Editor's note: This review was written in August 2011 about the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
What the Volkswagen Jetta TDI clean-diesel sedan lacks in electronic gizmos it makes up for with a rewarding driving experience and superior mileage.
Cars.com reviewer Mike Hanley reviewed the gas-powered Jetta, and you can read his review here. I'll focus on the diesel version I drove. While Mike and I agree on a lot, our impressions of the interior differ.
The Jetta sedan has been redesigned for 2011, but the previous generation continues in the station wagon version, the 2011 SportWagen. You can see the differences between years and models here.
The Jetta TDI I drove had a six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed automatic is optional.
If you opt for the manual transmission, you should know the Jetta TDI has one of the stiffer clutch pedals of any compact car I've driven. I also stalled the Jetta TDI more than once, though not from a standstill. Every stall happened at low speeds when I thought 2nd gear was called for, but the engine bogged and stalled. Once I started keeping it in 1st gear longer, the stalls stopped. As another reviewer put it, you have to make sure you're in the right gear in the Jetta TDI more often than you do in other cars, especially other diesels.
Otherwise, the best way to describe the drivetrain is punchy. The Jetta TDI moves away from lights and passes quickly. There wasn't lag at any point, and it always felt like there was more power on tap.
The Jetta TDI's performance distinguishes it from other compact cars. In order to have any fun in them, some compacts force you to stand on the gas and wait for the engine to get to its top speed, while others give you everything they've got immediately, leaving nothing on tap farther down the road. The Jetta TDI feels different.
That's partly because diesels make more torque than gas engines: There are 236 pounds-feet in the TDI versus 177 pounds-feet in a comparable, top-of-the-line, gas-powered Jetta SEL. You can get higher horsepower figures from the 2.5-liter gasoline engine, but as gearheads say, you drive torque.
The steering is another success, though it does require more effort than most compact cars. The payoff is that it also gives you more feedback and you feel more connected to what the car is doing. I enjoyed it especially because the steering wheel is thick enough that you can get a good grip on it, and it's sculpted in the proper places so it's comfortable to hold. It's my favorite steering in this car class.
Finally, the Jetta's handling is very good. It feels planted to the road, and the suspension and chassis are well-tuned. The Jetta doesn't squat or roll as much as others in this segment do, so it feels level going through turns. The suspension absorbs bumps very well for a small car, and that gives you a sense of security at high speeds. The road doesn't beat up and toss the car around.
This Jetta isn't as light and sprightly as was the previous generation, so if that drew you to the old Jetta the new one might disappoint you. For the record, I never felt the Jetta TDI was too heavy, cumbersome or clumsy.
Diesel Mileage & Characteristics
I've covered the performance aspects of the diesel, but there's more to consider when choosing an engine.
Mileage is one important consideration, and there the diesel excels. The Jetta TDI gets 30/42 mpg city/highway, while gas-powered Jettas range from a low of 23/29 mpg up to a high of 24/34 mpg. What I like is that the mileage is gained without any fancy mileage package, low-rolling-resistance tires or hybrid system — just a diesel engine. It's a clean diesel engine, as well, which means it meets emissions targets and can be sold in all 50 states. If you're interested in cross-shopping a hybrid with the Jetta TDI, you'll find that the Volkswagen can compete on price: It starts at $23,765, while the lowest-priced Toyota Prius starts at $24,280 and the Honda Civic Hybrid starts at $24,270. Compare their features and mileage here.
The engine runs smoothly and quietly, as do most modern diesels. When you do hear the engine, yes, it makes more of a clattering sound than a gasoline engine, but it's nowhere near as loud and annoying as some diesels.
While I generally agree with Mike Hanley's assertion that the Jetta's interior quality is a step down from what it used to be, I'd probably characterize it as a half-step down.
The benefit of this half-step is it allows Volkswagen — which has long been among the pricier brands — to sell its cars for less. The 2010 Volkswagen Jetta's lowest price was $19,045, compared with the 2011's starting price of $16,135 for the gas-powered sedan.
Also, the interior's not bad by any stretch, it's just not at the class-leading level it was. It's still very nice to look at, and most of the controls still feel pretty good, though a couple of the door switches felt cheap. Where I noticed the biggest difference was in the gearshift: I preferred the previous-generation's heavier, chunkier feel.
But it's not all about subjective, touchy-feely things: The old Jetta nested the rear seat belts in the rear seats, so it was easier to fold the seats down to carry large items. Now, the belts aren't anchored in the seats, which can make folding them a bit more difficult. Is that kind of thing the end of the world? No, but it was nicer the way it was before. Volkswagen purists may say that sentiment extends to a lot of the Jetta's interior.
If what you want in a car is a simple, clean interior unladen with touch-screens and split instrument panels and free of cheap-feeling knobs and controls, the Volkswagen Jetta remains your best option. Only Subaru springs to mind as another automaker that doesn't believe in a lot of interior clutter, but VW's quality is superior to Subaru's.
Safety & Reliability
The Jetta is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, which means it scores the highest rating, Good, in front-, side-impact and rear crash tests and rollover tests. Though the SportWagen hasn't been redesigned, it too is an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
Because the Jetta sedan has been redesigned, there's no reliability data for it yet. The Jetta SportWagen is predicted to have better than average reliability.
In the Market
The compact segment is the most interesting one going because the cars in it have to offer a lot in a small package. It's interesting to see what features and qualities make it and what gets cut.
In this case, Volkswagen purists will say interior quality was cut. They're right, but it wasn't dropped entirely. The same is true of performance: The Jetta feels heavier than it did before, but I don't think it feels bad.
At a time when more automakers are jamming touch-screens and electronic displays into their cars, the Jetta stands out in a good way. While many cars in this segment feel a bit tinny when the road gets rough, the VW remains composed.
To my mind, the new Jetta isn't a dilution of the previous model, it's simply a slightly different take on the car — but the spirit of the machine remains.
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