2011 Jetta TDI Review – First Drive

2011 Jetta TDI Side View Shot

The 2011 Jetta TDI is the first model in the new VW campaign to make less-expensive vehicles.  The MkVI Jetta reached a very impressive starting price of under $16,000, but at the expense of some standard features on the previous generation MkV Jetta.  For now, this 2011 Jetta is a US market only vehicle, and VW moved the Jetta away from a European sports sedan into a comfortable 4-door cruiser at a better price point.  As TDI enthusiasts, we naturally wanted to road test this new Jetta, one equipped with the, now very popular, 2.0 liter, common-rail TDI.  We walked away  with overall good feelings but with some hesitations and confusions.

TDI Drivetrain

The center of the new “clean diesel” TDI is an all new power plant putting out 140 HP and 236 lbs/ft of torque.  Those power ratings are 50% higher than earlier generation TDIs.  VW mates this higher power TDI with either a 6-speed manual or a 6 speed “DSG”, which functionally is an automatic but uses an advanced dual-clutch design rather than the traditional torque-converter setup found on most automatics.  We tested a TDI sedan with the DSG transmission – the dealer hasn’t been sent any 6-speed manual vehicles yet.

TDI 2.0 Common Rail
TDI 2.0 Common Rail

We’ve driven other models with the 2.0L TDI and the new model exhibits the same behavior as its predecessors, and this new Jetta may even be a touch quicker.  The 2.0L common-rail TDI put down all of its 236 lbs/ft of torque at under 2,000 rpm.  This means that around town this car feels very quick.  The power “sweet-spot” ranges from 1500-2500 rpm as the TDI pulls quickly.  Unlike earlier diesels, this engine does not lose its cool when pushed – even under full throttle the 2.0 TDI does not increase noticeably in noise or harshness/vibration.

At higher speeds we were again impressed – the common-rail injection system seems unhindered by increased engine speeds, and as RPMs built up engine noise and harness were once again not intrusive.  At higher RPM, the 2.0 TDI doesn’t have the same quickness as around town but doesn’t suffer from the power drop off common of all previous diesel motors.  The 2011 Jetta TDI will pull all the way up to the redline.  Merging on the highway is completely care-free and quiet.

We still aren’t used to the DSG – especially on this model.  The VW Direct Shift Gearbox still impresses us with its ability to shift perfectly nearly every time.  Matching revolutions perfectly when changing gears, the driver may not even notice a shift occurred unless keeping an eye on the tachometer.   However, the DSG equipped cars we have driven seems to “hunt” for gears more than we would prefer -up, down, up down, every second and a half. They are completely smooth, nearly unnoticeable shifts but being stick-shift drivers we are probably over-senstive to changes in engine speed.  

As with all automatic transmissions from the last decade or so, the VW DSG is constantly trying to get the car into the next gear to save fuel.  This results in awkward moments – in traffic, when accelerating lightly and then backing off the throttle the DSG will try to get into the next higher gear but ends up lugging the engine.  It takes a few moments for it to recover and shift back, but the few seconds of engine rumble are distracting.

Interior

A lot has been made about the de-contenting of the 2011 Jetta, and a good deal of cost-cutting appeared in the interior.  Every VW in the past two decades has had a very high-quality, soft plastic top dash.  Most other panels were either soft plastic or covered in a soft touch finish.  All of these are gone.  The beautiful upper dash has been replaced by a very hard piece of plastic, albeit with a very convincing texture pattern that is identical to earlier models.  Even the doors were completely hard.  Switches and latches were also missing the normal “dampened” effect that we’ve come to expect on VW models.

2011 Jetta Driver Seat
2011 Jetta Driver Seat

These are big changes for VW, but, after spending some time in the cabin, we actually came away very impressed.  Regardless of soft or hard plastics, the 2011 Jetta interior is completely SOLID.  We could not find one squeak, rattle or flex in the dash.  Even without Audi level materials, this Jetta seems no less put together.  And we liked this more and more as we considered VW’s history – namely the infamous “peeling” of the soft-touch surfaces after 5-6 years of use.  The reality is that a hard plastic piece does not wear or get scratched/scuffed as easily.  Thus, we expect this interior to look just as good after seeing 100,000 miles of use. We hope that the solid feel to it all doesn’t loosen over time, however, and turn into squeaks and rattles.

The steering wheel is a carryover from the previous generation and we like that very much.  Nice thickness, sporty three-spoke design with plenty of on-wheel controls for radio and bluetooth phone connection, if equipped.  Three audio systems are available – a standard, blue backlit, basic CD radio model; a color touchscreen model; and a GPS navigation unit.  We’d stay away from the GPS unit – VW’s GPS navigation units have always been behind even the low-end of portable GPS units and this unit is no exception.  We were very impressed with the touchscreen radio option.  With large, easy to read, easy to hit on screen buttons we were able to navigate our favorites and switch audio sources quickly.  The steering wheel controls allowed change without removing our hands from the wheel and the on-screen updates meant minimal time with our eyes off the road.

We think VW took a step backwards in seat design. The 2011 seats are defined by their flat bottom and sides, lacking any sort of side bolsters. Overall they feel, well, cheap. They were comfortable over our test drive but we’ll have to have a long road trip to really see how they hold up – and we think spirited driving is out.  Look for that in our upcoming full test.  The leatherette option was very good however – extremely soft to the touch and well colored.  Nice to see VW has caught up to Mercedes and BMW in their leatherette quality.

2011 Jetta Rear Seat
2011 Jetta Rear Seat - A Bit Flat

Finally, this vehicle is incredibly spacious.  This is especially true in the rear seat which is downright huge. From the inside this vehicle feels more like a Passat than a Jetta. We really enjoy the compact, european sedan feel, so to us the extra space isn’t worth the increase in overall size – but I’m sure we’ll feel differently when we have 4 people in the car.

Driving

The 2011 Jetta feels like a step backwards when compared to the MkV Jetta.  The significant change in handling performance of the 2011 Jetta comes from the switch to a solid rear axle.  The multi-link independent rear suspension introduced in the 2005.5 Jetta is gone and replaced by this simpler, less expensive design.  We can argue this change either way – independent designs eat up trunk space, wear quicker and are much more expensive to maintain, but on the other hand the solid axle design certainly decreases ride quality. We don’t think this vehicle rides nearly as nicely as the 2005.5 MkV Jetta.

Importantly, though, while the body size is large this vehicle weighs less than the outgoing model. With its wider track and lighter weight may make this MkVI Jetta more athletic than its older brother.

Exterior

While the rear trunk is a bit oversized we think that the new Jetta is overall a great looking vehicle. (the oversized trunk look is a Jetta trademark from the Mk2 and Mk3) Even so, this is in no way a compact car like its predecessors.

2011 VW Jetta Front
2011 VW Jetta Front

VW brings its new sharp-edged look, introduced in the MkVI Golf, to MkVI Jetta and results in an equally clean, simple style. We are especially fond of the single crease that traces from the top corner of the headlight all the way to the tail lights. Other than that crease the sides of the car are free from extraneous bends and curves, resulting in very smooth door panels. Thankfully VW choose to keep the fender-flares as well.

The old Jetta was criticized for its height and unassertive stance. With a lower roof and wider wheelbase, the MkVI Jetta suffers from neither of those. It also isn’t too far off the ground, with options 17″ wheels nicely filling the aforementioned flared wheel arches.

New headlights and taillights borrow the Audi-styled light pattern, opting for angled beams of light rather than rounded shapes from the previous generations. This angular effect works nicely at night. The front headlights, however, don’t stand out and are fairly drab.

Conclusion

With some steps forward and some steps back, we think Volkswagen went back to doing what they’ve been known for – building nice cars for very reasonable prices. Cuts were made, but the overall driving experience and comfort level have not been significantly hurt. This new Jetta meets competitors on cost and still beats them on driving experience. Overall we are left with a very positive feeling for this generation which will hopefully bring the high-MPG enjoyable TDI experience to more drivers.

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