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Volkswagen’s had a tough row to hoe in the U.S. Buyers want the German feel, but don’t want to pay the premium price for German engineering.
Case in point: the compact Jetta sedan, which costs a couple thousand dollars more on average than a Honda Civic or Ford Focus, and has had a difficult time breaking into the mainstream.
For decades, VW has stuck to its guns with the Jetta’s all-independent suspension, high-quality interior, tight handling and relatively compact dimensions. Until now.
For 2011, the Jetta is pitching itself as a stronger value than ever, and it’s getting there in some interesting, inside-baseball ways. You might not care that the Jetta’s rear suspension is an older, cheaper design that’s not fully independent. You may be able to look past its downgraded interior and instead, admire the much roomier back seat, essentially a custom fit for American buyers. The aged 115-horsepower four-cylinder that’s returned to the lineup might fit your frugal needs just fine. And you might be perfectly happy with the new navigation system, which also runs your iPod and Bluetooth streaming and satellite radio, so long as no one tells you about the more user-friendly kit in the similarly sized, much less expensive Kia Forte.
Despite all its on-paper downgrades, the Jetta still shines in its traditional ways. The handling doesn’t seem to take a step back in time; it’s sharper than anything in this class, with a perfect ride quality that eludes all of the Japanese competition, period. It steers and brakes with a more connected feel, too. The back seat? No longer an issue, as six-footers can fit behind tall drivers and come out ahead on leg room. They’ve even turned the grumpy five-cylinder into a fairly enthusiastic piece, playing up its grunty torque and muting its off-key rumble. Designers have fixed the old Jetta’s Corolla-ish face, too.
Still, there are exactly two Jetta sedans and one wagon that strike us as the best of the line--and just one of them will wear this new set of Italian-styled clothes and harbor all this back-seat space. The Jetta TDI clean diesel arrives by the end of the year, fitted into this roomy new body, sporting the same 42-mpg highway fuel economy rating as the 2010 model, and shifting gears with VW’s sweet DSG dual-clutch gearbox. It’s the killer application of all ideas VW, and it shows in sales, accounting for almost 50 percent of Jetta sales.
The other two versions? The Jetta SportWagen, which doesn’t migrate to this new body style, and the Jetta GLI turbo four-door, which keeps the old Jetta look and independent rear end, too. None of these will be the big value that VW can trumpet along with the 115-hp, $16,000 stripper Jetta—they’ll be more like $25,000 and change.
That underscores how VW hasn’t really solved the inside-baseball part of the problem—even though it’s made good progress in bringing you more Jetta for about the same price.