The new, sixth-generation Jetta was launched as a conquest car. It’s a cornerstone, maybe the cornerstone, of Volkswagen’s strategy for world automotive domination, that is, to be the biggest car company in the world.

It’s telling that when you visit the Volkswagen consumer website and click on the “Compare” tab, you’re taken directly to a page with the Jetta stacked up with its market-share targets: Mazda3, Honda Civic, and history’s best-selling automobile, the Toyota Corolla. Could it be that VW wants to retake the title of world’s best-selling car as a matter of corporate pride? (The previous best-seller was the venerable aircooled Beetle.)

That might not happen for the Jetta real soon, given that a reported 35 million Corollas have been sold since 1966. But the larger, long-term strategy could play out. The base Jetta, S, is competitively positioned to do battle with all of said Japanese vehicles, all of which are priced from the mid-$16,000 range, except for the Mazda, which starts at $15,200.

Our long-term Jetta is a more “upscale” model, being that it’s a clean diesel TDI with a price premium of about $6,000 over the base trim S version ($22,525 MSRP), and only about $1,500 less than the top-level GLI.

We have a long history with the VW Jetta; this is our third long-termer in six years. Previous loaners have included a Mk V 2.0T and a Mk V TDI.

You immediately sense that this car, a Mk VI, is a bigger car than the previous generation. It looks it and feels it. It’s as though the Jetta has graduated into something of a slightly smaller Passat. The torque-rich engine lets the car get off the line quickly enough, but the handling just doesn’t feel as sharp as that of our old TDI.

This is a great engine though, make no mistake. Hooked to a smooth-shifting six-speed DSG auto-manual gearbox, it’s another great example of Volkswagen’s prowess at mating great engines with great transmissions, for a near-perfect drivetrain setup.

What’s not so great is the chassis setup, which can wallow at times if you’re hard on the accelerator or in the bends. The all-season tires aren’t great, either. But we’ve complained about these things before in a Jetta, and anyway, those issues are easily addressed in the aftermarket, especially the tires. In any case, the Jetta is not a sports car per se—that isn’t its mission in life—so take our griping with a grain of salt.

This car has been modified though, albeit under the hood. We were up at Neuspeed headquarters in Camarillo, Calif., where Aaron Neumann was playing around with new software maps for our project Mk VI Golf TDI (see sidebar Project Golf TDI). The thing ran so nice, we decided to do the same with the Jetta. Neumann also hooked us up a P-Flo open-element air filter and intake. This Jetta now rips in a straight line; at full throttle the stock tires struggle to hook up—no surprise there. Roll into the gas more gradually, and it’s not long before you’re flying down the road. Still, the added torque, and enhancing the car’s ability to deploy it, has us back to thinking about some new tires and possibly stiffer springs. One thing we also noticed was the new output maps work better when the transmission is pulled all the way down into Sport; otherwise, the car tends to lurch or stutter with aggressive throttle inputs. And even with the added power and torque, the TDI gets great mileage. Of course. We’ve been managing middle 30s in mostly city driving. On the highway, 40s are a given.

When it launched in the spring of 2011, the new Jetta was somewhat panned in the automotive media for moving down-market. This really didn’t have much to do with quality as a whole, but more to do with the perception of quality—and that was mainly down to the materials used on the interior. For example, two critical and highly visible areas are the dashboard and the rear parcel shelf. Both are formed out of hard, high-gloss plastic, rather than a more matte-finish, soft-touch material on the former or carpet for the latter. That’s not to say the plastic is low quality necessarily—it’s solid enough to the touch—but it just looks, well, sort of cheesy. These are the sorts of details that affect your perception of quality. Interestingly, the Golf doesn’t suffer from glossy hard plastic, and if you opt for the range-topping GLI, neither does the Jetta. A curious thing.

Whatever the case, this car is certainly a step up in the small-to-midsize sedan arena compared to its Japanese adversaries. Yeah, we’re a little biased, but if you’re taking the time to read this, you might be too. To at least some degree, the conquest strategy is working. There’s a girl who lives down the street who just traded up from a Corolla to a Jetta. Considering what the Jetta is and what the Corolla is not—an entry level European sedan, with all the cache that entails, and a relatively sporty drive—she has been really happy with her purchase. She’s moved up in the world, and her European ride shouts it.

Score one for the team from Wolfsburg.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive

2.0-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged

Six-speed DSG auto-manual

MSRP: $25,295;
Destination charge: $770
Price as equipped: $26,065

Peak Power: 140 hp @ 4000 rpm
Peak Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
0-60 mph: 9.1 sec.
Top Speed: 130 mph
Fuel Economy: 30 city / 42 hwy

From the hip

Plus +
Seamless mating of a torquey engine and quick-shifting gearbox

Minus -
Shiny hard plastic abounds in the cabin

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