Since its introduction in 1980, the Jetta has quickly become a top-seller for Volkswagen in the United States.
Despite its early image as a VW Rabbit with a trunk tacked on, the Jetta quickly became the sedan to buy. This reputation remained despite the Jetta's 2005 redesign that many criticized for its resemblance to a Toyota Corolla.
Still, the VW faithful were satisfied by the car's performance.
The company was not.
Many U.S. buyers found the car spendy and chose less expensive Hondas, Hyundais, Mazdas and Toyotas instead. It was clear that consumers wouldn't pay a premium for VW's premium compact.
So Volkswagen decided to meet the competition by producing a cheaper Jetta. When it made its debut for 2011, the Jetta's price started at $16,495, a substantial $1,740 less than the 2010 model.
But to extract that much money from a car, VW had to revise its production methods. While the 2010 could be had in one of 148 combinations, the new model is offered in a mere 18 combinations, excluding color choices.
The Jetta also received a new base engine, a 115-horsepower single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The previous Jetta's standard 170-hp double-overhead-cam five-cylinder engine is now reserved for more expensive Jettas.
The Jetta's look is handsomely conservative. And while this pays dividends - the Jetta's look will stand the test of time long after the car has been paid off - the large flat panels used throughout the body are cheaper to produce.
To those who viewed the Jetta as an ersatz 3 Series, it was all a cruel blow. But while the faithful bemoaned this cheaper Jetta, their cries were drowned out by buyers rushing to buy the new model.
The Jetta's popularity caught my attention.
After all, in my initial review of the Jetta, I praised the car's added space and handsome design, even if I thought the car felt cheap, something I never associated with a VW product.
But the model's acceptance had me wondering if my criticism was off the mark. This made the Jetta a natural choice for my next 3-month, long-term road test, a chance to see if cheapening the car would cheapen the ownership experience.
A 3-month test is chosen for a simple reason: J.D. Power and Associates uses this length of time in its influential Initial Quality Survey.
As in 2011, all Jettas have air conditioning, one-touch auto up/down power windows, power locks with keyless entry, power heated exterior mirrors, electronic stability control, six airbags, anti-lock brakes, AM/FM/CD four-speaker audio system, 60/40 split folding rear seat, tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a temperature display.
The base Jetta S has the four-cylinder engine, while SE and SEL models get the more powerful five-cylinder engine.
And while these models seem similar to last year, there have been upgrades made for 2012. S models are now offered with a power glass sunroof, front center console with an armrest and storage box, and cruise control. SEL models get an SEL Premium package that adds 17-inch alloy wheels, two-tone sport seats, and other interior enhancements.
But more important, VW has added models in that should interest longtime Jetta drivers.
A new Jetta TDI model, powered by a 140-hp double-overhead-cam 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine that returns 30 mpg in city driving and 42 mpg on the highway.
A second new model, the GLI, is powered by VW's familiar turbocharged DOHC 2.0-liter gas engine that produces a healthy 200 hp. More important, the car has an independent rear suspension and other suspension tweaks from the sporty Golf GTI that lend the Jetta a more responsive feel.
Volkswagen sent an SEL Premium for the test drive.
The car is fully loaded, with a 17-inch alloy wheels, four wheel disc brakes, chrome front grill and exterior window trim, fog lights, Fender audio system, a GPS navigation system, keyless access with push button start, trip computer, Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, power tilt/sliding sunroof, heated front seats, leatherette trim and fog lights.
While most drivers appreciate such a well-equipped car, it doesn't sway me in the least. What I want to know is this: is this a true Volkswagen or a pretender to the throne?
I'll let you know in three months.