Completely redesigned, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is 3 inches longer than the previous-generation models, with a wider track.
The 2011 Jetta is considerably more shapely than before with curves that are subtle and sweet. The shape stands out in white, and appears most elegant in that color, prettier than the black and silver SELs that we tested. There are body-colored door handles and there's little chrome trim, going against today's grain, sticking to the traditional notion that clean is beautiful. It is, and it shines on the new Jetta. Even the new grille is anti-chrome, with black horizontal bars that look good in basic black, as well as a tray-shaped front spoiler under the front bumper that suggests the splitter on a racing car. It's an upscale improvement over the previous Jetta's bigger mouth.
Nowhere is the new Jetta overstyled or oversculpted; VW has it over BMW in that area. The lines are expanded and more graceful, while still being totally Jetta. They are crisp and precise, with strong wheelwells, smooth roofline and attractive C pillar. The new nose and shoulders, viewed from the side of the car looking forward, give the front end an attractive Infiniti-like roundness.
At the rear, there's a neat aerodynamic lip at the trailing edge of the remote-opening trunk, and powerful taillights.
Inside, we found little to fault. Volkswagen has de-contented the interior to reduce costs. The content that was dropped won't be greatly missed, replaced by materials still of high quality. True it's less plush than before, in order to drop the price and compete with Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, but it's clean and stylish and comfortable, while being intelligent, accommodating, and functional. The V-Tex leatherette upholstery in the Jetta SEL we drove sure looked like leather to us. Even the plastic trim looks like real brushed aluminum; and there's not too much of it.
Mostly, what you get with the Jetta interior comes with the overall build quality: It's quiet and feels solid, like it's a good 100,000 miles away from its first rattle. We tested the all-new 2011 Scion tC the same week as the Jetta, and it felt comparatively cheap inside.
Volkswagen has nailed all the small creature comforts that matter. Comfortable driver armrests, convenient cupholders, good door pockets and grab handles: check, check, check, check. Handsome instruments with clean white-on-black numbering: check and fist pump, over and over again when you own the car.
Noticeably, between the center seats there's an emergency brake handle, two cupholders, and a console with armrest. It's not easy to fit all those things between bucket seats in a small car, and it took detailed work by VW engineers to succeed, not by accident. The interior reflects that kind of thought. Other things, like small stylish three-finger door handles, that work.
There's good headroom front and rear, and lots of rear seat legroom, first-in-class 38.1 inches; compare that to the 38.4 inches in a BMW 7 Series. The wheelbase is stretched 2 inches, but engineers found 2.7 more inches of legroom; with no sacrifices, it's win, win, win: ride, safety, room. And somehow the overall weight is down 110 pounds.
Visibility all around is good, through the windshield even with a steeper A-pillar, and through the wider rear window.
Our only quibbles with a Jetta SEL were with the 5-inch touch-screen navigation system. The nameless icons had us stumped, at first; and the voice command doesn't name the upcoming street on which to turn, instead saying things like turn right at the second street ahead, which leaves wide room for confusion especially as the distance varies. Twice we used navigation to get us out of downtown San Francisco onto the Golden Gate Bridge north from our hotel, and it gave us two different routes, neither the quickest or most direct.
But back to more small plusses. We liked the ability to tune the radio with a knob. The driver information display is located neatly between the tachometer and speedometer, and is easy to scan: clock, fuel mileage, range, odo, thermometer. Big glovebox. Clean climate controls. Optional rear seat pass-through with two cupholders in the armrest that folds down, to access a 15.5-cubic-foot trunk with remote release.