When: 21 January 2011
Where: Nice, France
What: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta
Occasion: International first drive
Gaps. Most new cars are about gaps. Sometimes they're about gaps that carmakers think might exist, hence something like, say, the Audi A7 luxury five-door hatchback coupé limo. But sometimes it's simpler than that. It's about physical gaps between models.
The new Volkswagen Jetta is a small saloon - nothing esoteric there - but now it's swelled slightly so that it neatly plugs the gap between Golf and Passat.
In the Metal
Unlike the new Passat, for which the VW design department had an attack of the clones, the Jetta is really, properly new-looking as compared to the last version. But in turning its back on the 'Golf with a boot' thing, it has gone headfirst into another aesthetic minefield.
Volkswagen is nothing if not consistent, so the Jetta (a small saloon) looks much like the Passat (a medium saloon), which itself looks quite like the Phaeton (a big saloon). The new VW Jetta is a crisp design though, and while its interior is reminiscent of the Golf's, it's no longer a carbon copy. No prizes for guessing that it's intuitively arranged and generally meticulously finished, though the hard plastic of the door trim does disappoint - you don't find that in the Golf. The instrument panel points towards the driver, which lends a welcome whiff of sportiness.
What you get for your Money
When the Jetta goes on sale in May it will be priced very closely to the VW Golf. The range will start at around €22,000 for the 122hp 1.4-litre TSI in Trendline spec.
For that you get a cabin slightly longer, so perfectly big enough for four grown-ups, but with a boot whose capacity is a full 160 litres bigger, at 510. Equipment levels are Trendline, Comfortline and Highline and there are four engines: 1.4-litre TSI with 122- or 160hp, a 1.6-litre TDI with 105hp, and a 140hp 2.0-litre TDI. All cars get six airbags and air conditioning and you can have a DSG dual-clutch automatic if you want.
It's quite like a VW Golf, which is to say it chamfers the edges of all that can be harsh about driving a smallish car: the steering is accurate but light; the ride pillow-like yet always giving some feedback from the road surface; the engine hushed unless asked to toil; tyre, wind and mechanical noise mostly suppressed.
It's a car that, like the Golf - and even more so like the Passat - demands very little attention simply because it so competently goes about its business. Our sole test car had the 140hp 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine with a six-speed manual, which pulls hard from 1,500rpm, adding to the Jetta's general sense of unflappability and comfort; as with much of the middling stuff in VW's product line-up, the only unnerving sensation drivers might develop is a sense of mild underlying ennui.
You may remember that the VW Jetta was launched in New York back in June 2010, accommodated by Katy Perry. So why the long lead? Well, while our Jetta looks the same as America's, it has been significantly revised. Most US versions have torsion beam rear suspension, while all ours have a more complex multi-link setup with revised settings, a wider track and different steering.
And it's really a case of the rat getting the cream, because as a percentage, Americans buy twice as many small and medium cars with four doors than we do in Europe, yet we get the most sophisticated version. Lucky us.
Whether Volkswagen's decision to clearly separate Golf from Jetta really makes much difference is questionable; the car is still, in essence, a Golf-sized four-door. And across five generations it's already shifted nearly ten million of them.
But actually, we suspect it will make a difference: this could very well become the cut price Passat that the last car could never be, such was its association with its five-door progenitor. Golf pricing with Passat evocation... that should work - especially in four-door saloon loving Ireland.