2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL: Slow start to a long race

December 13, 2010, 10:09 PM UTC

Rare, indeed is the $20,000 car that incites as much controversy as the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta. It is just another indication of the depth and duration of feeling evoked by the VW brand — especially when you consider that it stems from some clever advertising from 40 years ago, and a car model, the Beetle, which had a 68-year production run.

VW better hope it can channel that emotion and use it to positive use as it attempts the all-but-impossible feat of quadrupling its U.S. sales by 2018.

The betting here is that the Jetta will give the automaker a decent head-start toward meeting that goal but won’t do much to win more adherents to the VW brand.

First, some background: In its drive to pass Toyota and become the world’s largest automaker by 2018, VW has penciled in a contribution of 800,000 sales for the VW brand in the U.S.

That’s going to be a stretch, considering that through November, VW had sold just 232,963 vehicles in the U.S. It didn’t help that hard-driving U.S. boss Stefan Jacoby decamped to China to run Volvo for its new owners.

Jacoby was replaced by a seasoned GM and Ford executive named Jonathan Browning, who makes up in polish what he lacks in push.

Browning addressed the Jetta controversy at a meeting of the International Motor Press Association in New York last week.

“Sometimes I think we are penalized for making changes simply because people like how things had been done in the past,” Browning said. “I would simply urge you to compare us against what our customers are looking for and what our competitors do, rather than against a narrower, car enthusiast’s ideal.”

What those car enthusiasts are complaining about is the Americanization — read “cheapening” — of the Jetta.

In seeking to post bigger sales numbers, VW brought the all-new 2011 Jetta to market at a base of $15,995 — $1,740 less than the 2011 model — allowing it to compete with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Chevy Cruze.

To do so, VW made some changes to save money — and the enthusiasts erupted.

Wrote Dan Neil in the Wall Street Journal: “Our Jetta SEL with Sport package was saddled with some of the cruelest, cheapest plastic dash and door materials I’ve seen in years. What an awful way for petrochemicals to die! The innards of this thing make a Chevy Cruze look like a Maybach.”

The Detroit News weighed in with another pan. “All of that ultra cool V-Dub mojo has been replaced with a washing machine,” said Scott Burgess. “Germans, whose culture is known for its appreciation of excellent engineering and pounded pork chops, wouldn’t give two schnitzels for this particular sedan.”

Tough talk. But it overlooks two salient facts.

VW’s ability to hit its U.S. sales targets depends as much on the quality and reliability of its products and the competence of its dealers as it does customers’ perceptions of its vehicles.

And on both those points, VW has been failing for years. On product quality, it has repeatedly been one of the worst performers, and currently ranks third from the bottom in J.D. Power’s 2010 Initial Quality Survey.

In Power’s less well-known Sales Satisfaction Study, which measures customer reaction to the salesperson, the dealership, and the deal, VW ranks as one of the worst as well.

In his IMPA speech, Browning promised to address both those areas with faster analysis of customer complaints and tougher standards for dealers.

As for the products themselves, Browning vowed to deliver both on the science of the auto business — quality and value — as well as the art — style and performance.

On the quality and value side of the equation, Jetta gets an incomplete until Power’s 2011 IQS study is published.

On style and performance, the car is only average. The shape of the body and the contours of the sheet metal are generic. Opportunities to show some flair in the treatment of the headlamps, where manufacturers like Nissan are experimenting with new shapes and lighting, were ignored, and the rear facia is unrecognizable as a VW.

The Jetta’s interior does deserve better press. The instrument panel is neat, well-arranged, and pleasing to the eye. It avoids the chrome-colored plastic with which designers at General Motors and Ford have become so enamored. And if the plastic on the dashboard isn’t as soft to the touch as it used to be, well, how often do you touch the dashboard?

Under way, the new Jetta drives like the old Jetta. Changes to the suspension and the brakes haven’t impacted the ride and handling, which remains best in class.

Performance is on the mild side. The engine is a carryover 2.5 liter that produces 170 horsepower. Acceleration to 60 miles per hour has been measured at 8.5 seconds. Fuel economy is a respectable 24 miles per gallon city/31 mpg highway.

VW did get the price right. My Reflex Silver Metallic test car with sunroof stickered at $24,165.

Volkswagen’s new slogan is “Great. For the price of good.” It understands the importance of affordability in the compact segment. But price is not the same as value, and until VW learns that lesson, its ability to hit its 2018 sales targets will be in question.