New VW Jetta is Better…and Not

2011 Volkswagen Jetta

I jumped at the offer to drive one of the first 2011 Volkswagen Jettas to land in the Southern California press fleet late last summer. The completely redesigned car had gotten a lot of fanfare for being all new and much larger than the outgoing model. It also boasted improved safety features.

What I hadn’t realized was how much they had downscaled the car in terms of content while taking its dimensions upscale. I’ve driven many types of Jettas over the years, really liking what VW offered as an alternative to other compact sedans. Unfortunately, I was handed the key to a base model, the one that’s advertised at $14,995.

In a word, it was pretty awful. The sole option was an automatic transmission to supplant the standard 5-speed manual, and that actually made the car worse. Under its hood was Volkswagen’s ancient, underpowered 2.0 liter four that spits out only 115 horsepower. The automatic saps so much of what little power there is that I had to continually stick my foot to the floor in order to get up to freeway speeds.

Adding to the low-rent engine was an equally downscale interior, with lots of cheap looking plastic and seat fabric that seemed like something off the benches in a transit bus. Outside, the sell-this-car-at-a-low-price theme continued with puny wheels and tires and, believe it or not, drum brakes on the rear wheels. Really? Drum brakes in 2011? Unbelievable.

I couldn’t wait to get rid of that car, and asked the nice folks at Volkswagen if I might try something that’s a little more in line with what buyers have come to expect from the brand. They scheduled me into a GLS Sport Package version, and what a difference the upgrade makes. The interior was much nicer, the boat anchor of an engine was gone and replaced with VW’s zippy 2.5 liter inline five cylinder, and a handsome set of aluminum wheels wore 17” tires. Oh, and there were disc brakes at all four corners.

Yes, that second Jetta was stickered at $22,995 and not the loss leader “under fifteen thousand” model (try actually finding one at a dealer…Enterprise and other car rental companies will probably snatch them all up). But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. To me, the higher priced version is more like what Volkswagen buyers expect.

You see, in the past, VW never tried to compete with the likes of the Corolla and Civic on price. They knew that their customers would spend a bit more to get a somewhat premium vehicle, kind of an Audi or BMW substitute for those who couldn’t quite afford them. Little things throughout the car were paid attention to in order to give the car a bit more cachet.

As one example, last summer I drove the TDI Cup edition of the 2010 Jetta. In that car’s door pockets, there’s a soft liner on the bottom, much as you’d have with pretty much any vehicle that stickers above $25,000.

But in the new Jetta, you toss in your house keys, change or cell phone and hear a harsh “clack-siss” since the bottom of the compartment is just hard plastic. You must then listen to said objects slide around like utensils in a bachelor’s kitchen drawer every time the car stops or accelerates. What did they save on each car leaving those liners out…two bucks? Put ‘em back in and charge $2 more for the car, I say.

Oh, and hey, Volkswagen, bring the rest of the car back up to previous Jetta standards while you’re at it. Leave the $15,000 price point for those other guys.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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