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2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

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  • 2011 Vokswagen Jetta

     (VW)

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Has WM taken over VW?

The spirit of WalMart is alive and well at Volkswagen, as the German automaker begins chasing a dream of tripling sales in the United States before the end of the decade. To achieve this goal, a few changes are in the works for its product mix that will shift the company’s focus from premium back to the people’s car end of the spectrum.

The big gun in this onslaught is the upcoming, Tennessee-built New Midsize Sedan. It will replace the too small, too expensive Passat with a larger, more affordable car that matches up better with competitors like the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. For an early sample of this formula, however, you can look to the all-new 2011 Jetta.

Following this same “more for less” conceit, the compact sedan grows inside and out, but is offered at a lower starting price than the outgoing model, now just $16,765. There’s no magic to this. The savings were achieved by doing things like switching to inexpensive hard plastics and synthetic leather throughout the interior and replacing the pricey independent rear suspension with a simpler, less costly twist beam axle.

None of this puts the Jetta at any sort of disadvantage, however; it merely brings it more in line with the competition. But the increase in size moves it away again, and the loss in high-quality materials and engineering is the gain of the physically large American family.

Wider, and nearly 3 inches longer than the last generation Jetta, the new model now verges on zaftig. The rear seat is particularly spacious, with best in class legroom that beats some full-size cars, and its deep 15.5 cubic foot trunk trumps the one in the ostensibly larger Passat by more than a cube. The new body that clothes it all is crisper, if less distinctive than past Jettas, and features the automaker’s new face with its steely-eyed headlights and thin, Mona Lisa mouth of a grille.

Aside from the most plain, black and white, two-dimensional gauges I’ve seen in a new car this decade, the interior of the Jetta remains attractive, in that functional and familiar VW sort of way. It’s only when you stroke your hand across the stiff dashboard that you discover that something is up.

You do that, right? Isn’t that why they try to make these things soft?

You’ll probably miss the squishy stuff more on the door panels, where body parts make more regular contact with the car.

Seating is comfortable, and even heated on the top of the line SEL model that I tested, but electric adjustment would be a nice option. The leatherette is rich, though, and feels like it could survive a Civil War reenactment near VW’s new factory in Chattanooga, or a visit from the local cartel in Puebla, Mexico, where the Jetta is manufactured.

The new low, low price buys you a five-speed manual transmission and a 2.0L four-cylinder engine that produces 115 horsepower. You can count the number of new cars available that make less than that on your hands, but the combo is good for 34 mpg highway. Once that loss leader gets them into in the door of the showroom, however, the more common choice for buyers will be the models fitted with latest version of VW’s tried and true 170 hp five-cylinder. Here it manages 33 mpg highway with the stick, 31 mpg with a six-speed automatic, all for a slightly higher starting price of $18,965.

At least it runs on regular grade gasoline.

With a less grouchy soundtrack than previous editions, the motor is a little relaxed off the line, building power in an almost turbo-like way that doesn’t come on strong until about 2,300 rpm. Oddly, the automatic transmission on my test car harshly engaged into first gear when moving away from a stop, popping into action almost like one of VW’s nifty high-tech twin-clutch transmissions rather than the old-school torque-converter design that it actually is. Otherwise, it worked exceptionally well.

On the highway, the Jetta is relaxed, and the volks in Stuttgart definitely didn’t skimp on the soundproofing. This car enjoys high-speed running in a way that’s befitting of a vehicle that hails from the land of the autobahn, even if it is primarily made for the amusement of us hatchback-hating interstaters.

In fact, the suspension is tuned surprisingly soft, much more in line with our stereotypically traditional tastes that what we’ve come to expect from VW – even when optioned up with the Sport package. By German standards it’s almost a boulevardier. This is ironic considering that the latest slew of domestic small cars – such as the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze – have taken on a much more European gait of late.

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As Americanized as it may be, the Jetta still has many underlying traits that belie its Germanic roots. Not least of these is a new navigation system that insists on calling I-95 “the I-95” and informs you when you’re crossing the border…into a neighboring state. I guess this could come in handy if you own a radar detector and are heading to Virginia Beach for the weekend, but it conveys a “your papers, please” mindset that’s more prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic than here. Too bad it’s the Pacific that Germany needs to be worried about in this war.

It’s hard not to see the folks at VW taking a page or two from the Hyundai playbook in its new value offensive and, who could blame them for hitching their wagon to a shooting star like that? The question is: which would you prefer for practically the same price? A rather large Korean-engineered midsize car built in America, or a big compact designed in Germany, but hecho en Mexico?

Maybe that border alert is a good idea after all.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

Base Price: $22,495

Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan

Engine: 2.5L inline-5-cylinder

Power: 170 hp, 177 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 24 city/31 hwy