Consumer Reports Slams New Volkswagen Jetta

Last Updated Apr 8, 2011 9:26 AM EDT

From its iconic Beetle to its pioneering diesels to its hotshot GTI, Volkswagen has had a small but loyal following in the United States. But the company's plans to triple its U.S. sales by 2018 - starting with a redesigned, Americanized 2011 Jetta - appears to have hit a speed bump. The influential test drivers at Consumer Reports this week ripped the cheaper new Jetta, rating it last among the 11 small sedans the magazine has tested for this model year. "The new Jetta is unimpressive,"says David Champion, senior director of the magazine's auto test center. "In an effort to bring the car's starting price down, VW cheapened the previous Jetta's interior and suspension, making it less sophisticated and compromising handling." The review is in the May issue or available on the CR web site if you are a subscriber. (See New Cars: Who Topped Consumer Reports Ratings?) Some of the magazine's biggest beefs with the new, Fahrvergnügen-free, Jetta (pictured at right):
  • The 170-horsepower engine provides merely adequate acceleration, and the gas mileage, rated at 25 mpg in city driving, 34 highway is so-so among its competitors.
  • Handling is not as agile or precise as in the previous Jetta, with more "body lean" on corners.
  • The brakes are mediocre: "Stopping distances were long enough to be disappointing for an SUV, let alone a small car."
  • The interior has gone from stylish and comfortable in past models to cheap-looking: "All of the interior plastics are hard to the touch and the various textured-plastic trim pieces look tacky."
VW did bring down the base Jetta price for the starter model from $17,605 to $14,995, a strategy described by critic Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal as "less for less" in his similarly scathing review. But the reworked Jetta lands in the lower-priced segment at the same time as new, better-reviewed entries like the Ford Fiesta (rated at 28 mpg city, 37 highway) and the Chevrolet Cruze (see below). It wasn't all bad news for Volkswagen, at least. The Volkswagen Golf, the company's other small car in a pricier segment starting at $17,995, retains reviewers' praise for its sharp handling, smart interior and all-around fun-to-drive qualities. Meanwhile, the Jetta's small station wagon version - called the SportWagen and based on the former design - retains its coveted Recommended status with Consumer Reports. Test drivers from CR also reviewed three other small cars, which they liked better than the Jetta.

Here is a closer look at those.

Hyundai Elantra: The redesigned Elantra is the only one of these sedans to make the CR Recommended list. Test drivers praise the Elantra (at left) for most of the issues where it faulted Jetta: nimble handling with little body lean in corners, a well-equipped and neatly laid out interior, superior braking and high gas mileage (rated at 29 mpg city, 40 highway). Elantra list prices before options range from $14,495 to $20,195.

Chevrolet Cruze: General Motors' new compact car, which sold strongly in the first quarter, got a Very Good CR rating but did not make the Recommended list. Test drivers praised the Cruze (right) for its handling, ride and braking. They tested two versions and preferred the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine (rated at 26 mg city, 36 highway) in the upscale LT version ($20,530 including options) over the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine (24mpg city, 36 highway) in the LS version ($18,375 including options). The review noted that the relatively heavy weight of the Cruze hampered acceleration and gas mileage, though CR's drivers did not test the Cruze Eco, tweaked for the best mileage and rated at 28 mpg city, 42 highway.

Scion tC: This sporty coupe from Toyota's youth-oriented brand gets praise for its responsive handling, good acceleration and precise manual shifter. Like the Chevy Cruze, the tC (at left) gets a Very Good rating but is not on the Recommended list. Rated at 23 mpg city/31 highway, the tC list price ranges from $18,275 to $19,275 before you add options.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers
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