The automotive equivalent of marching to a different drummer probably is something like motoring to a different gear ratio.
Whatever, it’s been a Volkswagen hallmark from the get-go. The first car from the German manufacturer was the venerable Beetle, which arrived on these shores shortly after World War II.
It had a rear engine when other cars had one up front. The engine was air-cooled when the others used water and/or antifreeze. It also was laid out horizontally when the cylinders on other engines stood vertically or leaned sideways.
Volkswagen followed the Beetle with the Karmann-Ghia sport coupe and convertible, which won awards for artistic expression, and the microbus, which was an artless box for carrying maximum loads of people and cargo.
Even after the Beetle went away in 1975, the company persisted in delivering models that mocked those offered by competitors. Americans didn’t much like hatchbacks so VW offered the Rabbit and Golf hatchbacks. Customers weren’t crazy about station wagons, especially those with only two doors, so Volkswagen came out with the Fox.
The contrariness continued even after the company settled in and flirted with the mainstream. Its models usually were out of sync with what competitors offered. Not surprisingly, it eventually created an impression—based on fact, actually—that Volkswagens tended to be pricier than roughly comparable American and imported vehicles.
Like a giant luxury cruise liner, Volkswagen has now made a course correction. It’s called the 201 1 VW Jetta, to be followed by an as-yet unnamed mid-size car.
The Jetta is all-new, with a lower price, and has been reconfigured to go fender to fender against everything that the lucrative and competitive compact family sedan class has to offer: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Mitsubishi Lancer and Suzuki SX4.
The restyled Jetta is almost three inches longer than its predecessor. That extra length has gone entirely into the passenger area, which now measures 94 cubic feet, three more than the 2010 model. However, the generous trunk for which previous Jettas were famous has been shaved slightly, though it still is as big or bigger than trunks on some mid-sized sedans.
The extra passenger space means that the back seat can accommodate most adults with enough knee and head room, even in models where the sunroof deletes some noggin space.
Also newsworthy is the new pricing scheme. Mark Jo, the Jetta’s product manager, said the Jetta had high awareness among potential buyers but many refused to consider it because they viewed it as too high priced.
But now the base S model starts at $15,995, including the destination charge. It comes with a low-power, high-economy 2-liter four-cylinder engine with 115 horsepower and an EPA city/highway fuel consumption rating of 24/34 miles to the gallon.
With the standard five-speed manual gearbox, Volkswagen says the S can accelerate to 60 miles an hour in less than 10 seconds. The time jumps to 11 seconds with the six-speed automatic.
Standard equipment includes side air bags, side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning, AM/FM radio with CD player, power windows and door locks, and remote locking.
Moving up to the SE model at $18,195 adds the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, cruise control, vinyl upholstery (called V-Tex leatherette), center console, rear center armrest, 16-inch wheels and various trim combinations. VW also will offer a 140-horsepower diesel four-cylinder model with a price tag of $22,295.
The top-of-the-line SEL comes three ways: ways: standard at $21,395, with a sunroof at $22,395 and with a sport package at $22,295. There are no stand-alone options.
The test car was an SEL with the five-speed manual gearbox and the sport package, which consists of a more tightly snubbed suspension system for better handling, front seats with more prominent side bolsters and aluminum pedals. A version with a six-speed automatic transmission also is available.
Not available at introduction was VW’s 200-horsepower turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine, which will be the motive power for the GLI model. It will be available with the company’s twin-clutch direct-shift transmission, a clutch-less manual gearbox that also shifts automatically.
The tested SEL, with the familiar 170-horsepower four, performed adequately, although it bogged down somewhat off the line and required frequent manipulation of the shift lever to keep it in the power band. Clutch action was smooth, though it engaged near the top of the pedal travel, but the shift linkage was bump-free.
Steering and handling delivered a tactile, Germanic feel that is not usually present in lower-priced compact cars. Inside, the manually-adjustable driver’s seat could be fine-tuned to suit almost any torso, and the V-Tex vinyl upholstery, though sticky in summer heat, looked good and was not much worse than leather. Instruments were easy to see and did not reflect light. But the sun visors did not slide on their support rods to adequately block sunlight from the side.
The new Jettas are poised to capture more sales than their 108,427 in 2009. They only need more people to take a look.
- Model: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL four-door sedan.
- Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 170 horsepower.
- Transmission: Five-speed manual.
- Overall length: 15 feet 2 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 94/16 cubic feet.
- Weight: 3,018 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 23/33 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $21,395.
- Base dealer cost: $20,570.
- Price as tested: $22,295.