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Dan Neil rips the new Jetta

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Volkswagen and the Perils of Less for Less

The new Jetta has its moments, but they're overwhelmed by cut corners; how to make a Chevy look like a Maybach


The exterior styling of the new Volkswagen Jetta...exists.

To understand the 2011 VW Jetta, you could do worse than to walk into an H&M retail store, which specializes in cheap, dreadful clothes for anorexic children. There in the "Men's" section you'll find garments that approximate two-piece suits. These are built-to-cost pieces pumped out of rag shops in the Eastern Hemisphere by the jillion and they are, by gentlemen's-haberdashery standards, junk. Single-seam tailoring and cheap fabrics held together by more glue than the Spruce Goose. But these outfits are not supposed to be Brooks Brothers. These are a young man's first suit of clothes, and they'll do, at least until he develops a waistline. If such a young man walks into your office for an interview wearing one of these shiny catastrophes, hire him. He's trying.

WSJ's Dan Neil reviews the new Volkswagen Jetta and finds that its restyled schnoz -- done to comply with new safety standards -- makes the car look like it's carved from a block of cheese.

VW's redesigned Jetta—the linchpin of the company's plan to triple U.S. sales by 2018—is similarly being positioned as a German-sedan starter kit, a car strenuously trying to look like a proper Teutonic four-door but crafted with something less than the breed's usual heft and seriousness. And like the H&M togs, the car has been engineered by accountants.

Apparently, the VW of America overmind determined that the cost objection was the brand's biggest obstacle to increasing U.S. sales. The base price of the current Jetta clocks in at $17,735, which is a grand or so more than the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The price of the 2011 VW Jetta S, on sale next month, rings the register at just $15,995—a price delta of $1,740 less than the outgoing model. The base model Jetta is now in the hunt price-wise with the Civic ($15,805) and Corolla ($15,450). The new Chevy Cruze LS—another heavyweight in the lightweight division—starts at $16,275, and the 2010 Ford Focus runs $16,640.

Would you like to know what $1,740 worth of car-building looks like? No, you wouldn't. It's ugly. The base engine in the Jetta is now the company's venerable 2.0-liter, eight-valve, 115-horsepower four cylinder—call it the Wolfsburg Evinrude. This antique is bolted to a five-speed manual transmission. For the price-strangulated 2011 edition, VW also dispensed with the Jetta's independent rear suspension, going with a less-agile torsion-beam design (an independent rear suspension will be fitted to the coming sporty GLI model). Instead of four-wheel discs, the Jetta's lower-trim models get drum brakes—which, I grant, is not a big deal in terms of function but is nonetheless a point of invidious comparison.

Higher-trim-level Jettas (SE and SEL) get the company's competent but by no means spectacular 2.5-liter, 170-hp five cylinder, mated to either a six-speed manual or automatic. Late this year, VW will bring in the much-coveted TDI version of the car ($22,995) with a 2.0-liter turbodiesel (140 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque) paired with either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The diesel will return about 30/42 mpg, city/highway, according to the EPA. Early next year, VW will roll out the ornerier GLI (figure $24,000 or so), with a 200-hp turbo-gas engine and the dual-clutch gearbox, as well as a multilink rear suspension. The promise of the TDI- and GLI-edition cars positively blights the lesser Jettas available now.


Dan Neil for The Wall Street Journal


The Specs

Base price: $22,155

Price as tested: $23,755

Powertrain: 2.5-liter DOHC 20-valve in-line five cylinder; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower/torque: 170 hp at 5,700 rpm/177 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm

Length/weight: 182.2 inches/3,082 pounds

Wheelbase: 104.4 inches

0-60 mph: 8.5 seconds

EPA fuel economy: 24/31 mpg, city/highway

Cargo capacity: 15.5 cubic feet

Flotsam and Jetta

VW of America wants to raise its sales game drastically in the next eight years, and its franchise player is the U.S.-centric Jetta sedan. The new car comes in bleached-bone configuration for $15,995, but will ladder its way up to nearly $25,000 with the addition of a hybrid model (next year) as well as a clean-diesel TDI and Sport package GLI. But in the process of recalibrating to go after Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the Jetta loses a certain German fineness and desirability. Das ist schlecht.

Styling Halitosis

Simply, head-swimmingly, stunningly generic—think the packaging for government cheese, except the lettering says "German sedan"—the new Jetta's styling will, I predict, be a major disincentive to cross-shoppers. VW thus ignores one of the great truisms of the entry-level segment: Great styling is free money.

Big Back Seat

The Jetta's saving grace is an extra-large, baby-limo back seat, with nearly as much leg room as in a BMW 7-series. So it's got that going for it. Big hitter, the Lama....

Look, it's understood, car companies will wring the necks of base models, extracting as much content as possible to come up with an attractive starting MSRP, so we can't take the deprivations of the Jetta S too seriously. I spent a week in the top-shelf SEL with sunroof, which is very nicely equipped and sells for $22,295, including various smash like touchscreen navigation, Bluetooth, heated seats, 17-inch alloy wheels and more. Our test car was also fitted with the Sport package, including retuned suspension, sport seats and aluminum-trimmed foot pedals. All told, $22,995.

Unfortunately, the artifacts of all the cost-cutting extend to even the best-equipped model; and so our Jetta SEL with Sport package was saddled with some of the cruelest, cheapest plastic dash and door materials I've seen in years. What an awful way for petrochemicals to die! The innards of this thing make a Chevy Cruze look like a Maybach. And the brutal decontenting continues. The former electric power steering has reverted to a hydraulic rack-and-pinion. The power seats go away, as do the hood struts (the car now has a simple prop rod for the hood). Cut corners are all over this car, gasping stark-eyed like out-of-the-bowl goldfish.

VW has thus inverted (or is it perverted?) its traditional U.S.-market product strategy of more car for slightly more money. Now it's less for less, which might be a valid approach if only its key segment competitors had not struck on the rather more appealing more-for-less formulation.

As for styling, what the hell? The Jetta's pen-work is so dutifully generic as to be almost hypnotic. Say what you like about the previous Jetta, with its big shiny chrome grille trim, like a Vulcan oven gone walkabout, but at least you could tell it was a VW. At least that face had some presence. The new Jetta has a strangely stiff, almost bogus formality for this price point. Very much like an H&M suit, come to think of it.

And by the way, has VW design director Walter de'Silva seen the 2011 Ford Focus? It would seem if Americans want sophisticated and fashion-forward German styling, they might have to buy from Dearborn.

Now, having drubbed the poor Jetta, I must say it does have some points in its favor. It's 2.9 inches longer than the outgoing model and that extra space has freed up a fair amount of rear-seat room. The rear legroom, the most in its class, really does feel pretty luxurious. Our test car was hammered together pretty well, with no obvious flaws in build quality, and the over-the-road cabin ambience was a nicely hushed, plummy thrum. The cabin switchgear and displays, some in common with VW products from Golf to Lamborghini, have a kind of snap-to-line precision and heft you'd expect of a German car.

The driving dynamics of the Sport-package Jetta are tolerably taut and competent. The steering is right there and the stiffer suspension holds down body roll nicely. But in hard driving there is a sort of gathering rear-end pitch when the car is coursed through a set of tight corners—that's the torsion-beam axle talking—and the car will start to get out of shape enough to activate the stability control.

Every young man should start life with good shoes, a good suit, a decent haircut and one inspiring German sedan to set him on a life of car connoisseurship. I wish I could say the Jetta is that car. It ain't.



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It is a rip-worthy car. Jetta - cheapened for cheap Americans to gain volume. Given VW reputation for worst service, reliability among the laymen, if this cheapened bean counter gets into reliability issues, then VW should be worried about leaving US forget ambitious gain of market share and volume. This vehicle may very much will be the grave of VW in US if it hits quality snag.

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perhaps a mod can cut and paste in the text here before the link expires and it goes to subscription only.

a VERY good read, and the Cruze is praised......

Apart from a little tired looking exterior (3 years too late to be new in US), which can be fixed with a good MCE, and a perception of underpowered powertrain, Cruze is a praiseworthy vehicle.

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