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2011 VW Jetta

bob english The Globe and Mail

Volkswagen's efforts to regain "people's car" status for its compact Jetta, after apparently straying too far up-market, seem to be working with the new and dramatically lower-priced sixth generation that debuted last September helping boost VW sales to a record in Canada.

And this new Jetta's impact continues to be felt, accounting for about half of the 6,098 cars VW Canada sold to post an 18.4 per cent gain in the first two months of 2011.

When the Jetta was created in 1979, it basically gave fans of VW's Beetle replacement the Golf hatchback a trunk for their junk instead. And it continued that modest cost formula through the 1980s and 1990s. But, by the time the fourth generation arrived, just as the third millennium was about to begin, Jetta was attempting to become a premium compact.

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Getting into a base 1998, the last of the third-gen cars, would have cost you $18,085, but a new and sleeker 1999 upped this to $20,990. And by 2005 VW Canada was asking $24,750 for its entry Jetta, and you could spend as much as $32,670 (moving up into Audi territory with options).

Efforts to stay competitive in a fiercely contested segment saw entry pricing for 2010 set at a still stiff-ish $22,175, which made the announcement that the new sixth-generation 2011 models would start at just $15,875 a bit of a shocker.

Arriving at this new lower-cost Jetta involved a process of making some things more suitable for North American buyers while jettisoning some others.

It's a little longer and has a roomier cabin, for example, and wears sheet metal that bears no resemblance to its one-time Golf running mate and would have neatly suited its social climbing years. But the interior, while not exactly "cheapened," has been dialled back a bit, not so much in form or function, but through the employment of materials that don't look quite as nice or feel quite as touchable. Leatherette rather than leather, for instance.

It's a bit lighter, which is good, but it got that way by losing things like the gas struts that once propped open hood and trunk lid. And it has traded its independent rear suspension for a more prosaic twist-beam axle. Audi owners might care about things like this but most Jetta buyers likely won't notice their absence - or care.

And perhaps making that point is that the diesel-engined TDI version was named 2011 Best New Family Car under $30,000 by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada and the base model finished third in the Best New Small Car under $21,000 group.

VW is offering the new Jetta with three engine choices: an anemic 115-hp, 2.0-litre; a high-tech, fuel-efficient and very driveable turbo-diesel and an equally competent 2.5-litre, inline-five.

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The base Trendline is pretty basic, but the $17,275 Trendline+ has air conditioning and a few other amenities that make it more livable. The $19,075 Comfortline, with 2.5-litre or TDI engines, adds things like alloy wheels, heated mirrors, cruise control and other conveniences, while the $23,300 Sportline comes with sports suspension and seats and 17-inch wheels.

Heading the lineup is the $23,980 Highline powered by Volkswagen's 2.5-litre, inline-five-cylinder engine, which is rated at a useful 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. In our test car, this arrived at the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard) which bumped the price to $25,380. With an $890 nav system, plus destination charges, it priced out at $27,735 - which is getting right back up there into small-car premium price territory.

But you do get a reasonable amount of stuff: 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, push-button start, Premium 8 audio system with 125-mm touch screen and all the appropriate holes to plug things into plus Bluetooth, leather-trimmed wheel, the eight-way adjustable driver's seat, seat heaters, cruise and stability control systems and climate control.

In driving terms, the Jetta delivers what you'd expect from a small German sedan. The motor emits that distinct five-cylinder growl, but not too much of it, and works well with the automatic to deliver acceleration that more than meets your needs and perhaps expectations.

Steering is decently weighted and connects you directly with the front wheels, which do their bit by turning into corners with a fair degree promptitude and tracking around them predictably. Most owners would likely be surprised at how hard these cars can be driven on a test track without causing concern.

An enjoyable, if not exciting, car to drive and once again a Euro-alternative to the Asian mainstream.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 Highline

Type: Compact sedan

Base Price: $23,980; as tested, $27,735

Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-five

Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.1 city/6.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra

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