2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan Review

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Martin Padgett Martin Padgett Editorial Director
July 30, 2010

Buying tip

A hybrid Jetta is in the VW plan for 2012. It will sport lithium-ion batteries, and a small gas engine with both turbocharging and supercharging.

The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta steps back in tech time and lowers its German street cred—but still delivers a better driving feel and more back-seat room than many other compact sedans.

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.

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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.

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted diesel engines in this model illegally cheated federal tests and polluted beyond allowable limits. As part of unprecedented settlements with federal and state governments, Volkswagen agreed to buyback from owners diesel-equipped models of this vehicle. To determine eligibility for all affected Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi models, Volkswagen set up VWDieselInfo.com for owners. (Owners of affected vehicles can enter their VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

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.


2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan


The 2011 VW Jetta wins points for subtle good taste…then trips on its own history of high-buck interiors with lackluster-feeling finishes.

VW types are excited over the new styling direction of the Jetta. Are we missing something? It’s handsome, but is it distinctive? To our eyes, the new sedan is good-looking in an upright way, with lots of new facets and creases folded in at the hand of VW design guru Walter d’Silva. The big VW emblem sits on a thin ribbed grille, and the angled headlamps and taillamps are shapely enough.

It’s different, but not more daring. The side view looks less like the Toyota Corolla, but more like the Honda Civic, while the “tornado” line and deep side sculpting doesn’t lead to any interesting point, unlike the similar line on the Audi A6. It does relieve what would otherwise be a tall, thick door and a droopy front and rear. What’s missing is the pert, high-trunked stance that made the Jetta a standout in the 1990s. That car looked exactly like what it was--a Golf with a trunk—and since then it’s veered down the road to anonymity. If you think we’re off-base, we’d kindly direct you to our photos of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra or the striking 2012 Ford Focus.

You’ll find the same familiarity inside, and here the cost-cutting has taken a toll. VW interiors have been lauded far and wide for their high-dollar feel. This very straightforward design has some very pleasing, low-key details. It’s just slathered in lots of lower-rent plastic, a disappointing downturn from the prior Jetta. They’ve inserted loving details where possible: the big round gauges are in classic VW style, the vinyl seats have sporty horizontal ridges, and the shifter’s capped with a metallic stripe. It looks quite a lot like the past Jetta cabin—it’s just gone downmarket a bit.

That said it’s nearly impossible to lose your way in this cockpit, even if the pushbutton to start is down in front of the shifter, not up near a standard key slot. You can’t say that for the obtuse Honda Civic dash.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan


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.

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.

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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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Comfort & Quality

The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta welcomes adults in any seat with comfort and ample space.

When size matters, it’s important to pick the right cars to compare. The new VW Jetta is longer and larger than before, and it stacks up against some interesting hardware—some of which may surprise you in their close competition with bigger, more luxurious cars.

At 182.2 inches long, with a 104-inch wheelbase, the new 2011 Jetta sits 2.9 inches longer than previous models. The victim of that growth is…the current VW Passat. The Jetta has a wheelbase two inches shorter but sports just as much front leg room, and more back-seat leg room than its premium sibling. The Jetta’s trunk is larger, too. All of which underscores our reporting last year on VW’s plan to eliminate the Passat from the U.S. market when the company launches its American-made “NMS” sedan in 2012.

Other vehicles that square up nicely against the Jetta include the Kia Forte, which trades a coupe of inches of back-seat room for more front-seat space; the Honda Civic, which has a longer wheelbase but gives up precious back-seat room to its ridiculous sloping windshield; and the Suzuki Kizashi, with back-seat room a couple of inches shy of the Jetta. Moving up a class, the Subaru Legacy and Hyundai Sonata both are much longer in wheelbase, but give up an inch or three in back-seat leg room—and with the Legacy, a cubic foot of trunk space, too.

The new Jetta package erases any notions of cramped interiors, as it was charged to do. In our Sport test car, the sporty vinyl seats in front had impressive bolstering that struck a good balance between grip and give. (Cloth seats are available only on the base Jetta, in case you were wondering.) It’s evident there’s more elbow room, but some of it's wasted: the driver sits somewhat inboard, which means more space on the left side of the seat than on the right. In back, the leg room will allow the Jetta to transport adult pals, though a sunroof will eat into headroom for anyone over 5’ 10”.  

Inside the cabin, VW fits a decently sized glovebox, and hides the iPod port inside it—whether you like it there or not. At least it’s somewhat secured from sight. A shallow bin ahead of the shifter can hold other thin items, and the doors have molded-in bottle holders to go with the center console’s large cupholders. The Jetta trunk is spacious, with low liftover and a wide opening, but has gooseneck-style hinges that could pose trouble if you fill it to the brim. The rear seat folds down with a narrow opening to the cabin—and the flip-down controls are pull knobs located inside the trunk itself, just as in the Hyundai Sonata. When you think about it, the location makes better sense—and it’s probably much less expensive to manufacture.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan


It’s missing the add-on safety frills, but the untested Jetta does come with the mandatory hardware to earn some advance credit.

To date, we’re still waiting on crash-test scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Past Jettas have done very well in these rigorous exams, but since the new car’s body structure is significantly adapted from the prior versions, we’ll wait to give it a final score until these agencies have had their say.

We’ve given the provisional score of 8 to the Jetta for its complete set of safety gear. Six airbags are standard, including dual front, side and curtain airbags. So are stability control and anti-lock brakes; active headrests; and tire pressure monitors. The Jetta also features a crash-response system that turns off the fuel and turns on the flashers after an airbag deploys.

Visibility inside the Jetta is fine. Big glass areas, low rear headrests and the simply styled C-pillar all stay out of your way when you need to see the world behind you. However, the Jetta doesn’t offer anything along the lines of blind-spot detectors, rearview cameras, or parking sensors—features you can find on some of its four-door challengers.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan


Volkswagen’s worked hard to trim down its Jetta to the most popular configurations, but we’re still puzzling over the audio half-step and the total omission of a high-profit leather interior as an option.

You can order the new Jetta in one of four trims this year. Counting out the turbo GLI until we learn of an on-sale date, these models include the base S, the SE, the SEL and the TDI.

The 2011 VW Jetta S comes with a smattering of standard features above the safety stuff, the manual five-speed shifter and the 115-hp four. At $15,995 plus another $700 for destination, this Jetta brings with it air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; adjustable cloth front seats; split-folding rear seats; and an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack.

Opt up to the Jetta SE with the five-cylinder engine and VW adds on vinyl upholstery; iPod connectivity; satellite radio; Bluetooth; heated seats; a center console; cruise control; interior chrome-look trim; a locking glove box; and floor mats. A Convenience package adds in leather trim on the steering wheel and audio controls on it, too. We’d prefer the roller controls from other VW/Audi products, as these don’t control all the modes and functions of the upgraded audio systems. A Sunroof package adds touchscreen controls for the audio system and the retractable glass roof. (The TDI Jetta will be equipped like this version, adding in the DSG transmission and a navigation system as an option.)

The Jetta SEL bundles everything but the sunroof and touchscreen from other models, and piles on fog lamps; 17-inch wheels; rear disc brakes; pushbutton start and keyless entry. A sunroof and a Sport package with tighter suspension settings, grippy seats and metallic trim can be fitted on this version.

The SEL also adds a touchscreen navigation and audio system that does a fine job, though it’s not hooked into the Bluetooth wave as is Ford’s SYNC. Sound quality is above average, though the bass is flat and inarticulate. At least the system remembers your iPod settings so when you reconnect after Starbucks; fear not, you're still in "random" and "five star songs" mode.

Missing from this list, anywhere, are cloth seats on anything but the base car—and leather on any version. You can’t get hides on a $22,000 Jetta SEL, but it comes with a $19,000 Kia Forte.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Fuel Economy

The 2011 VW Jetta scores points for an all-fronts battle for fuel economy; the TDI’s the killer application of the company’s know-how.

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted diesel engines in this model illegally cheated federal tests and polluted beyond allowable limits. As part of unprecedented settlements with federal and state governments, Volkswagen agreed to buyback from owners diesel-equipped models of this vehicle. To determine eligibility for all affected Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi models, Volkswagen set up VWDieselInfo.com for owners. (Owners of affected vehicles can enter their VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

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August 31, 2015
2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan 4-Door DSG TDI w/Nav

2011 Jetta TDI not made the way they used to be.

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My 2011 Jetta TDI was disappointing. I have owned 9 VW's and this one was a let down. The fit and finish were not what I've gotten used to from VW. The seat started falling apart at the seams after 2 years... + More »
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