2011 Volkswagen Jetta: First Drive

Volkswagen is pushing to become a bigger player in the U.S. market, and the redesigned 2011 Jetta compact sedan represents a key component in its strategy. In its quest to compete better with mainstream models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, however, the Jetta — by far Volkswagen's best-selling model in the U.S. — has lost some of the premium attributes that have defined the car and the brand in recent years. On the other hand, it features more backseat room and retains the current car's exceptional handling performance.
Most models, including the diesel TDI trim level, arrive this fall. A high-performance GLI version hits dealerships in the spring.
One of the most significant changes to the Jetta lineup is the addition of a new base trim level that starts at $15,995, not including the $770 destination charge, but after driving an uplevel SEL model, which starts at $21,395, it's evident cost-cutting has occurred across the sedan's range and not just the base version. Sections of the interior, like the dashboard, that were previously finished in upscale, soft-touch materials are now hard plastic (albeit decent-looking plastic). The front center armrest that used to be adjustable now isn't. The manual air-conditioning knobs have a vague, sloppy feel. And overall, fit-and-finish quality has declined.
We've heaped considerable praise on VW interiors in the past because they offered exceptional materials and detailing that surpassed that of some so-called luxury cars, but much of that is absent in the new Jetta. It's gone from class-leading to competent. There's no question the new Jetta's interior represents a step backward for the car, and while it might not bother shoppers coming from a Civic or Corolla, current Volkswagen customers will notice the changes right away — and they probably won't be pleased.
On the plus side, the Jetta still offers a relatively enjoyable driving experience for a front-wheel-drive compact sedan. Like we've come to expect from Volkswagens, the car feels solid and planted in corners, with limited body roll whether you have the Sport Package or not. Sport models have a 15-mm lower ride height, a sport suspension, sport seats and alloy pedals. Non-Sport models offer slightly better damping, but overall the Jetta's ride quality is pretty firm. It reminds me of the Civic, a car that's fairly sensitive to pavement imperfections.
It only takes a light touch to steer the Jetta, as the power-steering system provides quite a bit of assistance. The car responds relatively crisply, but I'm disappointed with the lack of feedback in the steering wheel; it isolates you from the driving experience, as you don't have any sense of what's happening where the tires meet the road.
Despite the addition of a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine in base S trim levels, Volkswagen expects the 170-hp, 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder gas engine will be the volume motor. Perhaps that’s why the company didn’t bring the new base power plant to the media launch event we attended.

On the hilly roads in and around San Francisco where I tested the Jetta, the inline-five engine felt strong enough, and it had power to spare for confident passing on flat rural roads. Despite the odd-number cylinder count, it's a surprisingly smooth-revving engine.
A manual transmission is standard, but the Jettas I tested had the optional six-speed automatic. The automatic's shifts are seamless, and it willingly kicks down when more power is needed. However, the transmission tends to downshift a little too aggressively when powering out of a tight corner. The bigger issue, though, is throttle lag. The car would sometimes bog down for a half-second just after accelerating from a stop.
The Jetta's front bucket seats are supportive, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position. All models have manually adjustable seats, but the lever for reclining the backrest is in a somewhat awkward location on the lower side of the seats. The seats that are part of the Sport Package have more aggressive side bolsters, and while they aren't restrictive, the bolsters keep you in place when cornering. Cloth upholstery is standard, but the seats in the cars I tested had Volkswagen's V-Tex simulated leather, which looks and feels quite a bit like the real thing.

The Jetta has a clear edge over its competitors in terms of backseat space. When sitting in the back of the Civic, Corolla or Nissan Sentra, my knees generally touch the back of the front seat or are pressed into it. I'm 6-foot-1, and in the Jetta I had an inch or two of space between my knees and the front seats, with the front seat positioned where I'd drive.

Along with its large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk, the Jetta is roomy enough to comfortably carry four adults and their things.

Volkswagen says price is a reason why consumers avoid its cars. While the automaker has attempted to address that with the new lower-cost base Jetta, in doing so it has created a range of cars that are less likely to appeal to VW's core enthusiast buyers who appreciate the combination of upscale finishes and driving fun that the automaker's cars have offered. For a brand like VW, which can't hang its hat on a history of reliability the way Honda and Toyota can, that's a risky move but one the company seems willing to take.



Fred Bulkowski

Thanks for the review. I was researching the 2011 TDI.So many versions. I am confused.
Will the Pasat be TDI also.
Maybe they will put luxury in this model.
The move to cheapen the Jetta will fail.No one will buy the cheap version.

John B.

Good review -- thanks. What a disappointment on the interior quality. I was seriously contemplating downgrading from a 2007 BMW 328i to a 2011 Jetta TDI, as BMW seems to not want to bring a fuel-efficient model to the U.S.


"Volkswagen says price is a reason why consumers avoid its cars."

It is actually high price with low reliability combination.

Mazda3 is also higher priced car but it is fun to drive, fairly efficient and quality all over the place. And they have disk brakes standard.

People avoid VW because they realized that VW is German Fiat. It has style but no quality.


Any word on what will happen to the wagon? It seems to be selling well, will it be phased out?


The recently updated, current-generation Jetta SportWagen will continue being sold alongside the redesigned Jetta sedan for the duration of its lifecycle, we're told, so expect the wagon to be available for a few years to come in its current form.


After reading this, I'm glad I decided to go with the 2010 VW Golf TDI. I'm really loving it. I think it's so much more fun to drive. I like the styling in the GOLF. Like having the cloth seats. However, wished they had offer more interior colors with the TDI model. I do like the new look of the 2011 Jetta but I think they should offer the same quality in the newer car to maintain their loyal customer base.

Jason L.

VW has failed with this car. I definitely expected more from VW.


I would only buy one for the diesel. But even then, I would much rather have an A3.


I think a used Audi A4 would be more enjoyable than this new Jetta. It's a shame because VW used to have a knack for stylish interiors.


Both the 5 cylinder and 115hp engines leave a lot to be desired. I suspect VW will be pumping a higher than normal number of Jetta's into fleet rentals when the sales disappoint.


I have a 2010 JSW TDI and I think that those who say VW's are unrealiable are bonkers. I've had VW's, Hondas, Toyotas, Fords. The only one I wouldn't call reliable was the Ford. But VW's have style, comfort, handling...

I love my SportWagen like nobody's business. If you want efficiency, and style, and comfort, and standard features, get the SportWagen TDI!


Sportwagon has a nicer interior than the new Jetta, but lacks about three inches of rear legroom - that means no sale. VW cheaped out by not making a wagon version of the new roomier car. The TDI is slower but ends up being the most expensive version of the new Jetta. The guy who commented on buying a TDI Golf has it right - it's a more upscale interior than the new Jetta. As indicated in the photo above, the new Jetta has the el cheapo trunk hinges that intrude into the cargo area and crush cargo. When did they drop the non-intrusive hinges?


Why do so many auto reviewers obsesses over the plasticity of a (mass market) car's dashboard? Is there some rule that every such automobile review must include some caressing of the dash?

Ordinary car buyers could care less.


Leather seats (or V-Tec or whatever the heck it is) is as waste of effort and money in this class of car - not to mention hot and sticky and annoying. Be better to use cloth across the board and install a fuel efficient 140 HP regular-octane-gasoline 4-cyl.

Toyota gets about 140 HP out of its 1.8 - go knows why Volkswagen insists on some ancient, inefficient, underpowered 2.0 liter. Geez.

VW consistently only makes a half-effort in the US...and the reliability and service will probably still stink.

The new, excellent Chevy Cruze will easily outsell the Jetta 5 to 1.


Typical American car company maneuver: Take your best selling model known for interior quality and downgrade it and expect to sell more. Just the style should have been updated, and maybe the new smaller engine. I wish VW luck.

Post a Comment 

Please remember a few rules before posting comments:

  • If you don't want people to see your email address, simply type in the URL of your favorite website or leave the field empty.
  • Do not mention specific car dealers by name. Feel free to mention your city, state and brand.
  • Try to be civil to your fellow blog readers. This blog is not a fan or enthusiast forum, it is meant to help people during the car-buying process and during the time between purchases, so shoppers can keep a pulse on the market.
  • Stay on topic. We want to hear your opinions and thoughts, but please only comment about the specified topic in the blog post.
view posting rules

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Search Results

KickingTires Search Results for

Search Kicking Tires

KickingTires iPhone App