. The reason was understandable-VW wanted to sell more cars. Back then (and still today), a chunk of the North American car buying population associated hatchbacks as cheap transportation, regardless of how good a car it was. And the Rabbit/Golf was a good car. In creating the Jetta, the company essentially grafted a trunk onto the Rabbit. The Jetta was a game-changer for VW in North America, and has consistently been the brand’s top selling car in North America.
For 2011, VW is again changing the game, in hopes of greater market share, specifically in North America. For five generations of Jettas, the car has held to the recipe of riding on a Golf platform, sharing most of their parts and spiritual DNA. With the sixth generation car, the Jetta is, for the first time, riding on its own chassis, with sheetmetal all its own. The big news is the drop in the base price. Long considered a ‘premium’ small sedan, base Jettas did not match up with the base Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas pricewise, and it seems VW feared the price difference was costing the company sales. Ã‚Â What does this mean for the new Jetta? Read on…
Looking at the new Jetta, what strikes you first is the car looks larger than the one it replaces, but the truth is it’s only three inches longer. In gaining its own look apart from the Golf, the new Jetta is also more conservative in appearance. You get a sense the design directive was to create a car that offended no one. And it succeeds in that respect. This is by no means an unattractive car. The trouble is, the car has lost its “VW-ness”. One observer commented it looks like a cheap Audi, but in my opinion VW has made the car so bland it doesn’t look like anything. Even in top-spec SEL form as out test car was, the car offers nothing interesting to look at.
The greatest disappointment of all, however, presents itself when you open the door. Volkswagen has, over the years, built a hard, and well-earned reputation for designing and executing some of the finest interiors in the business. With the new Jetta, VW has taken that philosophy and pitched it in the trash bin for the sake a producing a car with a lower base price. The well-bolstered front seats covered in leatherette that could be easily mistaken for cowhides have been replaced by basically flat buckets covered in leatherette whose quality is so lacking, and feels so cheap they reminded me of the seat covers you see at a highway rest stop. Hard plastics abound.
In its favor, the Jetta’s cabin is well constructed, roomy and airy. There is no question there is more room in the rear seat. Gauges are clear and easy to read, and it only takes a minute to familiarize yourself to the controls. Decent audio quality has also been a hallmark of VW, and thankfully that tradition carries on with the new Jetta. Importantly, abundant trunk space remains an impressive feature of the Jetta.
Don’t be fooled with the claim the Jetta is “All-new” as it is sporting drivetrains that are anything but new. Base Jettas are powered by a 2.0L 4 rated at an anemic 115hp. Unaffectionately called “two point slow” by VW fans, this engine dates back to the early 1990’s. Most Jettas will be sold with the familiar 2.5L inline-five cylinder engine, good for 170hp. VW’s 140hp but torquey and thrifty 2.0L TDI diesel is also available. As reported at The Garage, a Jetta GLI with a 2.0L turbocharged engine with 200hp will be joining the fold soon. A choice of manual and automatic transmissions are available across the board, the exception being being the TDI and GLI which are available with a twin-clutch DSG tranny. Our SEL had the 2.5L five with six-speed automatic transmission, which provides good torque and a fairly intuitive transmission. With high gas prices a concern, EPA mileage ratings of 24/31mpg city highway are not quite on par, more scary for VW is the new Honda Civic, whose gas-powered four’s mileage is getting scarily close the to TDI.
From a driving standpoint, recent Jettas have sort of been seen as a poor man’s BMW. With the new Jetta, again, the cost cutting is apparent. Gone now is the rear independent suspension. Also, rear disc brakes are available only on the TDI and SEL Jettas, where they used to be standard across the board. Ride quality and handling have suffered as a result. The refinement and sporty handling once associated with Jettas no longer exists. Steering feel has also taken a hit in VW’s attempts to mainstream the Jetta, with little road feel or heft.
In the name of lowering price and increasing general appeal, perhaps the most maddening thing about the new Jetta is that in base form, the Jetta still costs about $600 more than a base Corolla or Civic, and those cars deliver more power and greater fuel economy, and no one has ever accused those giants of providing cut-rate interiors. Our top-spec Jetta 2.5 SEL was equipped with Bluetooth, SIRIUS satellite radio, iPod interface, fog lights, heated seats, 17″ alloys, navigation, atrocious leatherette seats and push button start for an as delivered price of $24,165. For about the same money, you can buy a new Civic EX with navigation and leather interior, and get a no-apologies interior.
Volkswagen has taken an enormous risk with the new Jetta, and in my opinion, they have failed on a colossal level. VW has abandoned the qualities that have made the Jetta a success for them in North America by producing a cost-cut, homogenous, boring, cheap-feeling car for the masses. The word is VW wanted to build a Jetta that appealed to North Americans. As I watched my test car being driven out of sight, my only conclusion was that VW must think that we are fat, lazy and stupid, and do not give a hoot as to what we drive if the price is right. And if you look at the numbers, they got the pricing wrong too.
In conclusion, for most people, the Jetta will be a fine car. If you are new to VW, you won’t even notice the downgraded interior, the dead steering, and the loss of handling quality the last generation Jetta had. Most reviews of the new Jetta had many writers wondering how the VW faithful would react to this very different Jetta.
I have their answer. As an auto journalist, I make every attempt to be unbiased in my opinion. Today, I make an exception. My first car, when I was 16 years old was a VW Scirocco, and I’ve owned six VW’s since. Ã‚Â I reported the introduction of the new Jetta last summer, and the first impressions were disconcerting. Perhaps the most damning thing I can say about the new Jetta was that my reaction was to go out and buy a 2010 Jetta that sits outside my window as I type this. Having driven both cars back to back, I know I made the right choice. Epic fail, Volkswagen.