Since we have become a nation of discount shoppers, one country under Walmart, there's one thing that seems to have been forgotten: You get what you pay for.
And so we come to the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, which now starts at $16,495, $1,740 less than the 2010 model. It's easy to see what customers are reacting to: the price on the window sticker. Jetta sedan sales in April were up 87 percent over those in April 2010.
I am not sure which is more appalling: German executives' conceit that Americans will buy anything as long as it's cheap or the fact that they appear to be correct.
At first glance, the new Jetta is impressive. Its styling is handsomely conservative. Its design is easy on the eyes. The lack of outlandish angles or unsightly bulges will stand the test of time long after the car has been paid off.
And, at 182.2 inches long, it is more than 2.9 inches longer than previous Jettas. That pays big dividends inside, where passengers both front and rear have plenty of room. And the trunk is huge and easily accessible thanks to a generously sized opening.
Let's face it: Space is the final frontier. In the new Jetta, you get a lot of it.
But if you already own a Jetta, driving the new one will be a revelation in what thousands of dollars in cost cutting does to a car.
Others won't notice.
This car absorbs the worst that our crumbling infrastructure can throw at it; the rear end can sidestep over the worst of them. Blame goes to the suspension; last year's independent rear suspension has been replaced by a less-sophisticated torsion bar.
Surprisingly, it lacks the taut, hunkered-down feel that one expects from a German sedan. Pronounced body lean comes on quickly in corners, and the tires start to scrub off speed if you get too frisky behind the wheel. Braking is adequate. Steering is nicely weighted. Road and tire noise are noticeable, but not bothersome.
Engine choices are familiar to anyone who knows Volkswagens.
A 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder is standard on the base S model. SE and SEL trim levels have a 170-hp 2.5 -liter four-cylinder. Eventually, VW will offer the 2.0-liter turbodiesel and a turbocharged 2.0-liter. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a six-speed automatic transmission is optional.
The test car provided by Volkswagen of America was an SEL with the 2.5-liter engine.
Power is adequate as long as you shift for yourself. If you prefer an automatic, you'll find the sport mode much more fun than the normal drive mode, which often hesitates before downshifts.
While jetting around in the Jetta, VW loyalists will notice the cost-cutting that's taken place. Most notable is the hard plastic that permeates the cabin.
The seats, despite being flat, are very comfortable.
So is the list of standard equipment: electronic stability control, power locks with remote keyless entry; one-touch express up and down on all four windows and power heated exterior mirrors.
The test car had a navigation system integrated with the audio system. The screen is small, which means the navigation system's map rarely shows street names.
The screen's small size also hinders the radio presets. It's great that VW supplies 18 of them, but only six are displayed at one time. To see the next six, you turn a knob, which twirls the display. It's very disconcerting while driving. Worse, the car's soft suspension can make you inadvertently hit the wrong button.
But Volkswagens have traditionally been pricier than its competition. In return, you got a real German sedan.
Now, GM and Ford sell their German models in America and, along with Hyundai, have dramatically improved their cars' handling and interior. Ironically VW, which pioneered high-quality small cars for decades, is going the opposite direction in an effort to grab market share.
It could work.
The new Jetta is a decent car with its roomy cabin, comfortable seats and handsome looks. But the items that VW has long gotten right — interior ambience and handling — are less satisfying than before.
2011 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA:
—Engine: 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder
—Wheelbase: 104.4 inches
—Length: 182.2 inches
—Weight: 3,082 pounds
—Cargo space: 15.5 cubic feet
—EPA rating (city/highway): 24/31 mpg
—Fuel consumption: 27 mpg
—Fuel type: Regular
—Base price, base model: $16,495
—Base price, test model: $23,395
—As tested: $24,165
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.