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Posted: June 03, 2011

Executive wheels: Evolution of a venerable car

Volkswagen and I go wa-a-a-y back

Jeff Rundles

2011Jetta_Sedansm.jpg
2011 VW Jetta SEL w/Sport Package

Volkswagen and I go way back, to my early childhood when my uncle had an early 1950's model of the bug, a rare oddity at the time long before it became the Flower Child car of the 1960's. I owned a 1965 VW van - what my son likes to call a "Hippy Van" - in the late 1960s, and a 1972 Super Beetle in the late 1970s. When I first got married in the mid-1980s my wife-to-be had a 1984 Jetta, which is what Yuppies bought in those days who couldn't afford a BMW. It was a great car, but the radio got stolen about 8 times. Then we had a 1990 VW Jetta that took three of our children through high school in the last decade.

Back then, VW was VW - a lot of people had them because, for the most part, they cost less than other cars but about the only model in the line that had any cache was the Beetle. They had Square Backs and Rabbits, but no one really thought of them as anything more than basic transportation.

That changed in the 1980s as VW began establishing itself as what I like to call a "venerable brand." To be venerable, you have to introduce a model and keep it for a long time, updating it as necessary to stay current with the competition. This veneration, as it were, started to kick in during the mid-1980s, after the Jetta had been on the market for a few years. The model, basically a hatch-back Golf with a trunk extension, was introduced to the world at the 1979 Frankfurt Auto Show, and it quickly became the largest-selling sedan in Europe, and its popularity in the U.S. took off.

Now, of course, the Jetta is more than 30 years old, through six generations, and it long ago ceased being a cheap alternative to a BMW or a Japanese model, but rather a desirable vehicle in its own right. VW has in recent years began to introduce a ton of new vehicles with new names - the CC, Eos, Tiguan, Touareg, Routan - but the company has quite wisely kept the Jetta in the line and continued to make the incremental improvements. Jetta has taken its place along with other venerable cars - the BMW 3, the Mercedes C - but unlike its German brethren it has remained an affordable alternative that is really in a class by itself.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, VW had a habit of naming its vehicles after some form of wind: Passat means "trade wind," Scirocco was a hot desert wind from Africa, and Jetta is supposed to be drawn from "Jet Stream." No one was ever quite sure what the Thing was named after, but it must have been an ill wind. In any case, the two most venerable cars in the VW line - the Passat, introduced in 1973 and for 2012 to be built in Tennessee, and this Jetta, assembled in Puebla, Mexico - continue to blow away the competition.

Now, having said that, there are always people who warn against VW has being cars with maintenance issues. I know several people who have one model or the other and who swear they'll never again have a VW. On the other hand, I have many friends and family who swear by their VW - my daughter has a 2009 Jetta and loves it.

Since I don't own one and only drive new cars, it is hard for me to judge maintenance issues or longevity. But what I can attest to is how much I like the Jetta - I love it.

This 2011 edition is the 6th generation, and it is as handsome a vehicle as I have seen. The Jetta has kept its sort-of boxy look over the years, but the lines were softened and rounded in the 5th Generation (beginning 2006), and the company has made it even more aerodynamic with this new version. My daughter, the one with the 2009 model, drove this one and she said it felt more compact in the front seat; that she had more head and shoulder room in hers. She liked to new one, though; it was just a quick comparison.

What I like is that the Jetta is much more car for the money than many others on the road. The SEL w/Sport Package, the model I drove, features a 170-hp, 2.5 liter 5 cylinder engine that is both quick and smooth. The inside is luxurious, with great leather, solid and beautiful trim, and the "make," as they say, seems above average. It is also a very quiet vehicle.
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What impressed me the most, however, was the room in the back seat - cavernous comes to mind - and the size of trunk, which is enormous. You could put a Mini Cooper in there, which is amazing in such a sleek, compact car that still has a ton of room inside.

Actually, what impressed me the most was how much I liked driving the Jetta. It handles very well, it parks like a dream, and, as I said, is very quiet. Also, over the years I have noticed that Jettas tend to have a little lag between putting the foot on the gas and when the engine kicks in, as if it was a turbo; however, this time around I had no such issues. The engine is smooth and the car has plenty of get-up-and-go, on the highway, in the mountains, all over town. The 6-speed auto transmission, coupled with the ABS brakes, front wheel drive, anti-slip regulation, and electronic stability control, makes this car feel safe and sound.

The only drawback I could find was the ignition. There is no key slot (just a covered slot where the key would go), and the push-button ignition switch in mounted flat on the front of the console. It's very easy to reach and all, but it's not exactly responsive. You really have to hold it down to ignite it, and my daughter (whose car has a key) couldn't get the new Jetta to start without my help. I guess you'd get used to that, but even after I got it down it bugged me no end. I would just rather have a key since I have to carry the fob anyway, and I suppose there are Jetta models that come with keys.

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This is a handsome car, even beautiful, and while it still has the styling cues that made the Jetta desirable since introduction, it has morphed a little bit and also resembles a sort of cross between a Mercedes C Class and a BMW 3 Series. That is not a bad thing, nor is it uncommon; for the last 15 years many of the mid-sized sedans on the road - Japanese, American and Korean especially - have come to look like a Toyota, by design. Certainly there was more styling differentiation back in the 1960s and ‘70s, but there were also some very bad automobiles back then, both foreign and domestic. Today, even the worst cars on the market are pretty good vehicles, but some, like this Jetta, are special.

Is the Jetta a better car than the BMW 3 or the Mercedes C? No, but it's very close and the beauty is that it runs about half the price. That to me is the value statement: a lot of car for the money. A similarly equipped BMW 3 - the 328i sedan - carries a base price of $34,600, and like all BMWs, then you have to start adding on the "stuff." The base price of a C300 Mercedes sedan is $33,990 for 2011, with the plus-plus factor to consider. Admittedly, these cars have somewhat larger engines and a little more horsepower, but not that much.

The 2011 Jetta SEL w/ Sport Package, which I drove, is nearly the model's top-of-the-line at a base price of $24,095 (the TDI turbo diesel w/NAV is slightly higher). This sedan features a 2.5-liter I-5 engine with 170 hp, and it is rated a 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway, a very good rating. Like a lot of German automobiles the engine feels stronger than the size and hp rating would indicate; I never lacked for power in any conditions.

What's cool here is that the only price add-on was the destination charge of $770, for a bottom line of $24,865. Wow! The aforementioned Sport Package includes a sport-tuned suspension (this car handles a rides like a dream), sport-bolstered front seats (I don't know what that means, but the seats are nice), sport driver pedals and sport door rails, both rather, well, sporty. All this stuff would be extra in the BMW or Mercedes.

Then, as standard, you have you ABS, your ASR (anti-slip), your ESC (electronic stability control), and you EDL (electronic differential lock), and there's also a tire pressure monitor, a radio navigation system with a color touchscreen, keyless access with the push-button start, Bluetooth, "leatherette" seats (very nice), cruise, power windows, power door locks, power driver's seat with lumbar, fog lights, and a few more things. The fact is that this car is $20,000 less money than a similarly equipped BMW 3 or Mercedes C. That's amazing.

The only drawback is that VW has not made a Jetta available with its 4Motion AWD system, which it features on the more expensive Passat. It this car - which also comes in a SportWagen model - came with AWD, I happen to think it would be one of the leading sellers in Colorado.

It's evolved now for 32 model years, so perhaps the evolution will soon include AWD. In any case, the Jetta is one heck of a car.

RATING: 4 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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