Remember the old saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em"?
Officials at German automaker Volkswagen may be taking it to heart at long last.
Perhaps more than any previous VW Jetta, the redesigned-for-2011 five-passenger sedan is built for American tastes.
It's a bigger car with a bigger back seat for the kind of legroom that Americans demand, new sheet metal that makes the car look more upscale than before, and a lower starting retail price that puts the Jetta closer to top-selling compact sedans like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL
- BASE PRICE: $15,995 for S with manual; $18,195 for SE with manual; $21,395 for SEL with manual.
- AS TESTED: $23,165.
- TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact sedan.
- ENGINE: 2.5-liter, inline five cylinder.
- MILEAGE: 24 mpg (city), 31mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: NA.
- LENGTH: 182.2 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 104.4 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 2,900 pounds.
- BUILT AT: Mexico.
- OPTIONS: Automatic transmission $1,100.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $770.
In fact, the new Jetta's rear-seat legroom of 38.1 inches is not only greater than the 34.6 inches in the back seat of the Civic, it surpasses the 37.2 inches in the back seat of the mid-size Honda Accord sedan. Overall, the Jetta is nearly 2.9 inches longer than its predecessor.
The base 2011 Jetta with front-wheel drive carries a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,765 with manual transmission and 115-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine.
With automatic transmission, the lowest-priced 2011 Jetta starts at $17,865.
These prices are still higher, by at least $360, than the major 2010 competitors in the segment. But the base model price tags are a long way from the starting retail price of more than $19,000 for last year's model, which came with a bigger, more powerful base engine.
The new exterior styling of the 2011 Jetta makes the car appear a bit more mainstream. But it also looks more upscale and is a welcome change from the previous Jetta styling; it had grown old.
Inside, the changes bring mixed results. The dashboard plastic looks more utilitarian than last year's Jetta. But controls and gauges are still attractively arranged.
There's a new radio faceplate that draws attention and provides better visibility to the display
This also is the first year that the Jetta is available with push-button start as an option.
VW's Intelligent Crash Response System, that automatically turns off the fuel pump, turns on emergency flashers and unlocks the doors after air bags are deployed in a crash, is standard and is on the Jetta for the first time. And six air bags, electronic stability control and antilock brakes are standard on all models.
Fans of VW's fuel-thrifty engines will be happy to know the Jetta TDI -- for turbodiesel injection -- is in the 2011 lineup with the same 140-horsepower, four cylinder engine it had in 2010.
But the TDI won't be in showrooms until late this calendar year; trim levels of the gasoline-powered Jettas -- S, SE, SEL and GLI -- arrive starting in October from the assembly plant in Mexico.
The test car was the mid-range SEL with 170-horsepower, five-cylinder engine, automatic transmission and nice standard features like 17-inch wheels, chrome-finished grille and navigation system with touchscreen.
Of course, VW is known for its road handling and ride, and the test Jetta wound its way through twisty roads and back-and-forth switchbacks with poise. I stayed in my lane on skinny two-lane roads without fuss, even at good speeds around curves. The more I drove, the more comfortable the driving became.
Despite the fact this 2011 Jetta's suspension wasn't tuned for sportiness, the car's handling was pleasing. And the ride was not punishing or harsh for passengers, even on uneven pavement. All in all, I didn't miss the previous year's multilink rear suspension.
A second Jetta SEL with sport suspension offered more body control through the switchbacks, but the ride became fatiguing on bumpy pavement.
There was a good amount of road noise from the SEL's 17-inch tires with and without sport package, particularly on ground-down concrete highway. But I didn't notice wind noise.
The steering has shifted from electric boost to hydraulic but the steering in the test cars felt linear and comfortable.
To get to the lower starting price, VW installs a single overhead cam four-cylinder engine, generating only 115 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque, into the base S model.
This engine wasn't in last year's Jetta but was in an earlier generation.
The base engine mileage estimates from the federal government of 23 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway aren't impressive, since the uplevel engine -- a 2.5-liter five cylinder generating 170 horses and 177 foot-pounds of torque -- has nearly the same fuel economy rating, 24/31 mpg. Both mileage ratings are for cars with automatic transmissions.
The best Jetta for fuel mileage will be, as expected, the one with the turbodiesel. Mileage rating for that car has not been posted yet.
I have always liked VW's supportive seats, and the new Jetta has them, too. The back seat, commodious compared with last year's Jetta, gave me enough room to stretch and extend my legs, though I still think driving with three adults back there might be a good idea for a short trip only.
Rear seatbacks fold down so long items can slip through from the 15.5 cubic-foot trunk.