With Halloween around the corner, imagine for a moment Volkswagen's Jetta as a piece of candy. For decades it was the rich German chocolate of the compact segment: mass marketed and similar to other cars in its class, yet with a distinctive European flavor and a touch of luxury that its competitors couldn't match.
Yet for 2011, VW has diluted the new Jetta's character to the point where it's now merely a Hershey bar; good at a lot of things, great at very little. With apologies to 13,000 people in Pennsylvania, the car is now a mainstream product that satisfies American tastes without exciting them.
Blame it on ambition.
The change in the Jetta's philosophy is collateral damage from a conspicuous plan by VW's parent company, Volkswagen Group, to become the world's No. 1 automaker by 2018. It's currently in a battle with GM for No. 2, depending on how you cut the numbers, while Toyota is on top.
Though Volkswagen Group has aggressive plans for all of its brands (a formidable stable that now includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche and the Europe-only Skoda and Seat), it's adopting a sort of when-in-Rome approach for VW sedans in the U.S. market.
This means we won't even see on our shores the midsize 2011 Passat, which VW recently revealed at the 2010 Paris Auto Show. Instead, we'll get a larger, cheaper version, which the company is calling (I'm not making this up) the "New Mid-market Sedan," at least for now.
Similar changes have been made to the 2011 Jetta. It's now longer and more spacious inside and, most important, cheaper. These fundamental changes bring it more in line with segment leaders Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla and the rapidly improving offerings from Kia, Hyundai, Chevy and Ford.
Given that it sells more of this compact than anything else combined in the U.S., any hopes of VW becoming El Jefe of automakers rests squarely on pumping up Jetta sales.
Even a cursory glance at the 2011 Jetta reveals it's a larger automobile. The all-new sheet metal features a more horizontal orientation than the previous version, and this contributes to the impression that the car as a whole has been stretched.
The Jetta's front now resembles VW's new design direction, with handsome, squared-off headlights and subdued angles rather than curves. The rest of the exterior is decidedly understated, and the rear of the Jetta looks ambiguous enough to have come from nearly any automaker on the planet.
The only exterior features differentiating the top-of-the-line SEL model I tested from the base S (the volume-seller SE is in the middle) were the discreet fog lamps and the alloy wheels. Gone are the upmarket bits of chrome on previous models.
Inside, the Jetta's newfound length (up 2.9 inches) largely benefits rear passengers who get 2.7 inches of that in added legroom, the most in its class. The car now seats five tall adults comfortably for any length of time.
If your family has the inordinate packing habits of mine, you'll appreciate that the trunk also grows to a segment-leading 15.5 cubic feet.
The rest of the Jetta's interior is straightforward and uninspiring. My loaded SEL tester had leatherette seats, moon roof, keyless entry, Sirius satellite radio, heated front seats and a navigation system. All this sounds good on paper for the $24,000 asking price, yet I couldn't get over the notion that the interior was less than the sum of its parts.
You could almost smell the cost-cutting. The plastics were hard, the knobs felt cheaper than is traditionally VW's modus operandi, and the navigation system, though easy to use, had all the charm and sophistication of an Easy-Bake oven. The minuscule screen didn't help.
The SEL and the SE (which starts at $19,000) are powered by the same 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine that was in the previous Jetta. It puts out 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and gets from zero to 60 in 8.7 seconds. This was easily my favorite part of the car.
Few of the Jetta's competitors can match this power, and the engine never felt or sounded strained under acceleration. The only downside was a small amount of torque-steer when you really pushed it. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a six-speed automatic is optional. Gas mileage is rated at 24 mpg city/31 highway, though I observed 23.5 combined mpg in 350 miles of driving.
The base S gets an archaic (from the early '90s) yet capable 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which puts out 115 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. By offering such an austere power plant, it's clear that Volkswagen is taking more seriously the lower end of the compact segment than it had previously with the Jetta.
Although this engine is by no means a scorcher, it does move the car adequately enough to satisfy its targeted customer, to whom power isn't as important as features or space. The $17,000 price tag (including destination) should lure into VW showrooms buyers who know the Jetta nameplate but until this time had been discouraged by its higher price.
On the road, the Jetta feels decent, though not as engaging or capable as the previous Jetta. Part of this is the result of another cost-cutting move by VW whereby it jettisoned the more expensive independent rear suspension of the previous model.
Steering is light but lacks feedback. Brake feel is on the mushy side, and it should be noted that the S and SE have drum brakes in the rear; again, blame the bean counters. Despite these shortcomings, the Jetta can still handle better than others in its class. Thank its heritage.
Overall, the character and content of the Jetta have changed. The old-school Jetta with its class and execution are no more. In its place is a mainstream, American take on economical; plenty of functional space and puritanical efficiency without offending or exciting anyone.