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2011 Volkswagen Jetta (Volkswagen)
2011 Volkswagen Jetta (Volkswagen)

Road test Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Jetta dumbed down, except for the diesel Add to ...

Volkswagen Canada had record sales in May - 5,776 units - and the 2011 Jetta is a big reason why.

The Jetta accounts for more than half of all vehicles VW Canada delivered this year: 11,486 Jettas sold out of 21,926. Want to know why VW is having a banner year, with sales up 19 per cent? The bigger, less-expensive Jetta which, by the way, is also the only affordable diesel-powered car sold in Canada

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Yes, diesel. The top-of-the-line 2.0 TDI Highline Jetta lists for $26,655. Compare that price to the similarly-sized $49,900 BMW 335d diesel.

Obviously the rear-drive Bimmer is far superior in virtually every way other than fuel economy, though on the highway the vastly more powerful 335d gets very close to the front-drive Jetta (5.4 litres/100 km for the BMW versus 4.6 for the VW).

Very few if any buyers cross-shop the Jetta with the 3-Series diesel, though I do know buyers who have compared a two- or three-year-old gas-powered 3-Series with the new Jetta diesel.

The story here, however, is about how this new Jetta compares with similarly-priced small sedans, not premium rides. VW has no competition there if the buyer wants an oil burner. Moreover, the diesel powertrain is absolutely brilliant and makes the Jetta compelling.

I would only recommend the Jetta to someone shopping for an affordable diesel. That someone is ready to nail down dramatic savings at the pump - 25 to 30 per cent better fuel economy than a comparable gas engine - while buying superior performance over Jetta gas engines.

The 2.0-litre diesel in the Jetta, with direct fuel injection and turbocharging, may rate a modest 140 horsepower, but it's the 236 lb-ft of torque that matters. Mash the throttle here and - whammo! - a surge of power spools up without no turbo lag. Brilliant.

The rest is less stunning. And don't believe just me. The newly redesigned 2011 Volkswagen Jetta ranks last among the 11 small sedans that have been tested by Consumer Reports.

"The new Jetta is unimpressive," says David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Conn. "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."

I agree when the test vehicle is gas-powered. Some background: CR's testers did not report on the $15,875 Jetta base model with its 2.0-litre four-cylinder gas engine (115 hp/125 lb-ft) but I would suggest this version is both affordable and undesirable thanks to the anemic and unimpressive engine.

The CR testers tested the five-cylinder (170-hp) Jetta. If you want the bigger engine, you need to move up to the $21,175 2.5L Comfortline with its coarse engine. Instead of that model, take advantage of the cheap interest rates in VW's Volksfest promotion. Take the cheap money and spend it on the diesel.

That said, you're still buying a new Jetta lacking in agility and cornering grip, one with longish braking distances and, on the most affordable Jettas, so-so interior fit and finish.

If you choose to kit out your diesel Jetta, VW offers a very good six-speed automatic transmission ($1,400), a simple-to-operate, though unimpressive looking, navigation system ($890) and a leather package ($895) that together give this sedan the look of something approaching special.

Regardless of what you spend, the rear seat is roomy and the trunk is huge and can be expanded by folding the 60/40-split rear seatback. I like all that and plenty of buyers obviously do, too.

In a nutshell, the sales numbers suggest VW's product planners were right to conclude that as long as the new Jetta is big enough to accommodate overweight North Americans, as long as it's well loaded with features and affordable, buyers will overlook the dumbing-down of the Jetta.

Consumer Reports and I agree that the redesigned Jetta is a shadow of the agile, well-finished car it once was. The old Jetta's independent rear suspension is gone, replaced by a basic and very inexpensive torsion-beam design. Brakes? Not four-wheel discs across the line, but drum brakes at the rear on the most basic models.

And the old Jetta had electric power steering, while this new one has hydraulic rack-and-pinion. The hood struts are gone, replaced by a simple prop rod. The interior looks okay and functions well enough, but on the most basic models the plastic dash and door materials in particular look and feel cheap.

Seats? No great.

Obviously the Jetta is selling, but anyone looking for something completely different in a small car should test-drive the new 2011 Hyundai Elantra. It's gorgeous and CR says it ranks as the best small sedan tested so far, followed by the Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla. Put the all-new Ford Focus on that list, too, along with the all-new Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze.

Unless you want a diesel, of course. Then it's the Jetta. Period.

Tech specs

2011 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0 TDI Highline

Type: Compact sedan

Price: $26,655 ($1,365 freight)

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel

Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/236 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/4.6 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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