First Drive: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta gets with the (American) program

2011 Volkswagen Jetta – Click above for high-res image gallery

For Volkswagen of America, it doesn't get more brot-und-butter than the Jetta. Forced into the shadow of the best-selling Golf, VW Germany's refrain was "Sell more Golfs!" To which VoA would steadfastly reply, "Americans don't want hatchbacks!"

This went on for over two decades until the corporate mothership finally recognized that its compact sedan was what the people wanted Stateside. So for 2011, the Jetta has been restyled, reformed and reinvigorated with a new purpose: to take on the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, not to mention the Mazda3.

How? This story begins and ends with price. A 2011 Jetta in "S" trim will set you back just $15,995. Compare that to the 2010 model, which starts at $17,735, and the Civic and Corolla which clock in at $15,655 and $15,450, respectively. The "German premium" has finally been addressed. But at what cost? We trekked to San Francisco to find out.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 AOL

For the first time ever, the same sheetmetal and assorted accoutrement found on the Euro-market Jetta are fitted in the States. Say auf wiedersehen to the massive grille and accompanying chrome, and instead, enjoy a more aggressive take on the Golf's fascia, complete with a bisecting bumper and slit headlamps. The lower air dam and recessed fog lamps are more subdued, but the protruding lip spoiler comes across as slightly overwrought and a bit awkward.

A choice of 15- 16- or 17-inch wheels – depending on spec – fill the barely blistered fenders and include one busy, multi-spoke option and another ten-spoke set reminiscent of the hoops fitted to our long-term TDI Street Cup.

Viewed in profile, there's not much to catch your eye aside from two subtle creases that run the length of the sides, but the rakish rear gives off the air of a Volkswagen Phaeton at three-quarters scale and the taillights are very Audi-esque – no surprise considering this is a Walter de'Silva joint, the man whose pen headed Audi design from 2002–2007. The SEL badges on our tester look cramped on the trunk, but the inverted heated side mirrors are both attractive and aggressive, complete with integrated turn signals.

The Jetta's overall demeanor comes across as a blend of European subtlety and some American arrogance, and there's an overarching sense of penny-pinching that extends from the exterior all the way to the inside.

To hit its sub-$16,000 price point, some concessions had to be made, and that's most obvious when you crack open the door. The multifunction steering wheel can still be had with a leather wrap (SE with the Convenience), but the spoke materials have cheapened. To make matters worse, the same Playskool-grade plastic coats nearly every surface you touch, from the dash to the doors and covering the center console, instrument panel surround and various trim bits. The climate controls have been reworked and not for the better, exchanging the heavy solidity of the previous model for knobs and buttons that feel two grades below what's currently on offer. And the console-mounted push-button start is laughably contrived, coming off as an afterthought both in placement and execution.

But again, this is a $16,000 sedan. And it's not all bad.

The elongated wheelbase (104.4 inches) and additional length (182.2 inches end-to-end, or 2.9 inches longer than the 2010 model) pays dividends for both front- and back-seat occupants. Specifically, those confined to the rear quarters enjoy an additional 2.7 inches of leg room at 38.1 inches. VW likes to boast that the standard-wheelbase BMW 7 Series offers up 38.4 inches of lower-limb space, but while the numbers jive, the feeling in back is decidedly less plush (blame that primarily on the BMW's six or so inches of additional shoulder room).

Unsurprisingly, there were no base models on hand, so we saddled up in an SEL-spec (with sunroof) tester, complete with 16-inch Sedona wheels, a six-speaker stereo, iPod integration, Sirius, Bluetooth and VW's new five-inch "RNS 315" touchscreen navigation system. Keep your hands off the dash and on the wheel, and the experience is remarkably more pleasant, but at $23,395, it better be.

Although VW officials didn't douse us with specs during our morning briefing, we managed to corner an engineer in the afternoon to get a better idea of what's going on underneath the sheetmetal. To begin with, this is an all-new platform, and the suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in the rear, with the available Sport pack substituting in stiffer springs, retuned dampers and larger anti-roll bars. Interestingly, when it arrives, the GLI will swap the beam out back for a multilink arrangement. The decision not to equip all 2011 Jettas with the GLI's more sophisticated rear end caught us off guard until our new friend reiterated the old chestnut that German customers are more interested in handling while American buyers care more about conveniences (read: cupholders) – particularly in this segment. Obviously, we beg to differ, but the limited take-rate estimate for the Sport pack will likely vindicate the beancounters' decision. Once again, it's all about the Benjamins – or a lack thereof.

For 2011, the engine lineup has grown by one, with a choice of a 2.0-liter inline-four outputting 115 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 revs (initial fuel economy estimates come in at 24/34 mpg city/hwy). The 140-hp 2.0-liter TDI will remain (due in December) and Volkswagen has confirmed that a GLI version is on its way next year with a 2.0-liter TFSI four putting out 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, and delivering a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds with a six-speed manual and 6.8 when fitted with the automaker's dual clutch DSG transmission.

Our tester was fitted with the familiar 2.5 MPI five-cylinder, churning out 170 hp at 5,700 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm, and delivering an estimated 24 mpg it the city and 33 mpg on the highway. Mated to a six-speed manual, the 0-60 time clocks in at 8.2 seconds, but considering the projected take-rate for the stick, we sampled the six-speed automatic version, which delivers a run to 60 in 8.5 seconds and is more attuned to what the U.S. market wants. And what they want is an appliance.

In this regard, the Jetta succeeds.

As enthusiasts, it's easy to dismiss the 2011 Jetta as a cynical attempt by VW to dumb down its product in order to capture market share in the U.S. But scratch beneath the surface and it's obvious that VW is trying to blend its core values with a more accessible price. This becomes face-smackingly evident the moment you get underway.

The average consumer couldn't care less about steering feel, and the Jetta's on-center sensation delivers with a light touch and an overall lack of feedback. Compared to the electronically controlled tiller on our TDI, the hydraulic rack's steering effort is Corolla-light from lock-to-lock, with only a slight tightening when pushing through the bends.

Driving a Sport model back-to-back with a standard SEL, the revised suspension components are barely perceptible around town, on the freeway and even through the backroads. Pushed hard enough, the Jetta rolls over on its sidewalls, but the handling is decidedly sportier than its entry-level competitors from Japan – save the Mazda3. The faux leather seats on the SEL are worlds better than a similarly equipped Corolla, and optioning up for the Sport delivers more side bolstering and slightly softer cushioning. They're good, but not quite as comfortable as some of Honda's thrones.

Brake feel is reminiscent of the last-generation model – spongy up top with a more progressive pedal feel further down the travel – and power from the 2.5-liter five-pot is more than adequate for most applications, particularity given the car's commendable 110-pound weight reduction over its predecessor. Our lone gripe with the engine/tranny combo came in the form of a unnerving lurch when applying minimal pressure to the throttle from a standstill. We're not sure if this was a calibration issue or something related to the hill-start assist feature, but VW assures us that the hiccup will be exorcised before sales begin later this year.

Although the banner headline for the 2011 Jetta is its $15,995 price of entry, as with all vehicles hailing from Germany, that price rises precipitously as the option boxes are ticked. The SE comes in at $18,195, and with the Convenience package, the tally rises to just below $20k. Add the sunroof and you're up to $20,795. Start going for broke with an SEL ($21,395) and you're on a collision course to $24,195, not including the $1,100 automatic option.

Compared to its rivals, that's easily in-line with the market, but two overarching questions remain: How will the new Jetta's reliability fare after more than five years of ownership (something that's standard in this segment)? And can public perception of a German car's affordability and durability be shifted enough to allow Volkswagen to score the market share it so desperately craves?

With VW gunning hard for the mantle of world's largest automaker by 2018, this new Jetta is a massive cornerstone in its plans for global domination. The pricing is about right and the experience its exactly what American consumers expect. And perhaps even more significant, if you line up the Corolla, Civic and Jetta, the German still offers a more premium first impression despite the new cost cutting. But will that all be enough, and will marque loyalists accept this shift in focus? We should have a good indication by this time next year.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 AOL

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