Volkswagen made its reputation in the U.S. by offering inexpensive and economical cars of high quality. But that reputation faltered with the its changing product lineup over the years. Now, Volkswagen wants to reclaim the qualities that the original Beetle and micro bus won it, along with lost market share.
To this end, Volkswagen updates its current best seller, the Jetta. The 2011 model received an update to body, interior, and cabin tech. Added to its current 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas engine and turbocharger 2-liter four-cylinder diesel is a new 2-liter four-cylinder gas engine for the base model. A hybrid model comes out in 2012.
Most importantly for Volkswagen's quest to regain the hearts of Americans, the base model comes in at a low sticker price of $15,995.
We spent a day driving a 2011 Volkswagen Jetta sedan SEL model through San Francisco and out into the grape fields of Napa. This high trim Jetta sports a price of $21,395, but comes standard with navigation, a Bluetooth phone system, and iPod integration, plus an eight-speaker audio system.
Presented with a choice of manual or automatic, we chose the clutch, anticipating fun on the winding roads of Napa. With the SEL's standard 2.5-liter engine producing 170 horsepower, we expected to make this little car do some tricks in the turns.
But the car sitting at the curb looked the opposite of sporty. This little sedan featured smooth, gently curving surfaces, which looked a lot like many other new cars we've seen recently. It is a modern design meme, but makes the Jetta look nondescript.
Gone is the chrome grille surrounding the bridged the bumper; in its place is a pedestrian upper and lower grille, with the top piece blending into the headlights. With this look, the Jetta will blend into, and get lost in, the flow of traffic. The only part of the design that stood out was the C pillar, how it is inset from the side of the car, making the cabin look like a separate piece of the car.
Once inside, we ceased to care whether this car would be a head-turner. Seats, steering wheel, and dashboard all gave off a quality feel that we had only seen recently in the Touareg.
Electronics on the go
Attending to first things first, we located the iPod cable in the glovebox and plugged in an iPhone. After a moment, we were able to browse the music library on the car's standard the 5-inch LCD. It was a usable and nice-looking interface.
Pulling out into city traffic, the engine had more than adequate power, but the steering felt a little light, the power assist tuned up higher than we would prefer. Shifting through the manual transmission's gate, we were very happy with the feel: cushioned yet precise. And this gate is well-designed, as we never had an issue with finding the right gear for the next shift.
At a few stops, we gave it a little extra gas at the green light, having some fun getting the front wheels to chirp and feeling the traction control step in.
Crossing the city and driving up to the Golden Gate Bridge, we picked up speed as the road turned to freeway. Third gear turned into fourth, then fourth to fifth gear, then fifth to...wait a minute, there's nowhere to go. Surprisingly, the manual is only a five speed, although the available automatic has six gears.
We also noted a little play in the steering wheel, not something we expect to find in a European car. It seems that Volkswagen tuned the steering for us American's and our big, wide roads.
Under the navigation system's guidance, we took an off-ramp toward a good, twisty road. The navigation system could not verbally identify the street on which we needed to turn, as it does not have text-to-speech capability. Nor did it show traffic information. Volkswagen seems to have kept navigation very basic, so as to make it available as a standard feature.
Playing around with the destination interface later, we did like the responsiveness of this system. A fast processor and flash-stored data makes for quick reaction to inputs and route calculation.
Throwing the Jetta into the corners, we found some typical small-car fun. Putting the transmission in third, or down to second, we got most of the car's horsepower to the road. Working the wheel at the start of a turn, we were pleased to note that the car remained relatively flat, stabilizer bars in the suspension keeping it reasonably planted.
The unpowered rear wheels followed the front wheels' line, without floundering around, everything doing its part to keep grip. Powering through the turn, we started to feel some understeer, but it was far from excessive.
The steering wheel did not offer much in the way of road feel, but we were able to throw the car through turn after turn. Keeping us in check was the 2.5-liter engine, powerful enough to have some fun, but not enough to get into serious trouble.
We were pleased with the driving experience of the 2011 Jetta. The driving dynamics are solid for a car with a base price of $15,995. And it felt like it would be comfortable for longer drives. Standard navigation is an impressive feature at the SEL trim, even if the system lacks any advanced features.
The Jetta should do well against traditional Toyota and Honda competition, but the small-car market is getting vicious, with Kia and Hyundai, Ford, and GM entering the fray with value contenders.