2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta

Overall, it’s not that easy being an automaker. The competition is fierce, and price is a huge consideration for consumers. It’s a problem Volkswagen is facing as it tries to expand further into the North American market by aggressively marketing to the United States.

The company has enjoyed considerable loyalty in Canada – the Jetta is almost always in the top ten for monthly sales – but is far less of a powerhouse south of the border. A new initiative to penetrate this massive market includes a new plant in Tennessee, currently building the new Passat, and a redesigned Mexican-built 2011 Jetta that, with a smaller new base engine, starts at $6,300 less than the lowest-priced model in 2010.

My tester, the 2.0-litre diesel-powered Jetta TDI, uses one of the three engines available for 2011; the other two are a gasoline-powered 2.0-litre four-cylinder and a 2.5-litre gas five-cylinder. At its lowest price of $23,875, the diesel is $600 less than the least-expensive TDI for 2010. My model, the top-line Highline, starts at $26,655 for a six-speed manual transmission or, as I drove it, with a six-speed automatic starting at $28,055.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline. Click image to enlarge

If anyone builds a better small diesel engine than Volkswagen, I’ve yet to drive it. Gutsy, torquey, smooth and efficient – I travelled 530 kilometres before the gas gauge went to the halfway mark – it’s an absolute joy to drive even if it does tend to drone a little at idle. You do pay for the privilege, of course: an extra $2,700 more than the 2.5-litre five-cylinder, and $4,800 more than the base 2.0-litre four-banger.

The problem with the new Jetta is that this delightful engine is offset by the obvious cost-cutting that Volkswagen has done in an attempt to match the price-tags of vehicles more familiar to American buyers such as Corolla and Civic. It’s noisy, its interior materials feel cheap, and the brakes feel mushy with far too much travel. In a surprising move, Consumer Reports, which normally thought highly of the Jetta, moved this redesigned model to the very bottom of a list of eleven tested small sedans, citing that its editors “found fault with its agility, cornering grip, coarse (2.5-litre) engine, braking, interior fit and finish, and so-so fuel economy.”

My verdict: the TDI version is a great engine trapped in a car that could be much better, especially when my tester bumped pretty close to the $30,000 mark. Still, it has the advantage of the only diesel engine in the segment, for those who prefer them, at least for now (the Chevrolet Cruze, already available with a diesel in Europe, will bring one to North America for 2013).

2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI engine; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The diesel puts out 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, which peaks at just 1,750 rpm. Despite the power and the front-wheel drive configuration, there’s no torque-steer. A six-speed manual transmission is the default, while my tester had the optional six-speed automatic Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) for an additional $1,400. I’ve heard from people who dislike these transmissions, but I’m a fan. The gearbox contains two clutches (but no clutch pedal), one handling the odd gears, the other the even ones, swapping them instantly and with no loss of power. There may be a little rumble to the engine, but this transmission is as smooth as silk. A manual shift mode is available on the gearshift lever. The handling is responsive and the car feels tight, including a well-planted feel on the highway.

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