Preview Drive: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta

Redesigned version of VW's highly roadable compact sedan starts with two four-cylinder gas engines, with diesel, turbo, and hybrid coming later

by James M. Flammang

Volkswagen of America president Toscan Bennett
introduces 2011 Volkswagen Jetta

SAN FRANCISCO - Initially billed simply as the "New Compact Sedan," Volkswagen's redesigned Jetta is the fifth generation of that compact four-door sedan. Through the years, Jetta has been the sedan companion to Volkswagen's Golf hatchback.

Billed as "all-new" for 2011, "completely overhauled [and] modernized," the Jetta is more than 2.9 inches longer overall (now 182.2 inches), on a new 104.4-inch wheelbase. Measuring 70 inches in width, the sedan is 57.2 inches tall. Interior space has grown, too, promising "best-in-class" rear-seat legroom: now 38.1 inches (up 2.7 inches).

According to Volkswagen, the Jetta's front end is "defined by prominent horizontal lines," with a high-gloss black grille, trapezoidal headlights, tray-shaped front spoiler, and vee-shaped hood. As described by designer Marcus Kuhlendahl, the hood line runs into the roof line and "defines the very strong C-pillars," while a "shoulder line runs around the car." Wheel well arches are said to be "powerfully emphasized, and bodysides feature a shoulder "tornado" line. Taillights are split into two sections, extending from each fender. Integrated turn-signal indicators are available.

Six airbags are standard, along with electronic stability control. Jettas feature "intuitive controls and well-arranged instruments," according to Volkswagen, and the console is inclined toward the driver. Round instruments promise a "more optimal viewing range." The driver faces a newly-designed steering wheel and grasps an "ergonomically designed" gearshift grip. The rear bench's seatback is split 60/40.

Fuel consumption has been reduced about 28 percent, according to Dr. Michael Hintz, the Jetta's technical project manager: Two four-cylinder gasoline engines are available, to be followed by a diesel that promises 42 miles per gallon. No five-cylinder or V-6 engines are offered.

On winding mountain roads, the Jetta exhibits its sporty nature

Simply put, the Jetta is hard to beat for confident control and precise response, even through repeated back-and-forth maneuvers on twisty mountain two-lane roads. Reactions are immediate, too. Little penalty in ride comfort must be paid for such fine control and ability. The suspension of this true driver's car is clearly firm, but effectively compliant most of the time. If not exactly absorbent, that suspension at least allows the Jetta to glide past some obstructions, and only a few hit hard (never painfully so).

Volkswagen's 2.5-liter engine has ample power; though a 2.0-liter might be too meager for some. Acceleration with the 2.5 is generally eager, but once or twice a downshift at low speed was a bit jumpy, giving a tiny leap ahead. At times, on an incline, you might feel a bit of a dead spot between gears.

Snugly bolstered seats keep you well in place, and are amply cushioned for comfort. Excellent thigh and back support are matched by a fine driving position and view ahead. Visibility is good all-around, in fact. Front-seat space isn't gigantic, but quite good, accompanied by ample head and elbow space. Rear-seat headroom is rather marginal, but legroom impressive.

All Jettas are made at a new factory in Puebla, Mexico, 2 kilometers away from the original factory. Previous-generation Jettas came in four trim levels, with 148 build combinations. For 2011, four trim levels remain (S, SE, SEL, and TDI), but only 18 build combinations. Sales began in October.

Starting with the least expensive ($15,995, plus $770 destination charge), the S sedan holds VW's 2.0-liter engine, rated 115 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. Fitted with 15-inch steel wheels, the S includes air conditioning, four-speaker CD stereo, power locks and windows, keyless entry, and a 60/40 split folding rear seat. Like all other models, the S includes VW's Carefree Maintenance program.

A 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder, producing 177 pound-feet, goes into the $18,195 SE sedan, which includes 16-inch steel wheels; V-Tex leatherette seating surfaces; and cruise control, among other features. About half of sales are expected to be SE models. An SE with Convenience package, priced at $19,545, adds heated front seats, Bluetooth connectivity, and Sirius satellite radio. A sunroof and premium touchscreen radio bring the price of the SE's Convenience package up to $20,795.

Stepping up a notch, the $21,395 SEL sedan rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels and includes a navigation system, pushbutton start; foglamps; driver's lumbar adjustment; all-disc brakes (S and SE use rear drums), and chrome grille and window trim. With a Sport Package that includes a sport suspension, sport bolstered seats, and alloy pedals, the SEL goes for $22,995.

Diesel-engine fans can choose the TDI edition, also priced at $22,995, but in SE trim (with Convenience package and sunroof). The four-cylinder diesel engine develops 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet. Volkswagen expects diesels to account for about one-fourth of total sales.

An automatic transmission adds $1,100 to the price of a Jetta. No factory options are offered, but accessories are available. Jetta wagons will continue in their 2010 form, on the prior-generation platform.

New VW of America president looks ahead

"We are a part of American life and an iconic brand," said Toscan Bennett, recently named president of Volkswagen of America. Sales are up nearly 30 percent in 2010. "We're cautious about the industry," he said, "but more ambitious with our own sales targets."

Toyota's Corolla and Honda's Civic are the primary Jetta competitors. Bennett noted that the "Jetta will be significantly less expensive than the Golf," which is more European. "Americans are not that keen on hatchbacks," he explained, and "Golf is a very small part of our business." About 15,000 Golfs are sold per year, versus 100,000 Jettas.

Starting off with gasoline engines, the 2011 Jetta soon will be "expanding to a wider audience," Bennett said. The diesel-engine Jetta will arrive later in 2010, followed in 2011 by a turbocharged GLI 2.0T edition. A hybrid model is expected in 2012. "Diesel is a core competency for this company," Bennett said, adding that "people love German engineering."

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang