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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Review

“You will need to pry my cold, dark hands from the steering wheel.”

That’s what I told the guy who came to pick up the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, a re-designed entry-level passenger car from the fine folks from Wolfsburg, Germany. After a solid week of testing, including frequent trips on a “test track” that winds around a sleepy Midwestern town, the basic summary for this sleek, sporty, but somewhat cramped four-door is that it’s worth every penny. Before we dive into the thrills and spills, let’s cover exactly what changed on this total re-design for 2011.

First off, the new Jetta measures just over 15 feet long, which is actually just a touch longer than the 2010 model (by about 3 inches). The previous model is just a hair wider. Really, VW positions the Jetta as a fine driving experience without the fine driving price, but it’s also the company’s entry-level sedan. The car costs $15,995 for the base S model, which is about $1700 cheaper than the similarly equipped 2010 model. We drove the SE, which is basically the same but uses a 5-speed transmission. VW offers a handy online comparison guide to see how the Jetta stacks up, warts and all, beside the competition.

So what changed? For starters, the inside of the car feels cheaper than the 2010 model. When you first get in, it feels like an older Hyundai and not a German-engineered sedan. There’s goofy dark plastic everywhere – on the steering wheel, around the dash, on the doors. You would think a car company with the great legacy of VW would spring for a couple of fake wood accents here and there.

There’s also the rather startling sense that the nav screen, which both VW and Audi call the Multi Media Interface or MMI, looks and functions almost exactly like one of those Wal-Mart navigation devices that you connect to the windshield of your Chevy Impala. The interface itself is useable, but measures only about four or five inches across, and proved quite small even for basic navigation. That said, the fact that there even is a nav screen on the Jetta is a bonus – most entry level sedans do not offer one.

Another minor gripe about the new Jetta is that the exterior styling is not exactly jaw-dropping. VW is known for cars with fine lines and a sleek appearance – most of their cars are eye-catching and you can spot them easily in a crowd. The Jetta fits in a bit too well at the local mall parking lot amid the Chevy Cobalts and Hyundai Sonatas. This lack of distinctive styling is one of the letdowns in the re-design. We wanted, say, a bit more aerodynamic sleekness, or lighting accents on the side mirrors. At first glance, the Jetta looks like a small car that gets you from point A to point B without any frills.

Driving for fun

At second glance, every one of those mild irritants and less-than-stellar first impressions fades once you slip into the driver’s seat. (But take note: Most of these test results apply only to the SE we drove; the S version has similar handling but not the same excitement that the 5-speed transmission provides.)

Wow, the 5-speed is downright punchy. Like the totally re-designed 2011 Ford Fiesta we drove a few weeks ago, the Jetta benefits greatly from the fact that it’s small and light, because the first two gears provide some serious pep. More importantly (and we will spare you the car jargon here because no one understands it anyway), the Jetta is highly responsive. When you make a slight nudge to the left or right, the car responds quickly. There is likely some technical reason for this, but the reality for everyday drivers is that the Jetta will be a blast to drive.

The sportiness also means you feel safe in the new Jetta. There’s never that lazy driving sense where you feel like the car does not handle well around corners and could drift easily on you. Instead, the Jetta seems to benefit from smart engineering: gripping the road tightly, accelerating quickly in a variety of conditions, still providing power in the upper gears when you zoom up to 80MPH.

Smart extras

A few things about the Jetta surprised us toward the end of our test period. We noticed minor accoutrements like a light that turns on automatically when you fold down the visor, and the fact that you do not have to enable cruise control first – it turns on when you click the set button on the steering wheel, which means one click instead of two. When we tested the navigation, even with the small screen, we found the interface to work logically with obvious buttons and well-placed turning knobs (even if they felt a bit cheaper compared to the larger knobs on the previous model). We even like the nav voice on the Jetta. It’s soothing and clear.

Some of the minor additions on the Jetta seem like they were borrowed from the Passat or even the Touareg. For example, most cars unlock the steering wheel when turn the key. On the Jetta, the steering wheel unlocks when you get in the car, sensing the keyfob is present. That’s a handy feature in a car that costs less than $16,000. Another example: On many new cars, when you press the trunk latch release, the trunk pops up slightly so you can open it. On the Jetta, springs open the trunk all the way so you do not have to open it. Little details like that are what make the Jetta worth buying.

All of these details add up to an overall impression that the Jetta is a smart, well-engineered vehicle that is fun to drive and handles extremely well in the city and on the highway.

Minor issues

Of course, at this price point, you can expect a few gripes. One of the most noticeable problems we encountered is that the Jetta feels a bit cramped at times. This is a small sedan – it’s not that different from a Chevy Cobalt in size and interior. Back seat leg room is passable at best.

Worse, we noticed that the car is obviously designed for someone a bit short in stature. For anyone over six feet, there’s a conundrum. You need to sit close enough to the steering wheel to reach the shifter, yet, when you do, you are too close and can’t actually see the gauges. This depends on your leg and arm length of course, but ends up giving you a cramped feel as you reach to shift gears.

We also had a glitch with the iPhone 4. VW offers a 30-pin connector so you can listen to your music (not for importing any though, since there is no hard disk). If you enable Bluetooth audio and connect your phone to the car making calls, the iPhone won’t work initially with the 30-pin. To make it work, we had to re-connect the phone each time we went for a drive, a minor irritant. (VW told us the glitch is related to a firmware problem on the iPhone that Apple is working to fix.)

There’s one other small complaint: On the Jetta, when you need to go in reverse, you have to push down on the shifter and then slide over to the left. This wisely prevents someone from accidently shifting into reverse while the car is moving forward, but it’s also not that intuitive.

Final thoughts

With the 5-speed transmission, the Jetta just sips fuel. It’s rated for 25mpg in the city and 36mpg highway for the SE model we tested. We never had to fill the tank during our week-long test. There’s plenty of trunk space, standards offerings for power locks and windows, and other niceties.

Overall, the 2011 Jetta is a smart buy. For a low price compared to other sedans, you can buy a car that you’ll actually enjoy driving. After a long driving tour on road near tall pine trees and shimmering lakes, shifting down to test acceleration and taking curves at 65MPH, we can tell you that the 2011 Jetta is one of the most exciting vehicles we’ve tested in some time – and now it’s even affordable.