First drive: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen is pushing to become a bigger player in the U.S. market, and the redesigned 2011 Jetta compact sedan represents a key component in its strategy.

In its quest to compete better with mainstream models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, however, the Jetta — by far Volkswagen's best-selling model in the U.S. — has lost some of the premium attributes that have defined the car and the brand in recent years. On the other hand, it features more backseat room and retains the current car's exceptional handling performance.

Most models, including the diesel TDI trim level, arrive this fall. A high-performance GLI version hits dealerships in the spring. 

One of the most significant changes to the Jetta lineup is the addition of a new base trim level that starts at $15,995, not including the $770 destination charge, but after driving an uplevel SEL model, which starts at $21,395, it's evident cost-cutting has occurred across the sedan's range and not just the base version. Sections of the interior, like the dashboard, that were previously finished in upscale, soft-touch materials are now hard plastic (albeit decent-looking plastic). The front center armrest that used to be adjustable now isn't. The manual air-conditioning knobs have a vague, sloppy feel. And overall, fit-and-finish quality has declined.

We've heaped considerable praise on VW interiors in the past because they offered exceptional materials and detailing that surpassed that of some so-called luxury cars, but much of that is absent in the new Jetta. It's gone from class-leading to competent. There's no question the new Jetta's interior represents a step backward for the car, and while it might not bother shoppers coming from a Civic or Corolla, current Volkswagen customers will notice the changes right away — and they probably won't be pleased.

On the plus side, the Jetta still offers a relatively enjoyable driving experience for a front-wheel-drive compact sedan. Like we've come to expect from Volkswagens, the car feels solid and planted in corners, with limited body roll whether you have the Sport Package or not. Sport models have a 15-mm lower ride height, a sport suspension, sport seats and alloy pedals. Non-Sport models offer slightly better damping, but overall the Jetta's ride quality is pretty firm. It reminds me of the Civic, a car that's fairly sensitive to pavement imperfections.

It only takes a light touch to steer the Jetta, as the power-steering system provides quite a bit of assistance. The car responds relatively crisply, but I'm disappointed with the lack of feedback in the steering wheel; it isolates you from the driving experience, as you don't have any sense of what's happening where the tires meet the road.

Despite the addition of a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine in base S trim levels, Volkswagen expects the 170-hp, 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder gas engine will be the volume motor. Perhaps that's why the company didn't bring the new base power plant to the media launch event we attended.

On the hilly roads in and around San Francisco where I tested the Jetta, the inline-five engine felt strong enough, and it had power to spare for confident passing on flat rural roads. Despite the odd-number cylinder count, it's a surprisingly smooth-revving engine.

A manual transmission is standard, but the Jettas I tested had the optional six-speed automatic. The automatic's shifts are seamless, and it willingly kicks down when more power is needed. However, the transmission tends to downshift a little too aggressively when powering out of a tight corner. The bigger issue, though, is throttle lag. The car would sometimes bog down for a half-second just after accelerating from a stop.

The Jetta's front bucket seats are supportive, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position. All models have manually adjustable seats, but the lever for reclining the backrest is in a somewhat awkward location on the lower side of the seats. The seats that are part of the Sport Package have more aggressive side bolsters, and while they aren't restrictive, the bolsters keep you in place when cornering. Cloth upholstery is standard, but the seats in the cars I tested had Volkswagen's V-Tex simulated leather, which looks and feels quite a bit like the real thing.

The Jetta has a clear edge over its competitors in terms of backseat space. When sitting in the back of the Civic, Corolla or Nissan Sentra, my knees generally touch the back of the front seat or are pressed into it. I'm 6-foot-1, and in the Jetta I had an inch or two of space between my knees and the front seats, with the front seat positioned where I'd drive.

Along with its large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk, the Jetta is roomy enough to comfortably carry four adults and their things.

Volkswagen says price is a reason why consumers avoid its cars. While the automaker has attempted to address that with the new lower-cost base Jetta, in doing so it has created a range of cars that are less likely to appeal to VW's core enthusiast buyers who appreciate the combination of upscale finishes and driving fun that the automaker's cars have offered. For a brand like VW, which can't hang its hat on a history of reliability the way Honda and Toyota can, that's a risky move but one the company seems willing to take.

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