First Drive: Volkswagen Jetta

San Francisco — For the last year, Volkswagen has made no secret of plans to become the world?s largest car company by 2018.? To achieve that goal of surpassing Toyota and General Motors, the strategy involves tripling U.S. sales using redesigned current models and by adding new ones.

The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta looks like a car designed to take on the fickle North American market — no hatchback, clean sedan styling, a more spacious interior, multiple engine choices and lower prices.

Implementing the American blueprint of bigger is better; VW designers have made the new Jetta significantly larger increasing nearly all exterior dimensions and opening up the rear seat to provide class-leading legroom.? Catering to more recent American trends toward economy, VW also cut prices from the previous model setting them strategically under the competitors, which they now identify as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. ?The base S model now starts at $16,775, including the destination charge, which is nearly $1,000 less than the previous generation base model. ??This will allow Volkswagen to advertise the Jetta at ?under $16,000? without the destination charge.

With abundant use of horizontal lines all around, the new Jetta maintains the elements of that indicate German car styling.? The interior is simple and business like but doesn?t have the richness of the previous generation cars.? For example, the soft touch dash is now hard plastic and door panels are somewhat cheap looking.? The design looks good, but keeping the price down has taken some toll on content.

The new Jetta rides on an all-new design chassis with a simpler suspension, which I thought drove like the Volkswagen I know staying flat on the corners and well controlled even on rough roads. ??However, I did hear some of the more aggressive drivers in the group say it was not quite good as the previous model.? All versions now have the latest generation Electronic Stability Control as standard equipment.

U.S. Jetta models will be offered in five trim levels:? S, SE, SEL, TED and GLI.? The basic S, which will wear the price leader ?under $16,000? flag gets a nice level of standard equipment including all the normal safety features, air conditioning, power locks and windows, keyless entry, pollen filter and AM/FM/CD audio.? Other prices announced for manual transmission models include the SE at $18,965, SEL at $22,165 and TDI at $23,765.? A few variations and automatic transmissions will bump these prices higher.? No price was released for the GLI.

The SE and SEL trim levels will be the volume leaders adding, depending on the model, the five-cylinder engine, larger wheels, Sirius radio, heated seats, fog lights, sunroof, keyless access and a sunroof.

Initial Jettas arriving at dealerships in October will be limited to the 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine or the 170-hp, 2.5-liter five-cylinder.? By the end of the year a 140-hp, 2.0-liter TDI diesel will be offered and early in 2011 the top level GLI with a 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder TSI gasoline engine will be added.? The transmission choices for the smaller engines include a five-speed manual and six-speed automatic.?? The turbo diesel gets a six-speed manual or the fast shifting and super efficient six-speed DSG dual clutch automatic transmission.

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