When Volkswagen launched its redesigned Jetta more than a year ago in the United States, the car and the company seemed to walk away from their core constituency of younger buyers.
The new Jetta is bigger, flashier and more expensive -- lots more expensive. Our test model, a 2006 Jetta 2.0T, had a bottom line of $29,965.
SHE: As we were in the middle of driving the 2006 Jetta, VW announced that its '07 Jetta, which goes on sale in the fall, gets a major price cut. The '06 model started at $18,530, including shipping, while the '07 model will start at $17,120. That's a hefty whack. From the perspective of someone who's owned several VWs, they had to cut the price. Do they think they're Audi?
HE: A couple things stuck in my mind as I looked over the Jetta sticker. The first jolt, naturally, was a price of almost $30,000 on a car that competes head to head with the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic -- and doesn't really do anything much better than either one of those class leaders. The second shock was the $4,885 options package on our test car, which included all kinds of goodies, from dual-zone climate controls to genuine wood trim -- that's right, I said wood trim -- but, curiously, no navigation system. It just seems like the kind of equipment pack you'd expect to see on a Passat or a Camry, not a Jetta. Which makes this one pretentious compact.
SHE: I kind of feel sorry for the Jetta. It seems to be having a major identity crisis. Like it wants to be an Audi A3 or something. On the plus side, our Jetta had the most awesome safety features. You don't have to pay extra for antilock brakes, side air bags, side curtains or stability control. You pay extra for the tire-pressure monitoring system, park distance control and rain-sensing wipers. But the Jetta is one of the safest small cars on the road.
HE: I don't want this to sound like a total rant because the Jetta has some great redeeming qualities. The powertrain is sweet -- a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 200 horsepower and is mated to a lovely six-speed automatic with manual shift capability. The city fuel economy, at 25 mpg, is not much better than average for a car in this class, and the torque steer when the turbo kicks in is pretty vicious. But the engine is lots of fun, and the Jetta's agile suspension neatly complements it.
SHE: Another place where you feel like you're getting your $30,000 worth is in the cabin, which is loaded with top-drawer materials that are beautifully put together. Yes, there's real wood, leather and other traditional stuff, but it doesn't come off looking dated. It looks like something you would see in a fine European hotel.
HE: With really small rooms?
SHE: Aren't they all in Europe?
HE: Speaking of fine European things, I wanted to come back around to the point you made earlier about Audi. In fact, the Jetta shares its underpinnings with several Audi models, including the A3. I can't tell you why I don't have a problem paying $30,000 for an A3, but that price on a Jetta seems wildly inappropriate.
SHE: My advice to consumers is hold off on buying a Jetta until fall. And if that 30 grand is still burning a hole in your pocket, maybe it's time to visit your local Audi dealer.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0T
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
Price: Base, $24,205 (incl. $615 shipping charge); as tested, $29,965
Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 200-hp; 207 lb-ft torque
EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway
Where built: Mexico
Estimated 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,561
Likes: Cool blue lighting on gauges at night. Great safety features, including side curtains and stability control. First-class materials in cabin.
Dislikes: Priced out of reach of younger buyers, which used to be Jetta's core constituency. Yet another VW that deviates from the company's heritage and core values. Exterior is too flashy. Hard to believe there is a $4,800 option package on a Jetta.
Likes: Smooth, efficient six-speed automatic ($875) with manual-shift model. Powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Decent fuel economy, but not sensational. Handsome wood and leather cabin. Nimble handling.
Dislikes: Ridiculously overpriced for a Civic/Corolla competitor that doesn't do anything better. Torque steer when turbo kicks in. Needs more rear legroom. No navigation system on $30K car.
He drove, she drove Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, an automotive information services company.