Road Test: An affordable people’s car

The 2011 Jetta drops its price, but not its value

May 9, 2011
by Tony Whitney


Just about everyone knows that the Volkswagen Jetta is a sedan version of the Golf hatchback. The two models have been marketed side-by-side for many generations and have sold in huge numbers all over the world. In Europe and other international regions the Golf far outsells the Jetta but in North America, it’s the Jetta that reigns in this lineup.

The Jetta was launched back in 1979. Volkswagen introduced the car mainly to battle the curious prejudice against hatchbacks in the US, where so many buyers preferred the traditional three-box sedan layout. At various times in its long life, it’s been the best-selling European car in North America.

The Jettas sold in Canada are built in Mexico where VW has operated plants for decades. Thankfully, technology transfer has now reached a stage where the Mexican Jettas can be considered just as good as those built in Germany.

For 2011, there’s an all-new Jetta and for the first time, it doesn’t have that Golf-with-a-trunk appearance about it. It looks like a model that’s completely individual from the wheels up. This is certainly what VW intended—to separate the two lines to some extent and make the Jetta more of a stand-alone automobile.

The transformation has worked remarkably well. The car is sleek and stylish and there’s no hint of the bulkiness of earlier Jettas. Our favourite has always been the Golf with its commodious five-door layout, but for the first time, we could be coaxed into a sedan rather than a hatchback and perhaps there are many other buyers who will feel that way too.

The 2011 Jetta is sleek and stylish, without the bulkiness of earlier versions. The ride is quiet, smooth and relaxing, even on long runs.

Cost-effective for fleets

There’s another surprising aspect to the Jetta/Golf saga too. The Jetta is being advertised at a base price of  just $15,875—a fair bit less than the sticker on the entry-level Golf. The 2010 Jetta was priced at just over $22,000 and a base 2011 Golf costs over $20,000. This new Jetta has to be the bargain of the new decade and it’s bound to attract major interest from fleets and business users in all kinds of industries.

Not many buyers will go for the bare bones car, even though the sub-$16,000 model is quite well-equipped. A variety of tempting trim levels can get you into something pretty luxurious without spending too much extra cash.

The test car we had boasted every imaginable upgrade and still stickered out at less than $28,000—very fair for a beautifully-built, German-engineered automobile. It’s all too easy to run a typical “inexpensive” $22,000 sedan up into the thirties when the options list is well exploited, but not this Volkswagen.

Power plant

The basic engine—standard in the $16,000 Jetta—is VW’s well-tried 2.0-litre four-cylinder and it develops 115-horsepower. This is no powerhouse (a Mazda3 has 148-horsepower), but you get what you pay for and for most applications, straight line and off-the-line speed isn’t a major factor. Also available is a 2.5-litre five-cylinder with 170-horsepower and a 2.0-litre TDI turbo diesel with 140-horsepower.

Transmissions include a six-speed automatic with manual (VW Tiptronic) mode and a five-speed manual.

According to VW, 40 percent of all Jettas sold are diesels and this is no surprise at all. The Jetta TDI is an amazingly economical car and has a range of at least 1,000 kilometres, which is just as well since there are still a lot of gas stations around that don’t carry diesel fuel. Incidentally, both the gasoline-engined Jettas run on regular unleaded fuel, which is no small factor in these days of ultra-inflated gas prices.

Whichever engine you choose, performance is very satisfactory. Even the relatively underpowered base car is fairly responsive and fun to drive and the diesel has a surprising amount of torque and pickup.

For a car than can cost so little, the Jetta is refined—quiet, smooth and relaxing, even on a long run. A longer wheelbase compared to earlier Jettas helps here.

It’s a good example of how far small cars have come over the past few years with regard to refinement. Ten years ago, you’d have had to opt for a V-6 to get near the Jetta’s level of highway ride and quietness. Those who opt for the 170-horsepower five-cylinder will discover that it’s a lot smoother and has more pickup than most V-6 units.

Suspension on these front-wheel drive sedans is fully independent all round and anti-lock brakes are standard. The two gasoline-engined Jettas have rear drum brakes but the diesel model has discs all round. It’s perhaps surprising that drum brakes are still being fitted to otherwise advanced automobiles more than ten years into the new millennium, but it’s often the case when automakers are trying to pare costs.

Instrumentation is well laid out, with switches intelligently placed.

Plenty of space

The interior of the new Jetta is very much “German contemporary” and characteristic of products from BMW and even Mercedes-Benz. The interior fabrics and materials are very well chosen and you get the impression that they will hold up and look good after many years of service.

There has been some cost-cutting here and there in the replacement of soft-touch materials for hard plastic, but this doesn’t really show and the cabin looks as good as that of earlier, more expensive, Jettas. There are lots of places to stow small items safely out of sight.

There’s an input jack for iPod-like devices, but you have to move up a notch in the model range to get full connectivity. Similarly, Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity is not available on the base car, which is a pity when it comes to fleet use.

The seats are comfortable and supportive and the instrumentation is well laid out with switches intelligently placed. Even with the base model, there’s no hint of cheapness or cost-cutting, apart from the trim textures.

The trunk is huge (440 litres) and the interior very spacious for a small sedan. The rear seat splits and folds in 60/40 fashion, so quite large loads can be threaded into the rear passenger area when needed. This is a full five-seat sedan, though it’s doubtful that a central rear seat passenger would want to spend too much time back there. This hapless occupant does get a proper seat belt, though.

Standard features for the basic Jetta include central power locking, one-touch power operation for all windows and a decent sound system, but not too many other frills. VW pioneered the use of one-touch power for all windows and we remember driving a Golf with that feature more than ten years ago. A fair number of high-end luxury cars still don’t offer all-round one-touch window convenience.

Air-conditioning is not available with the entry-level car, so we suspect that most buyers will move up the options list a notch or two or choose one of the higher trim levels. There’s no skimping on safety, though, and the Jetta has (in addition to the usual front air bags) driver and front passenger side air bags, curtain air bags front and rear, plus rear impact optimized head restraints.

Some critics have pointed out that the Jetta, as a German-engineered sedan, doesn’t really have any direct competition at its price. The pricing of the base car lines it up with rivals like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and similar products.

To get this kind of performance, finish, comfort and refinement in a sedan with European roots could easily cost another 50 percent again over what VW is asking. It’s also relaxing, comfortable and economical to drive and should keep its value for many years to come.