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Volkswagen previously priced itself above its intended market, but wants to regain the title of peoples' car with the all-new Jetta. At its very base S trim, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta can be had for $15,995. But forget any tech features at that level--for the good stuff you need to move up to the SEL trim, a little pricier at $21,395.
Our Jetta SEL review car looked like a very good value, even at that price. For one, its navigation and Bluetooth phone systems are standard. It also gets a bigger engine than in the lower trim, but still gets mileage in the high 20s.
No matter what trim it comes in, the new Jetta isn't much to look at. Although it features a very modern design, with smoothed metal and de-emphasized ornamentation, it is nearly the Platonic ideal of a sedan. The roof shows a pleasant amount of curvature while allowing ample interior headroom, the hood tapers down to keep the grille from being too prominent, and the back flows evenly into the bumper.
Many people like nondescript cars, so in that sense the body style works for Volkswagen, but good luck finding it in a parking lot. On a practical note, the trunk is amazingly large. It actually seemed about equal to that of the Audi A8 we tested recently.
One engine among many
On paper, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine sounds quite powerful. With 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, we expected to do front-wheel burn-outs. But the sensation was on the anemic side, with power quickly falling off as we accelerated. Knowing what we could get out of this engine, we learned to plan our passing and merging maneuvers very carefully.
The SEL comes with this five-cylinder engine, but three other engine options are available.
Although it uses double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, this engine stops short of some of the efficiency advances Volkswagen has in its toolbox. But there will soon be a 2011 Jetta with a 2-liter direct injection turbocharged engine, Volkswagen's TSI, along with a diesel, TDI version. Another engine option currently available is the 2-liter four-cylinder in the base model, which only makes 115 horsepower.
The Jetta SEL's engine didn't feel particularly strong, but we wrung what we could out of it with the standard manual transmission. This manual showed good action through its gate, easily and comfortably shifting from gear to gear without confusion, but it is only a five speed, which seems a little behind the times. An automatic is also available for the Jetta, and the DSG can be had in the upcoming turbo and diesel versions of the car.
Even lacking direct injection, the fuel economy was very good. The EPA ratings for the Jetta SEL are 23 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. While cruising along freeways at speeds around 75 mph, we maintained 30 mpg, and turned in a final average of 28.3 mpg. It took a long time for the graphic fuel gauge to drop bars.
This manual transmission let us wring a little bit of fun out of the car.
No sports car, the Jetta's steering is tuned with the same sort of comfortable slack as the shifter. There is a little bit of initial play in the wheel, but it never feels loose. This built-in slack keeps the handling from being twitchy, in line with the widespread appeal Volkswagen intends for the car. The ride quality is about what we would expect, firm but not uncomfortable.
Nav and Bluetooth, standard
Surprising is Volkswagen's decision to mostly do away with options and make cabin tech dependent on trim level. The SEL trim car comes standard with navigation, Bluetooth phone system, and digital audio sources.
Volkswagen's new navigation system is a huge improvement over previous versions we've used in terms of performance, but it also lacks many features. This flash-memory-based system reacts quickly, whether processing user inputs or recalculating routes. It also offers both 3D and 2D maps, and shows the speed limit of the current road, something few factory navigation units do.
But the LCD is on the small side, and the system does not integrate external data, such as traffic or weather information. Nor does it read out street names or show detailed graphics describing upcoming turns. One particularly surprising omission is the ability to select destinations from the map, something most navigation systems can handle.
The new cabin tech interface is visually appealing and works very well.
We very much like the new interface for accessing the cabin tech features. The LCD is a touch screen, and all inputs can also be made with a knob and two buttons below the screen. The onscreen menus use a semicircular pattern with an attractive design. We found it easiest to use the knob and buttons for some operations, such as scrolling through a list, then hitting the touch screen when inputting letters or numbers.
This interface takes a cue from Audi's cabin tech, using different colors for different applications, with navigation in blue, audio in red, and the phone system in green.
And similar to Audi, the new Jetta gets one of the most advanced Bluetooth phone systems in the business. After an unnecessarily long pairing process, the system imported our iPhone's contact list. We were able to access the contacts on the car's screen, of course, and were also able to use the voice command system to dial by name.
These buttons on the steering wheel control the stereo and activate the voice command system.
The audio menus use separate screens for broadcast, which includes satellite radio, and fixed media, with the same semicircular menu treatment. We were pleased to find that the media sources not only had iPod integration, but also Bluetooth stereo streaming. There is also an SD card slot next to the screen.
The iPod cable, inconveniently placed in the glove compartment, uses the same proprietary port originally used by Audi. This port allows for a variety of cables, with connectors for iPods, full-size, and Mini-USB, and a simple 1/8th-inch auxiliary input.
As for browsing an iPod library, the interface makes it easy to look through music based on artist, album, or genre. A slight annoyance: the system always defaulted to showing the full list of songs every time we connected an iPod, forcing us to back up a few menus to look by artist or album.
The iPod menu lets you choose music by artist, album, or genre.
The audio quality from the car's six-speaker system was nothing special, but a step above what would come from the lesser-trim Jetta's four-speaker system. Bass and treble response were both reasonable, but the system tended to bury a lot of the detail from music we played through it. Turning up the volume on tracks with heavier bass, we heard the inevitable panel rattle we would expect from a cheap system.
Volkswagen does not make use of the Jetta's LCD for a backup camera, although the car is not in dire need of that feature. Other driver assistance features, such as blind-spot detection, are also not available.
In many ways, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL is a very average car. The engine and transmission move the car reasonably well and turn in good fuel economy, but they don't exploit the latest efficiency technologies, which might result in more satisfying power.
Impressive in the SEL is the inclusion of the entire cabin tech suite as standard. Although the navigation system is very basic, it is a solid performer. The Bluetooth phone system is the most standout application in the electronics.
We mentioned the mundane design of the Jetta, but otherwise we do like its modern styling. It also earns points for the design of its cabin tech interface, which is particularly good.
|Model||2011 Volkswagen Jetta|
|Power train||2.5-liter five-cylinder engine; five-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/33 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash memory based|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker stereo|
|Price as tested||$22,295|