The interesting thing about the VW Jetta is that it’s perceived as a base-level compact car (along with the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Hyundai Elantra, etc,) but with a premium price tag attached thanks to its German roots. It’s true – the Jetta has a more premium and solid feel than the aforementioned compacts. But truth-be-told, the damn thing doesn’t cost any more than the other rides in the compact sedan segment. In fact, you roll out in a new Jetta for as little as $16,500 nowadays.
Now, that’s not to say you’d want to. The S (base) trim, while not particularly poorly-equipped for a base trim (after all, it does have auto up/down on all four windows and heated side mirrors,) is fitted with a 115 hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that I won’t even waste space writing about. And 15-inch wheels, VW? C’mon, it’s 2011.
Start considering the car at the SE trim-level, which jumps up to $18,200. Worth it? Let’s see…it has 2.5-liter inline-5 cylinder engine producing 170 hp. That’s better. Still four-cylinder territory in terms of power, but at least it has enough oomph to not drive me crazy. Add to that 16-inch steel wheels, cruise control, floor mats, fake leather (which actually feels pretty good,) center console storage, turn signals in the side mirrors, and a few other niceties, and you have yourself a pretty decent car. If you stick with the SE, a couple packages allow you add alloys, sunroof, leather steering wheel, bluetooth, iPod connectivity, and a nicer touchscreen audio system.
The Jetta SEL is the next trim up ($21,400) featuring the same 2.5-liter I5 engine but adding 17″ alloys, navigation, push-button start, fog lights, chrome accents, and four-wheel disc brakes. Wait a minute, they’re still using drum brakes in the rear? Indeed…
You can’t get a car that looks and drives this nicely without sacrificing some things, and apparently that means paying $20k for a car with drums brakes in the rear. The interior isn’t quite as nice as last year’s either, but it’s still ahead of its competitors in terms of quality feel and appearance.
And the engines…that crapling little four-cylinder should be ignored entirely, and even the inline-5 feels outdated. The transmission, on the other hand, is superb to the point that it makes up for the engine’s faults. Standard in all of the gasoline-powered Jettas is a 5-speed manual transmission that has excellent clutch and shifter feel – something other carmakers can learn from. I’d also like to give VW props for being one of the few automakers to still offer a manual transmission in every trim level. The S, SE, and SEL models come optional with a 6-speed auto.
Now here’s where you should start paying close attention…
Volkswagen is promising a GLI trim level with a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine producing 200 hp. Plans were for it to be released early this year, but we’re still waiting. What is available, however, is the Jetta TDI – a 2-liter powerplant that burns clean-diesel and gets 42 mpg on the highway. It may only produce 140 hp, but its 236 lb-ft of torque get it off the line in a number that feels much higher than 140. The TDI (and the theoretical GLI) receive a fantastic 6-speed manual transmission, or if you’re one of those automatic-types you can bless it with VW’s incredible 6-speed DSG gearbox. If you’re looking at the Jetta, you should strongly consider the TDI.
So, how is actually driving the 2011 VW Jetta? Our review car is the Jetta SEL with Sport Package, which includes a tighter suspension, sport pedals and doorsills, and bolstered front seats. The drive feels like a more expensive, more distinguished German sedan, even despite the slightly reduced quality of some interior materials this year. The push-button start is in an odd place and feels like an afterthought in design, although I admit having a full proximity-sensing key setup in a low $20k car is nice (especially considering we didn’t even have one in the $67k Audi A7 we drove a few weeks ago.)
The upgraded audio and nav system is nice, but neither is great. The navigation system looks OK, I guess, but has weird menus that have you poking around the screen guessing which icons do what function. A 12V outlet is in front and rear, although the front one can get in the way of the shifter rather easily if a device is connected – especially if a phone or MP3 player is hooked up to it and the auxiliary input at the same time. One weird quirk of the car is that it has an incredibly sensitive weight detector in the passenger seat (for passenger airbag activation.) My (not particularly heavy) backpack sets it off every day, making me either place it on the floorboard, reaching over and locking the passenger’s seatbelt, or suffering through the annoying “ding, ding” warning every 10 seconds.
Now, this may sound like a lot of complaints about the 2011 Jetta, but that’s actually not the case at all. Thing is, I really, really like this car. In fact, I would consider buying one myself were I shopping for a smallish sedan. The TDI with manual transmission for me, please!
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It looks much more mature than its predecessors, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your taste. In fact from the outside, it’s taken a few hints from Audi’s design. Inside, there is more than enough room for a couple adults in the back and a trunk full of luggage. It rides nice, it’s quiet inside, has logical and useful controls, and truly feels like a more expensive car.
Don’t discount the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta because of its expensive reputation – if you’re looking for something a bit more upscale than the typical compact sedan, this might be exactly what you’re looking for. And don’t forget – you have the option of a TDI engine in this car as well as a SportWagen model, which as far as I’m concerned is the first wagon that doesn’t completely suck away your cool-factor.