This car feels somewhat like a BMW.” The sentence was uttered by me and it was followed by the kind of pause such sentences, laden with gravity, deserve. “Yeah, like a 5 Series more than a 3,” said a good friend and fellow motoring scribe. Now there was less tension in the car as two motoring scribes agreed on something — a rare occurrence that needed to be celebrated with a magnum.
Now let’s get into analysis mode. What do I mean by “feels like a BMW”? Mind you, it can be positive as well as negative. It can mean superior build quality, excellent sporty feel and nice feedback from the suspension. It can also mean stiff ride quality, peaky engines and cramped surroundings for the rear passengers. That is why “like a 5 Series” meant a lot. In short — the new Volkswagen Jetta feels well built, has reasonably powerful engines, handles well, offers too much feedback for comfort, has better ride quality than a 3er (still stiff) and has more space (especially at the rear) to challenge its rivals... So far so good. Ah, I forgot to mention — when seen side on, the all-new Jetta looks like a BMW too, complete with taut lines and the C-pillar kink.
You see, it is natural for anyone to feel a bit grumpy and on the edge after spending close to twenty hours in planes, sixteen and half hours of them in a single aircraft. If the car involved had 10 or 12 cylinders and behaved like a hooligan, I would have been equally excited... but the new Jetta? What can I wax eloquent about? Strangely, the answer was given to me by the city where the launch drive was organised. San Francisco is a city that cannot boast the charms, size or population of New York, it ain’t the financial capital either but it has its share of American lore in the form of grand erections (the Golden Gate Bridge), Alcatraz and a nice waterfront. And despite being the underdog, it seems to have its share of fan following all the time.
Similarly, the last generation Jetta was brandished by many as a boring three-box that considered spirited performance worse than consuming banned substances. It was a car that was not meant to accelerate hard or attack a corner with. Instead you were supposed to behave like a 72-year old the moment you got behind the wheel and drive accordingly. Well, it looks like the criticism has reached the rather quiet town of Wolfsburg — because half an hour into the drive we were comparing it to BMWs. So what went right?
Well, out went the sophisticated multi-link rear suspension and in came a twist-beam setup that does the same job while costing a great deal less. Modern materials have allowed VW to get more or less the same feel and response from this basic setup. More than that, with the engines concentrating on fuel consumption and emissions the world over, there was little point in giving your entry level car suspension underpinnings that cost a bomb. But as I have already told you, the new monocoque feels more cohesive, and even when I tried dialling in three-digit speeds into tight corners, the car shrugged and went on without emotions.
The new Jetta features the modern day VW DNA — that means a front end that is bigger than the Polo and the Scirocco, but equally handsome. But there are clear indicators that this car has been influenced by successful cars of our times. As mentioned above, the profile of the car apes BMWs (even Lexus uses the C-pillar kink liberally these days in their designs) while from the rear three-quarters it looks like an Audi A4 (read supremely crisp and premium lines) with the pinched-in look of the tail-lamp units.
On the interior front, the Jetta is roomier than ever before with more legroom at the back and this feature is going to be appreciated when it hits Indian showrooms. The surfaces on the test car were a bit crude and the twin-tone layout came to the rescue in a big way. Expect a form-moulded instrument console as and when the car comes to India. The cars that I sampled featured a basic 2000cc four-pot motor calibrated for 115 horse power, mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox and a 2000cc diesel sending 140 bhp to the front wheels via a six-speed manual. Expect these combinations to be launched in India. The petrol engine was crisp and responsive — despite the economiser outlook rather than power production — but emitted a steely gnarl as it kicked down the gearbox for more power. Volkswagen also offers a 170 bhp five-cylinder engine in the US market with BMW 325i-baiting performance but it may not come to our shores. The diesel on the other hand was fun to drive and often the gearbox was slotted in third or fourth as the mountain roads were dismissed with relish. This is an excellent engine that is as refined as it gets — even when woken up from the cold. VW has got mixed reactions with the DSG gearboxes in India and may do without them at launch.
This Jetta is one of the finest front-wheel driven cars that I have ever sampled. Sure the steering can get a bit more precise, still. The car hides its weaknesses well — the change to a twist-beam rear end as well as drum brakes. But in the same breath we have to say that these are indeed steps in the wrong direction to achieve a certain degree of profitability. But again, the car starts, runs and stops better than ever before and features all contemporary safety features. Volkswagen has got the package right it seems. Yet again!
For not more than a year, the new Jetta will take on the current Honda Civic which still sets some benchmarks. Its futuristic looks, smartly designed cabin and performance from the 1.8-litre motor are enough to keep many interested. Well built, the Civic is a petrolhead’s delight, but unfortunately it only has the petrol motor under the hood. The low stance means it loses out on ground clearance and crucial rear seat comfort. Still, the Civic won’t be lost in the woods for long — a new one will go on sale by late-2011 in India. TOYOTA COROLLA ALTIS
The Corolla Altis has been quite a hit — such a big one in fact that it is the best selling car in its segment. Even though it doesn’t boast of the Civic’s 21st century interiors, it is quite practical with its high ground clearance, good seating position both at the front and the rear and fuel efficient motors. The new 1.4-litre diesel may lack punch but it certainly does keep your wallet intact, while the 1.8-litre petrol has decent performance to take you closer to 200 kph. We wish it looked better and had better quality interiors.
No one expected the Cruze to be such a success story, but it has become one. Best known for its stonking 2.0-litre, 148 bhp diesel motor, there is no doubting that the Cruze is a straight line hero. It also boasts of having tremendous value thanks to its competitive pricing and honest to goodness feature list that is found on more expensive D-segmenters. The Cruze falls short in the area of dynamics, even though its ride quality is pretty good. The lack of a petrol option is hurting its ability to become the overall best-seller in the segment.
When the new Jetta arrives, the Skoda Laura will become a generation old, but it won’t be hamfisted either. The current Skoda Laura is a lot of fun to drive, thanks to its 2.0-litre diesel and 1.8-litre petrol mills that boast some pretty good performance stats. The neutral handling, responsive steering and overall build quality are hard to fault — so is the space management. It may not feel as young as the new Jetta, but then again the Laura is based on the Jetta so the next Laura will more than make up for it.
(The writer was invited by Volkswagen to drive the new Jetta in the USA.)