Review: Volkswagen 2011 Jetta

For the first time, the Volkswagen Jetta is more than a Golf with a trunk. Much more.

The all-new 2011 Jetta is bigger, more attractive and (surprise) cheaper. It is, in a word, terrific despite some flaws. It has to be, because Volkswagen is making the Jetta, its most popular model in the U.S., the centerpiece of a campaign to triple sales by 2018.

To achieve that lofty goal, VW aimed the sixth-gen Jetta at the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. But going head-to-head with two perennial best-sellers meant dropping the Jetta’s base price to just $15,995. In doing that, VW cut some corners, even on the upscale SEL version ($21,895) we spent a day in.

The biggest changes are to the interior, where you’ll find a lot of hard, shiny plastic where VW once used more upscale materials. Some of the knobs and switches feel flimsy. Leather is no longer an option. And though the interior is spacious and comfortable, it doesn’t have quite the same fit and finish as earlier models.

The base model gets a 2.0-liter four cylinder with 115 horsepower and 125 pound feet, but Volkswagen expects most people to choose the bigger mill. The diesel gets a 2.0-liter TDI with 140 horsepower.

We pushed the Jetta hard through the twisties north of San Francisco and found it taut and responsive. There’s no need to wear Pilotis to drive this car, but the handling is excellent for an entry-level sedan. The ride is firm but comfortable, even on potholed city streets. Our only complaint is the power steering is a bit numb. If you really like attacking winding roads, choose the sport package — stiffer suspension, firmer seats and aluminum pedals — or wait for the 200-horsepower GLI. It’s expected early next year.

The interior is spacious, with firm, supportive seats and a steering wheel that feels great in your hands. All of the controls fall readily to hand, and they’re easy to use, especially the intuitive infotainment navi system. The roomy back seat is equally comfortable, with loads of leg- and headroom even with the front seats all the way back. That’s because the 2011 Jetta is 2.9 inches longer than the 2010 model.

VW has no plans to update the Jetta SportWagen anytime soon because it was reworked last year as a 2010 model. As for the hybrid, we’ll have to wait until 2012.

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