2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan Performance

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Performance

The 2011 VW Jetta lineup eventually will include a choice of three engines. By year’s end, Volkswagen will have a full lineup of powertrains available in this new body style. A 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder will be available with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic—and honestly, we can’t imagine anyone other than the most frugal Germanophiles looking seriously into this price leader. Low power and a 2800-pound curb weight tend not to mix well, and VW admits the automatic version of this Jetta will struggle to hit 60 mph in 11 seconds. That’s Smart ForTwo territory, and slower than a Honda Insight.

The version we all want is VW’s clean-diesel TDI. In showrooms by December, the TDI will bring back the VW oil-burner for 42-mpg highway fuel economy and a 0-60 mph time of 8.7 seconds, along with a choice of manual or dual-clutch transmissions. It’s our favorite current Jetta, and no doubt will be the best of the new breed.

The 2011 Jetta has that much-praised German ride and good steering, though we still think most VW-inclined buyers will want the pricier diesel TDI or turbo GLI powertrains.

Further in the haze are the Jetta GLI, which sports today’s 2.0-liter turbo four with 207 horsepower, with an independent suspension and a choice of gearboxes. That and the coming Jetta Hybrid should both be tagged as 2012 models.

For the launch of the vehicle, where we first drove the new sedan, VW had only its plushest versions available—the five-cylinder versions that represent the strongest value for new converts to the VW fold.  For now, we can only comment on this version, which we pushed into the coastal roads north of San Francisco. More so than in the past, the Jetta impressed us with a grunty feel—and without the grumpy engine sounds that usually come from off-note five-cylinder engines. It’s torquey enough for a vehicle of its size and weight (about 3100 pounds), and couples with the automatic box very well.

We do wish VW’s conventional automatics came with shift paddles like its DSG boxes; the automatic has a sport-shift feature on its lever that makes drivers pull a hand from the wheel to play around in the gears, which respond sweetly to on-call gear changes. VW promises a 0-60 mph time of 8.5 seconds with the six-speed automatic we drove all day, and it’s likely a few tenths quicker. Top speed is pegged at 127 mph.

Much has been made of the Jetta’s switch to a non-independent rear suspension, and the downgrade of rear disc brakes to drums on the two low-level trims. Our Jetta SEL, with a Sport package, couldn’t have cared less that its torsion-beam rear axle is theoretically less articulate. Torsion beams on a smaller car, like the Golf, can cause unusual lifting in hard corners, but the Jetta simply sawed into the Marin headlands without any fuss, its hydraulic steering responding in a logical way unlike the electric steering from last year’s version. This Jetta even captures the elusive Germanic ride quality that makes itself known in audible tire slap, a light pistoning motion over bumps, and utter control, otherwise. There’s none of the bounding and hopping you feel in a Kia Forte, just controlled response. Brake feel is strong, confident and deep—though we’re curious to see how those drums feel after a few winding roads.

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