2012 Volkswagen Jetta- Suit And Tie

DSCI0158There’s a stage in all of our lives when society expects us to disappoint Peter Pan and grow up.  A time to do away with the baggy pants, blue hair and the McJob, and replace them with a grey iron-pressed suit and a career.  Losing that uniqueness  can be a painful transition that tears away at one’s very soul, but there’s no choice when it’s a matter of survival.  Otherwise. Mom and Dad aren’t bringing out the welcome mat anytime soon.  It’s a predicament that Volkswagen has recently faced with its Jetta.  Since 1980, the small sedan has always gone to the beat of a different drummer.  It’s been continuously marketed as a premium compact sedan and proudly geared toward niche consumers who are into indie rock and give normalcy a shrug of the shoulder.  With quirky features coupled with a higher price than the competition, the Jetta has always possessed an eccentric character .  Although the Jetta, and VW in general, has gained a small cult following for its “sticking it to the man” attitude, the more serious and conventional Toyota Corolla outsold the Jetta by three and half times in 2008.  Being peculiar and wacky can be fun, but it doesn’t pay the bills.  And Volkswagen, like any other company, is out to make money.  So what’s the manufacturer to do?

As they say, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”  VW has come a long way since 1993 when the entire brand sold only 43,000 cars in the US.  The German manufacturer was even considering departing the American market altogether.  With the Jetta being its best seller and the introduction of the succesful New Beetle in 1998, new life was breathed back into the company.  Now VW has the ambitious plan to sell 800,000 cars in the US by 2018.  For that bullish goal to happen, the lineup is becoming more mainstream..

DSCI0147The latest sixth generation Jetta debuted for 2011 all grown up, spawning both criticism and fan fare.  Overall length has been stretched to 182.7 inches, reaching two inches further in girth than the original 1990 VW Passat full-size sedan.  The main goal behind this new beefier Jetta is to qualm complaints about the former version’s tight seating quarters.  Americans, as proven by the vast array of buffets in business, love a good deal and getting the best bang for the buck.  Not only is the new Jetta larger and roomier, it also starts at $15,545, or about $2,300 less than the base price of the smaller 2010 Jetta.  More importantly, that price undercuts the most basic Toyota Corolla by almost $1000 and the cheapest Honda Civic by almost $3,000.  For the first time since these cars have competed against each other, a buyer can have German charm for less than Japanese blandness.  No wonder sales skyrocketed 71% in 2011 over the year before.  But there’s a catch, and it has upset some loyalists.

DSCI0148That $15,545 Jetta will get car buyers in the door, but it won’t be equipped to levels that most consumers expect from a modern car.  Want to play your favorite tunes?  You’re going to have to hum them to yourself as there’s no radio.  Feeling warm?  Too bad, there’s no air conditioning.  Bringing passengers along?  You’ll have to remind them to lock their doors manually.  And Americans have a longtime fear of manual transmissions- and this baby has one.  It’s the perfect up-sell opportunity and it’s no surprise that the average selling price for a Jetta soars to $26,000. 

DSCI0154There’s another trick in VW’s hat to get the base price that low; the standard 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine.  Although a 2.0 liter unit may sound thoroughly contemporary, it is old school by today’s standards.  This powerplant made its debut in 1993 on the Jetta and had been used in a variety of Volkswagen models, including the Golf, Cabrio, and some overseas SEATs, over the following decade before finally being shelved in 2005.  For the 2011 model year, it was resurrected and brought back for the sole purpose of bringing the car’s price down.  Compared to the 2.0 liter units offered in the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus, the Jetta’s has half the overhead camshafts and valves, and being rated at 115 horsepower, is about 45 less than the Focus.  In fact, many smaller and lighter present day subcompacts have more thrust than the Jetta; the bargain minded Hyundai Accent’s standard engine has 23 more horses than the Jetta as well.  Adding to the misery is that the Jetta, like many of us, has gained some extra pounds over the years; weighing in at 3,082 lbs. That’s an additional 435 pounds over a 1993 model and without any upgrades to the same engine.

CAM00074With all of these daunting facts, the little engine-that-could certainly tries its best to propel the car, but the numbers don’t lie.  Punch the accelerator and it’s much like awakening a sleeping Furbie- there’s a multi second delay followed by a leisurely wind-up as the engine realizes it’s been called to action.  The car honestly felt capable enough on city streets and feels sprightly enough while running errands.   But things deteriorate quickly once more is asked of it.  Sprints up to freeway speeds are very leisurely and require patience.  Once up to cruising speeds, the engine does seem to strain with keeping forward motion and any hills or inclines do place a noticeable burden.  Lighten the foot off of the accelerator pedal and the car enthusiastically loses speed and momentum, but complains when called upon again to keep up with traffic.  Unless matched up against an unsuspecting Geo Metro, the Jetta will not will any drag races or come close to Germany’s legendary Autobahn speeds. Higher level Jettas do offer a 2.5 liter five-cylinder engine that would certainly change the car’s character but also distances the final cost further from the tantalizing base price.

DSCI0149To make matters worse, our Jetta was matched with a lackluster six-speed automatic transmission.  It’s behavior was sometimes bizarre and unpredictable.  Starts from a standstill felt like they were in second gear and made the already feeble engine seem even more sluggish.  The transmission would occasionally hunt through gears as though confused and would downshift at inappropriate moments.  It would also hold onto low gears for an extensively long period of time.  At one point during the weekend long test, I lifted my right foot entirely off the accelerator while on the freeway and placed it near the console, and the gearbox was still stubbornly holding onto a low gear.  At other times when more power was needed, like climbing hills or passing, it would take several seconds to coax a downshift from it.  Shifts were jerky and pronounced.  However, there was a maumatic mode that proved to be useful.  It allowed me to override the transmission’s idiosyncracies and make the most out of the Jetta’s delicate power band.  Although I haven’t had a chance to drive a Jetta equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, that setup may make better use of the paltry power and will avoid the jerkiness of the auto.

The demise of the previous Jetta’s sophisticated multi-link rear suspension is another sign of cost cutting.  In an era when most competitors are opting for four-wheel independent suspensions, Volkswagen has decided to downgrade to an old-fashioned and more basic (and cheaper) torsion beam setup.  Regardless, it still has the charismatic firm ride of prior Jettas and does an acceptable job of keeping harshness out of the cabin.  Only at freeway speeds do ruts and road imperfections make their way through noticeably.

DSCI0155Despite all of the bad news, the silver lining here is handling, which has always been a strong suit of almost any German car.  Fling the Jetta around a corner and it clings on tenaciously, aiming directly to the desired trajectory without argument.  There’s hardly any understeer and all four wheels remain well-planted on the road.  It is a lot of fun and the only other compact car with a similar feel is the Ford Focus.  Steering feedback adds to the delight being communicative at all times and adding to driver confidence.  Even with the weak engine performance, the handling of the Jetta still makes this a fun car to drive.

CAM00081The not-so-compact dimensions of the new Jetta has resolved one the biggest complaints about every prior version of this car: rear seat room.  In fact, rear space has leapfrogged the competition and the Jetta, which was once one of the worst small cars in this regard, has become one of the best.  Legroom in the back seat has increased by 2.7 inches over the last generation.  That may not sound like much, but imagine cutting that much off your knee caps to fit in a car.  Ouch!  Even tall passengers can stretch out without contorting themselves.  Headroom is decent, however the sloping roofline could scrape some nogginsCAM00080.   

Up front, there is plenty of room in all directions and the seats are easily adjustable.  Gone are the annoying twist knob adjustments for seat back angle that was once  a VW trademark, replaced by a more effective spring activated lever.  Sometimes progression is a good thing!  Europeans love them, but Americans could never grow fond of the knobs.  The seats are comfortable but did lack bolstering and felt CAM00085flat, especially when driving around corners.  Due to a generous glass area and thin roof pillars, the view out for all passengers is commanding and adds an airy feel to the cabin. Visibility for the driver is excellent and it’s easy to judge where the corners of the car are.  Entry and exit in the front and rear is easy thanks to wide swinging doors and generously sized openings.

CAM00075The dashboard and control layout are all business and as logical as it gets nowadays.  Volkswagen has been rightfully praised for its brilliant ergonomics during the past decade and this one continues the tradition.  The speedometer and gauge cluster are a masterpiece of simplicity while looking stylish and fresh.  Too bad a temperature gauge has fallen victim to fashion and is no longer included (although one can still be had on the DSCI0164Sportwagen body).  The ventilation system is the simple three rotary knob design and the radio uses logical volume and tuning knobs and has a clear crisp display.  The three spoke steering wheel tilts and telescopes but lacks any controls and has a rough urethane texture, but fits perfectly in the driver’s hand.   Unlike so many modern cars, there is nothing cheesy or overwrought about the interior and it feels like designers really put a lot of thought into every button and display to make it as intuitive as possible. 

CAM00088Even with the brilliant ergonomics, it’s hard to escape how spartan and plain this car’s interior has become.  Both the dash and doors are shrouded in a hard and brittle plastic that reminds me very much of my 2005 Ford Focus.  The Jetta had always been praised for its rich, soft-textured plastics, but none exist here anymore.  Volkswagen has also done away with their attractive and distinguished blue and red gauges.CAM00087  And there are numerous features commonly expected on even the most basic of cars missing here; there’s no rear seat pockets, no trip computer, no sunvisor extenders and no armrests front or rear.  Luckily a sunglasses holder does exist, but feels flimsy and is really just a shallow shelf.  Rear seat passengers will also have to fight over the one sole cupholder back there.  These may seem like little,CAM00086 insignificant niggles to complain about, but they do add up to an overall sense of cheapness and could frustrate an owner over time.   Even though the materials are rudimentary, the construction feels solid  and fit and finish is still excellent.

There’s still enough quirky VW touches that survived this past redesign to remind you that this is, indeed, still a Volkswagen Jetta.   It’s obvious that some serious thought and detail sweating were done by the engineers in Wolfsburg.   All four power CAM00076windows have auto up and down, a feature rarely seen outside of the luxury car segment, and all of those windows still roll down if the key is turned and held in the doors keyhole for several seconds to cool down the interior, as made famous by a TV ad a number of years ago.  The hood release is unable to be pulled while the driver door is shut, avoiding potential accidental and hazardous hood openings while driving.  The bothersome chime reminding the driver that the key has been left in the ignition while the door is opened turns itself after a minute.  Other cars would blare on without end.  Both front seats are height adjustable with a lever which is a nice touch.  There’s probably other little traits that I missed during a short weekend, but these alone are reminders that the Jetta is indeed a special car.

CAM00089Trunk space is generous for a small car at 15.5 cu. ft, which easily beats the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Hyundai Elantra by a wide margin, and is more voluminous than the full-size Toyota Camry from last week.  Amazing!  The trunk area is well-shaped with minimal wheel well intrusion, and nicely lined with a rich carpeting on both sides.  Metal hooks are also included on the sidewalls to tie CAM00090down balky items.  The trunk opening is wide and accommodating.  Seats do fold down 60/40 and although the pass through is wide and versatile, the seatbacks do not fold not flush with the trunk floor.  Trunk hinges are the cheaper gooseneck variety and could crush bags and large suitcases.  Under the floor is an easily accessible spare tire.

DSCI0156Styling has never been a Jetta strong suit as they have always looked a little different and unconventional.  This latest generation is extremely conservative on the outside to the point that it’s forgettable.  Luckily, gone are the Corolla inspired and bloated lines of the last version.  Although this new one is tastefully proportioned and restrained, the overall look almost too sedate.  Remove the VW badges and it would be difficult to know what kind of car it is.  My fiance, who has little interest in vehicles but rides along during these tests, didn’t seem too impressed with the sheetmetal and said: “it’s just a car.”  The same can be said about the Jetta’s big brother, the Passat, and both share the same humdrum look and could easily be confused for one another.  This would be the perfect getaway car for a bank robbery as witnesses would have trouble describing it to police; “what did that car look like again?”  Although capable of resolving insomnia and not at all head-turning, I do feel that this understated design will age well as it doesn’t give your neighbors any hints as to which era this car is from. 

In spite of Volkswagens’ reputation of shoddy craftmanship, our Jetta had 23k miles of hard rental duty and everything worked as it should.  The only noticeable issues were a minor rattle from the driver’s door panel and a creaking glove box hinge.

The EPA rates the Jetta with a 2.0 liter engine at 23mpg city and 29mpg highway.  These are pretty dismal fuel economy numbers given that many other competitors with larger and more powerful motors are now reaching the idolized 40mpg mark.  It represents how much this small engine is straining to move 3000 pounds of car around.  In a mix of city and highway driving, we pinned the average perfectly with 26mpg, much less than is to be expected on a vehicle with so many compromises.

DSCI0153Prices for the Jetta start at that acclaimed $15,515 and come with the basics on a modern car; 15-inch steel wheels, power locks and windows, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable front seats, cloth upholstery and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, but no air conditioning or radio.  Upgrading to the “S” trim, like ours, bumps the price to $16,645 and makes life more tolerable by adding keyless entry, air-conditioning, power/heated mirrors and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack.  Adding the six-speed automatic and destination charge brought ours to an as-tested price of $18,515.  This is serious money and the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus are more lavishly equipped, more powerful, and cost about the same.  The Jetta is simply outclassed once the options begin to be added. 

DSCI0152It’s easy to accuse Volkswagen for selling their soul with this latest Jetta.  But the company deserves credit for finding something that once eluded them for decades; sales success.  The fact that this Jetta has sold better than any other is testament that many buyers are primarily looking for a low price tag over anything else.  It makes me think of this car as “Diet Volkswagen”.  It still comes with some of the charm we all love, but with a lower price and less flavor.  In many ways it reminds me of the base models of the original Ford Focus that had to make do with the weaker engine from a Ford Escort, but still retained the same great handling, roominess, and character as the rest of the Focus lineup, only with a lower price.  This new Jetta is a way for people who couldn’t afford a Volkswagen to get into dealerships and hopefully driver seats.  It is a fun car and has undeniable spaciousness and that magical Germanic feel.  I still like the Jetta but would prefer more of it being less grown-up.  A moderate 2.5/5.0 boomerangs


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