I am a fan of the Volkswagen group. After all, it includes highly respectable brands such as Audi, Skoda, Seat, Porsche, Bentley, and Lamborghini. But I am not a fan of Volkswagen cars themselves. The reason I never warmed-up to Volkswagen boils down to two reasons - silly marketing and product inconsistency. The marketing of VW is separate from the cars, of course, but VW has always irked me as trying hard to be the brand for young, liberal, somewhat hipster American adults. And as for consistency, VW has a long reputation of bringing wonderful cars to the US (the Scirocco, the Corrado, the 5-door Golf, the Golf R32) and then taking them away just as they establish themselves in the tuner and enthusiast markets. At least the 5-door Golf hatchback ihas been here to stay since 1993, and the Golf GTI has been here since 1985. Better yet, Volkswagen has given North Americans a 5-door version of the FTI since 2007. But now Europe has an all new Scirocco that North America will never enjoy, while Volkswagen continues to aggressively sell the Jetta, a car that is known as an 'old man's car' in Europe.
The Volkswagen Jetta Mk II, when it was introduced to North America in 1984, was essentially a sedan version of the 5-door Golf. The 5-door VW hatchback was not always available in North America. It depended on how confident VW was that the family hatchback could sell. But the Jetta was an instant hit. For 26 years, it has been Volkswagen's best selling car in the USA.
Back in 1984, the Jetta was never going to win any awards. It was very small, had a buzzy engine, and had a lack of reliability which was VW's reputation at the time. It did have fuel injection, leather seats, and the classic four spoke VW steering wheel. But over the years, it developed a cult following. In 1992, Volkswagen became the first automaker to offer a direct injection turbo diesel engine, which made the Jetta TDI a highly celebrated and coveted automobile ever since. In 2001, a wagon version was offered for the first time. When it was coupled with the TDI engine, the Jetta Sportswagen earned the unique distinction as the the most fuel efficient cargo hauler in the US. By the time the fifth generation was introduced in 2005, the Jetta was taking aim at premium front-wheel drive compacts like the Volvo S40, Acura TSX and Saab 9-3. The Jetta Mk V was bigger than ever, with firmer suspension and sport tuned steering, an upgraded five cylinder engine, and some very nice European luxury extras for the interior.
But now Volkswagen has done a big reversal. The Jetta Mk VI is no longer aiming at Volvo, Acura and Saab. It has been reassinged to compete against its original North American rivals, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
There are two factors that will still attract American buyers. First, Volkswagen has finally given the Jetta its own platform. It is no longer based on the Golf. It now has a longer wheelbase, much like the mid-size Camry and Accord. Second, the price has come down by thousands of dollars. The Jetta's starting price of $16,000 is Hyundai Elantra territory. But there is one serious problem: the Hyundai Elantra now has better standard features than the two base Jetta sedans. To be specific, the base Jetta models - the S and SE- have significantly cut costs in four areas: rear suspension, rear brakes, steering, and interior plastics and dash materials. Volkswagen enthusiats will be very please to know that the TDI Sportswagen remains based on the previous generation and has not suffered these severe cutbacks.
First, the mutilink rear suspension found on all Mk V Jettas (and nearly all compact sedans in the US market) has been downgraded to a torsion beam suspension, similar to cars in the mini segment including the Nissan Cube and Honda Fit. Certainly adequate, but not at all up to the standards set by previous generaitons of the Jetta.
Second, the rear disc brakes have been downgraded to rear drums. For a German carmaker to offer rear drums is to throw away decades of safety innovation and leadership. Sure, the Mercedes-designed Smart Car has rear drums, but it is a minicar. The previous generation of the Jetta had the outstanding braking power of a Volvo S40 or entry level BMW 328i. Now it is gone from the base Jetta models. I was upset when Ford took away the rear disc brakes in the Escape, and now VW fans will be avoiding the entry-level Jetta with rear drum brakes at all costs.
Third, while I am a fan of electric steering, it need to be finely tuned so that it feels both hydrallic and tight, especially in a small car. Hyundai pulled it off in the Elantra. Chevy and Suzuki pulled it off in the Equinox, a mid-size SUV. But most of the reviewers say that the once responsive steering of the Jetta has gone numb.
Fourth, Volkswagon has taken a big step backward with the downgrading of interior materials. While the design of the dash is meant to mimic Volkswagen's more expensive brand, Audi, it seems more like a cheap knockoff of Audi, and even a knockoff of what VW offered in the Jetta just months ago. While this is not at all true with other models in VW's stable (namely, the Golf and CC), the flimsy materials in the Jetta is an alarming sign that the VW is willing to cut quality in order to increase US sales. Back in January, it was revealed that VW wants to triple its US sales over the next ten years. Moving the production of US-bound Jetta sedans from Wolfberg, Germany to Puebo, Mexico for the Mk V was one step. Reducing interior quality in the Mk VI is another.
But if this is a test to see if Volkswagen can win new US customers by hoping the buyers don't do physical comparisons, then they have already lost to another carmaker. That comapny is Hyundai of America.
When US car shoppers see the new 2012 Hyundai Elantra, with its new, sculpted dash, LED illuminated guages, four wheel disc brakes, direct injection engine, 17" alloy wheels, Electronic Stability Control, Traction Control, and a price tag of just $1,000 more than the base Jetta S, I think we'll see a clear winner in this contest. Volswagen has knowingly or unknowingly decided to compete with America's hottest car company. They have walked into the ring with an inferior product for the first time since the 1980s.
And while the Jetta TDI Sportswagen is a fine car, it is still over $5,000 more than the similarlly equipped, equally roomy, and equally German-designed Hyundai Elantra Touring. And I think you will like the Touring's steering a lot better than any new Jetta.