San Francisco— Pardon the pun, but it may come as a shock to learn that in the early 1980s, the first-generation Volkswagen Jetta was available as an electric vehicle. In the U.S., the company called it the Jetta City, and it boasted a 37.5-hp electric motor and a range of 155 miles. So it should come as no surprise that, according to Martin Winterkorn, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, the future of the automobile does not necessarily revolve around internal combustion technology. "The new Jetta is a strong bridge to the electric era," Winterkorn says.
It's back to the future all over again. By 2012, Volkswagen of America's bread-and-butter sales leader will be available with a hybrid engine. After crossing that bridge, the electric era road points toward Palo Alto, where Martin Eberhardt, the co-founder of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors, now works for Volkswagen. Eberhardt's bet is that batteries—thousands of them, networked together—are the ideal fuel for your motor. "They don't require oil, or spark plugs, or exhaust systems," Eberhardt says. "I have solar cells on my roof, and use clean energy from the sun to power my car."
But that's putting the cart before the horse. For the moment, the Jetta enters its sixth generation offering a total of five trim levels (S, SE, SEL, TDI and the soon-to-come GLI) and four different engines—a 2.0-liter Four, a 2.5-liter inline Five, a turbodiesel 2.0-liter TDI, and a fuel-injected 2.0-liter TSI—none of which is electric.
With a starting price of around $16,000 ($15,995 plus $760 destination charge), the 2011 Jetta S is considerably cheaper than last year's base model, which retailed for $17,700. "The Jetta has been considered too expensive," David Sweet, a marketing manager at Volkswagen, admits. Of course, it was car buyers who were doing the considering in the American car market, and many of them were turning to Asian brands, VW claims, for a lower base price and cloth-covered seats.
So the company reduced the Jetta's prohibitive price by removing a few niceties. For example, the rear disc brakes on S and SE models have been replaced with cheaper drums. The former independent rear suspension is now a torsion beam (except on the more upscale GLI model, which retains its independence). The electric steering assist is now hydraulic. And the new interior is, well, highly plastic.
Starting in October, the Jetta will arrive stateside from its Puebla, Mexico, birthplace with several engine options: The base S model gets an underwhelming 2.0-liter with 115 hp. Step up to the SE and SEL models, and you get the 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder engine that puts 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque through an automatic transmission. Next up the price ladder is the turbodiesel (TDI), which uses common rail injection to generate 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque (the TDI also uses a DSG transmission to snap off 60 mph runs in 8.7 seconds). Patient GLI customers will be rewarded early next year with a 2.0-liter TSI good for 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, and zero to 60 in 6.7 seconds (6.8 seconds with the DSG).
In Volkswagen's unofficial mileage estimates, the 2.5 will return 23/33 mpg city/highway. The 2.0-liter doesn't fare much better, at 24/34 mpg. In contrast, VW says that the TDI diesel model will get 30 to 42 mpg.
Size-wise, the new Jetta is 2.9 inches longer than the 2010 model, and 110 pounds lighter, despite the presence of four motors in the doors that automatically power up and down all the windows (a relative luxury in this class). Nearly all of that extra length goes into accommodating rear passengers. Rear legroom has increased some 2.7 inches to 38.1 inches, or just 0.3 of an inch less than in a short-wheelbase BMW 7 Series.
Safety equipment includes six standard airbags; ABS; stability control; and a new crash response system that unlocks the doors, shuts off the fuel pump, and turns on the hazard lights in the event of an impact.
At its press introduction, the only Jetta Volkswagen made available was the SEL trim level, in a variety of sport and non-sport models. We tested both versions with manual and automatic transmissions, 17-inch wheels, the touch-screen nav with SD memory card reader, and four-wheel disc brakes (the rear drums, again, are only standard on the S and SE models). The sport package lowers the chassis 15 mm, and adds bolstered front seats and alloy pedals.
The Jetta's key fob still feature's a flip-open metal key, but that's just for the valet. To start the engine, simply push the little red start button, and away you go.
For added convenience, there's an optional touch-screen navigation display. "You don't have to learn it; it learns you," Sweet says. Unfortunately, the two of us didn't have a chance to become well acquainted within only a few hundred miles of driving, but we can say that although the screen is not very large (at just 5 inches), the navigation commands—delivered in an authoritative female voice—are highly accurate. The controls are fairly easy to use by trial and error, but they require navigating a field of unintuitive icons. I never could figure out how to pair my phone via Bluetooth.
The dashboard may be composed of hard plastic, but the parts that you're most likely to —steering wheel, shift grip, door handles—provide more of a quality feel. As the primary control, the steering is weighty and firm (definitely more closely related to Porsche than Pontiac), and provides a fair amount of feedback from the road.
As for the ride and handling, the Jetta SEL does everything competently, except for storming downhill over undulating mountain roads at exceedingly high velocities (the car immediately behind us reported that while traversing one such treacherous section of the Pacific Coast Highway, our right rear wheel lifted from the ground, which explains the uneasy feeling I experienced while in the passenger seat). It's enough to make you wonder what an independent rear suspension would do differently.
Drive at more sane speeds, as I did, and the Jetta's chassis absorbs bumps quite well, exhibiting minimal body roll. At full throttle, the 2.5-liter sounds like half a Lamborghini Gallardo engine—rough and raspy, but perhaps louder than necessary. We could have used more mid-range power, because overtaking more than one car at a time at 50 to 60 mph is not this car's strong suit. The 200 hp engine in the GLI might be more our speed.
The SEL's disc brakes proved to be strong and free from fade, but again, we didn't get a chance to try out the drums of the S or SE models, so please, try before you buy.
The Bottom Line
Aside from its formerly high base price, the Jetta has been competing in its segment at another disadvantage: VW only backed its products with a two-year or 24,000-mile warranty (whichever came first). Not exactly competitive with the 10-year, 100,000-mile warranties offered by South Korean manufacturers. However, VW's new three-year, 36,000-mile "Carefree Maintenance" guarantee should win some converts.
Therefore, the sixth-generation 2011 Jetta is worth serious consideration, provided you opt for the 2.0-liter TSI or TDI engines. It offers more rear legroom than either the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla. It's available with a diesel engine for $22,995 (a navigation system is an additional $1200, and automatic transmissions add $1000). With the sport package (lower suspension and alloy pedals), the SEL model we drove starts at $22,995. Pricing for the GLI model has not yet been announced, so currently the top model is the TDI, at $24,995.
If all goes according to plan, Winterkorn predicts that by 2018, VW and Audi will top one million U.S. sales. The Jetta remains VW's most important North American model, and now there are only 18 different configurations—buyers canchoose between automatic and manual transmissions, sport and regular suspensions, sunroofs or none, and a paint color.