SAN FRANCISCO – Why mess with a finely tuned automobile that has defined affordable European driving dynamics? To sell more cars to Americans, of course.

That seems to be Volkswagen Group of America Inc.’s strategy with its new ’11 Jetta, which starts at $15,995, $1,740 less than the ’10 model.

Despite the price cut, the latest iteration of the Jetta is 2.9 ins. (7.4 cm) longer than the previous model, and boasts 2.7 ins. (6.9 cm) more rear legroom.

How could lower prices while at the same time offering a larger vehicle? Simple, by cutting corners.

The most obvious target is the Jetta’s interior. For years, the interiors of VW and its upscale sister brand Audi set the standard for the industry, with painstaking attention to detail and high-quality materials.

But after market research indicated U.S. consumers were more concerned about space than a finely crafted interior, product planners unsheathed their machetes.

Gone are the rich, soft-touch materials of previous Jettas, replaced by noticeably cheaper plastics and trim. Heck, even the seat leather, in vehicles so equipped, is artificial.

Rather than genuine cowhide, VW opted for “V-Tex leatherette seating surfaces,” which company officials maintain is not just as good as the real thing, but better.

We’ll agree to disagree. While nice enough, the seats have a sheen that screams “leatherette.”

The dash is another focal point for decidedly cheap plastic. Why skimp on dashboard material?

“Americans told us, ‘Yes, it’s a nice dash but I’m not willing to pay an additional $1,000’” for it, says Michael Grobe, Jetta’s technical project manager. “That’s the kind of thinking we used in configuring this car.”

Perhaps the average American consumer is as oblivious to subtle touches as VW maintains they are.

On a positive note, several aspects of the ’11 Jetta are pleasing, including its new cockpit layout. Instrumentation is within easy reach and intuitive to operate.

A new, meatier steering wheel and gear-shift knob are nice touches, as is the circular motif of the instruments.

The square vents seem out of place, however. With round instrumentation throughout, they really stand out, and not in a good way.

As was intended, the back seat offers far superior legroom compared with the outgoing model. The large trunk can swallow up a golf bag or two with ease. The rear bench is split 60/40 and can be folded down to handle large loads.

’11 Volkswagen Jetta
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC I-5
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 104.4 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 182.2 ins. (463 cm)
Overall width 70.0 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 57.2 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 3,018 lbs. (1,369 kg)
Base price $15,995
Fuel economy 23/33 mpg (10.2-7.1 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3
Pros Cons
Great engine lineup Have to wait for diesel
Handles nicely Old model more fun to drive
Fetching new styling Teutonic look gone

Exterior styling also gets a dramatic makeover for ’11. The new sheetmetal is much less angular than before, an attempt to evoke a sportier image. VW accomplished its goal of creating a truly new design. But in doing so, the Jetta has lost the Teutonic character that set it apart from the pack. Ironically, it now resembles the Honda Civic, which VW considers a top competitor.

The lack of Teutonic character carries over into the driving experience.

VW says customers told them earlier versions of the Jetta were “totally over-engineered.” That bit of feedback led the auto maker to scrap the multilink rear suspension that was standard equipment on the outgoing model and replace it with a torsion-beam setup.

The change is not that noticeable, and makes for a decent ride. But we miss the tighter, better-balanced Jetta of old. American consumers differ from their European counterparts, so perhaps they won’t notice the suspension change.

And for those who don’t want to give up the sportier suspension, the top-of-the-line GLI model still will offer the multilink.

Underhood, the Jetta makes available four engines, all of them noteworthy.

The outgoing Jetta’s base 2.5L inline-5, with its 170 hp and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of peak torque, now is optional. The I-5, which was the model we spent most of our time in, proves to be a capable performer – quiet under acceleration with plenty of low-end torque.

For ’11, the base engine is a 2.0L port-injected gasoline I-4 that produces 115 hp and 125 lb.-ft. (169 Nm) of torque.

Jettas equipped with the I-4 and I-5 engines arrive at dealers in October, with the 140-hp TDI 2.0L turbodiesel becoming available later in the year.

Sadly we didn’t get to test the diesel, which has earned Ward’s 10 Best Engines honors the past two years. VW predicts some 30% of Jetta customers will opt for the oil burner.

Also available in 2011 will be the superb 200-hp 2.0L TSI direct-injection turbocharged gasoline I-4, also a Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner five years’ running.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard with all four engine choices, and a 6-speed automatic is optional. The TSI and TDI 2.0L engines will be available with VW’s excellent direct-shift gearbox (DSG) dual-clutch transmission.

Although we had issues with the ’11 Jetta, they were largely because we enjoyed its predecessors so much.

VW has said it wants to be the world’s largest auto maker by 2018. In its attempt to grab market share, it’s losing some of the very attributes that made its vehicles special.

VW officials would be wise to take a long look at Toyota Motor Corp. to see the potential hazards of rapid expansion.

bpope@wardsauto.com