By Mark Phelan, McClatchy/Tribune news
6:37 PM EST, December 9, 2010
Executives at Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, must stifle a yawn and reach for the NoDoz when they hear an American is coming to visit.
How else do you explain the soporific 2011 Jetta, which VW developed specifically to appeal to Americans? The compact sedan has the visual flair of a beige ceiling and the steering feel of a Novocain smoothie. It's a far cry from the taut and responsive small cars VW usually builds.
The roomy and practical Jetta does offer a long list of features, however.
The 2011 VW Jetta's base model includes a 115-horsepower 2-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission.
Volkswagen did not make a base Jetta available to test, but 115 horsepower divided by 3,000 pounds of curb weight sounds like another tranquilizer in the car's medicine cabinet.
Most buyers will probably upgrade to a 2.5-liter 170-horsepower 5-cylinder engine.
VW also offers a powerful and fuel-efficient 2-liter turbodiesel with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch automatic.
A sporty model with a 200-horsepower turbocharged, direct-injection 2-liter 4-cylinder is to join the lineup in 2012.
I tested a well-equipped Jetta SEL with the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, a sunroof and a $23,395 sticker price. Prices exclude destination charges.
The Americanized Jetta aims to compete with mainstream compact sedans like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla.
The Jetta's exterior styling is anonymous. Only the car-width grille and round badge connect with the appearance of other VWs.
The interior looks fine, but VW cut costs by replacing the soft and appealing trim it usually uses with hard surfaces. The fabric-covered seats are a high point, thanks to deep wings that hold occupants snug in eager maneuvers.
Passenger space is terrific. The Jetta offers more passenger room than any competitor except the Chevy Cruze. At 15.5 cubic feet, the Jetta's trunk outdoes even the Cruze. It has as much luggage capacity as some midsize sedans.
The Jetta may lack excitement and character, but it offsets that with a long list of creature comforts.
The Jetta I tested featured a sunroof, push-button start, a touch-screen navigation system and an excellent sound system. The voice recognition and audio quality of the Bluetooth system for hands-free phone calls were below average.
The 2.5-liter Jetta's fuel economy ranks in the middle of the compact set. The Civic and Cruze have higher EPA ratings, but the Jetta outdoes the Corolla and Mazda 3. The turbodiesel's fuel economy is outstanding. The EPA rates it at 30 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway.
The 2.5-liter engine produces more power than the Jetta's competitors, but the car's performance is uninspired.
Oddly programmed engine controls create an uneven throttle response in standing starts. The car springs forward when you first depress the accelerator, then seems to hit a dead spot in the power band where it falters before resuming acceleration.
A lag before downshifts by the automatic transmission reduces performance at higher speeds.
The steering is similarly unsatisfying. It is over-assisted and provides little feedback or on-center feel. There was some torque steer when accelerating hard.
The 2011 Jetta surpasses previous VWs on cost, equipment and interior space, but it lacks the sporty character and German style that traditionally made VW special.
Volkswagen earned its American fan base with unique-looking vehicles that provided spirited performance at an affordable price. They weren't for everybody, but were unmistakably VWs.
The new Jetta, developed specifically to attract more American buyers, replaces those charms with a bigger interior, poorer materials and more features.
That's unlikely to please VW loyalists, but the company hopes it will win new buyers who want a car with a German-sounding name, but don't care much about German looks or driving feel.
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