SAN FRANCISCO – Volkswagen AG’s sixth-generation Jetta sedan no longer will be a Golf clone when it hits U.S. dealerships this fall.

“They don’t share any external panels,” JC Pavone, VW’s lead exterior designer, tells Ward’s during a media event here. “In the past, (they shared) the front doors, or the (hood) or front bumper. For the first time, (the Jetta) is not a Golf with a trunk.”

Sharing body panels was economical and likely went unnoticed by most car buyers primarily because the Jetta is a sedan and the Golf is a hatchback. But the practice didn’t fit into VW’s plan for the ’11 Jetta.

Pavone says he did not turn to the outgoing model for inspiration. Rather, he studied the lines of the fourth-generation Jetta, which debuted in the ’99 model year.

Calling it “a timeless car,” Pavone says that Jetta was “super simple with perfect proportions. It’s old, but it’s a recipe I appreciate.”

Nevertheless, the ’11 Jetta clearly stands apart from its heritage. Working from a clean sheet of paper, Pavone’s vision for the car was to keep it “simple,” but things are not always as they seem.

“Simple is really complex to do,” he says. “I see a lot of complex cars with funny lines and strange corners. But we wanted to make a timeless car that you’ll look at in five years and say it’s looking great.”

Designing a smaller car is more difficult than crafting a large one, Pavone says. For one thing, there is less sheetmetal to work with, which makes it crucial to get every detail correct.

“In a compact car, you always have to be careful about the dimensions,” he says. “For us, it’s much trickier to make a compact car look good. But I think we achieved a well-balanced car with good proportions.”

VW says the Jetta’s new design DNA results in a sharper style with “precise lines and athletically muscular surfaces, making such a dominant design statement that it “positions itself in a higher-vehicle class.”

Pavone is more modest in his assessment, but he predicts good things will come of it. “(The Jetta) has its own character, its own identity and that should help a lot in the market place.”

He declines to comment on whether the new styling will inspire future VW products.

Seeing the ’11 Jetta firsthand at the ride-and-drive event here, the auto maker has accomplished its goal of creating a truly new design. But in doing so, the car has lost its Teutonic character that set it apart from the rest of the pack. Ironically, it resembles the Honda Civic, which VW targets as a top competitor.

During a test drive here, the new Jetta largely blends into the background, not even garnering second glances from drivers of previous-generation models.

Nevertheless, VW is counting on the new model to bolster sales, which have been on a rollercoaster ride.

VW delivered 130,054 fourth-generation Jettas in the U.S in 1999, according to Ward’s data. Over the next several years, sales continued to climb, peaking in 2002 at 145,604. By 2004, deliveries had dropped to 91,790 units, but rebounded slightly in subsequent years.

In 2009, VW sold 108,427 Jettas, and through July of this year delivered 65,671.

VW may be keeping the Honda Civic in its sights, but it still has significant ground to cover. Last year, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. sold 259,722 Civics, while the year-to-date tally is 156,832.

New ’11 Jettas equipped with gasoline engines arrive at dealers in October, with the diesel version following later in the year.

bpope@wardsauto.com