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Review: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

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Teasing The Faithful While Pleasing The Masses

The Jetta has always disguised its cost controls beneath a veneer of high quality materials and tidy manners. Interiors have been like Audis in training, with suspensions so supple the world's largest automakers dissect the bushings to learn their secrets. This long view emphasizes the recent disappointment with this new larger, U.S.-centric Jetta.

Early reports sounded the alarm; the new Jetta is shockingly cheap. That's a positive statement regarding the $15,995 base price, down from $17,735 for the 2010 model, and Volkswagen is touting it prominently with its "Great for the price of Good" advertising tagline. While some cry foul, sales are up. For its first month on the market, the 2011 Jetta posted 12.6 percent better numbers than the old model managed for the same month a year prior.

To achieve that sub-$16,000 number, things had to go, though good stuff remains. We wanted to give der neue Jetta a chance to wow us, so we spent a week with a Jetta 2.5 SEL to find out if it's been overwhelmed by a too-intense focus on price.

One thing that remains consistently positive is the Jetta's handsome looks. For 2011, the Jetta leads the charge of Volkswagen's new corporate face. It's conservative, but not boring; crisply styled and decidedly Germanic. A three-inch stretch over previous versions is well contained by restrained styling that will age well thanks to a lack of frippery.

The extra size is aimed at pleasing the U.S. consumer, and the bodywork features strong wheel arches and tasteful brightwork. Stock wheels can be as large as 18 inches, and the 17-inch "Joda" alloys on our SEL tester added handsome contrast to the car's Candy White paint. This new sedan takes an evolutionary styling step that's still easily identifiable as a Jetta. As a bonus, it looks like it should cost more, too.

Inside appears as promising as the exterior upon first glance. The dashboard is cleanly styled in the classic Volkswagen idiom, and the plastics and metal accents present well. The truth is in the touching, though, and where you'd expect some give, there is none. The Jetta finds itself in an awkward position with its combination of price and size. It's one of the most spacious cars you can purchase for $16,000, and it's better dressed than the Nissan Versa, which bests the Jetta's passenger volume by a smidge and keeps an even tighter lid on the bottom line. At its upper price threshold, the Jetta finds itself fighting against such standouts as the latest Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion – stiff competitors that offer massive value and more space for about the same money, while also providing satisfying drives. The same dilemma faces the Jetta's class competitor, the Mazda 3, which also pushes into the mid-twenties.

The interior quality, despite the hue and cry, finds parity with much of the competition. The Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze clean the Jetta's clock with better interior materials, though their advantage is blunted by tighter back seats and less cargo space. The Fiesta and Cruze can also enter once-rarefied price territory for cars of their stature, underlining the fact that the Jetta is a pretty good deal. There is evidence of being built to a price, but the most expensive Jetta SEL is $24,095, and a Jetta SE with the $1,365 Convenience Package is a lot of car for $20,000.

In the back seat of the 2011 Jetta, there's significantly more legroom thanks to the wheelbase stretch. The perforated V-Tex upholstery on the firm seats does a convincing impersonation of leather, and if the lightly-bolstered standard seats aren't enough for you, sport seats are available as part of the $1,600 Sport package that adds gussied up pedals, door sill trim and a sport suspension. Ergonomics are intuitive, with three big knobs for climate control and other secondary controls, all of which are intelligently located. The layout is pleasingly simple to use and should be required study for the entire industry.

One sour note was the push-button start in our test car; a dubious "upgrade" with a long delay before reacting. The Titan Black theme that decorated our test car seemed dour and some surfaces seemed to show filth and blemishes readily, too. Going for a cabin with some lighter hues will offer some contrast and draw less attention to the mix of materials and textures while also feeling more upscale.

Despite a significant and obvious drop in the interior quality – even the non-VW faithful will notice how cheap the door panels look – the controls don't shortchange you. The leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter are pleasing to manipulate, and control stalks feel the same as we've come to expect from VW, both of which are pleasing notes of consistency in a driver's environment ravaged by change. The wheel tilts and telescopes, and the seats are still widely adjustable, though less so compared to past Jettas. The 15.5-cubic-foot trunk packs Honda Accord-sized cargo capacity, too.

The Jetta's cabin isn't all ergonomic bliss, though demerits are small and liveable. Volkswagen's itty-bitty cruise control switch atop the blinker stalk is annoyingly fiddly for a feature that sees regular use, and we never did quite figure out the RNS 315 navigation and entertainment system. The navigation system's guidance, map data and display lag behind similar systems from other automakers, and tuning the radio is counter intuitive. Giving the easily-manipulated knob just below the five-inch LCD a twist uselessly scrolls through preset stations instead of manually zipping through frequencies. This disparity between expectation and reality dealt frustration on multiple occasions during our week with the Jetta.

Volkswagen has long attempted to make hay from the perception that German automakers build driver's cars, but the 2011 Jetta is less so in any of the currently available U.S. trims. The 177 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque from the 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine in our SEL tester is more muscular than the ancient and unloved standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder's 115 hp, however. The five has a distinctive engine note thanks to its cylinder count, but it's isolated well. The Jetta idles smoothly, with little engine vibration making its way up the steering column. There's a noticeably fat vein of mid-range torque provided by the 2.5, though jumpy throttle response makes it difficult to take off smoothly. The steam runs out the higher you wind the tachometer; fine for the masses, disappointing for enthusiasts who want a more sultry powerplant. A GLI version is coming, and that car's 2.0 liter TSI powerplant and thoroughly revised suspension – including swapping the rear beam with an independent arrangement – will snuff out some of the enthusiast gripes.

Electric power steering is numb and strangely weighted, like there's a coupling made of rubber bands somewhere. Attempts to dial in the exact amount of lock through a curve were usually met with a need to correct mid-corner. The Jetta's suspension layout has changed, too, with a torsion beam rear axle in place of struts. The lower-profile setup allows the big trunk and back seat without harming everyday dynamics. The Jetta generally delivered what was asked of it, though there's little friskiness dialled into the latest version. The standard suspension tune borders on harsh, too, jiggling occupants excessively at times.

"Capable without rocking your socks off" defines the Jetta driving experience for now. The six-speed automatic transmission helps the Jetta return EPA fuel economy estimates of 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway with the 2.5-liter engine, besting the numbers put up by the same engine hooked to a five-speed manual. The 2.5/auto 'box combo is also better on the highway than the 2.0-liter four-cylinder when teamed with the automatic, while also being a full second quicker to 60 miles per hour. Braking performance channels some of the past VW mojo, with a firm, easily modulated pedal. Rear drums are standard, another cost-cutting move, and our SEL model's four-wheel discs bit harder as stops progressed, delivering confident halts to the action.

A stiff, solid structure is the basis of the 2011 Jetta, and Volkswagen got it right with a rigid platform to bolt everything to. Electronic stability control is standard, and the airbag complement includes front, side and side-curtain bags. Safety is augmented by the Intelligent Crash Response System that shuts off the fuel supply, unlocks the doors and turns on the hazard flashers in the event of an accident. With Carefree Maintenance, Volkswagen also rolls in three years or 36,000 miles of scheduled maintenance at no charge as part of the warranty perks, too.

The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is nice to look at, and does achieve the mission of delivering good value. It's one of the roomiest choices at a price point populated by a raft of B-segment choices, though moving up the trim-level ladder will put it among cut-throat competition. Drivers looking for the old Jetta formula of near-premium feel for near-economy price will find the 2011 Jetta is Volkswagen's New Coke, though others will remind you that the updated formula actually tasted better. This new Jetta is a different flavor that appears to be more tasty to shoppers, despite leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the Jetta faithful.

Gallery: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta: Review

Review: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL originally appeared on Autoblog on Wed, 24 Nov 2010http://www.autoblog.com/2010/11/24/2011-volkswagen-jetta-sel-review-road-test/
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