Chevy Cruze vs Volkswagen Jetta

Oil reserves are being depleted, the ozone layer is disappearing, and there’s always a natural disaster special to watch on CNN. So the world is clearly changing. Further evidence of this can be found in the compact car segment. Once the domain of poor college students & bank tellers who wanted to retire early, compact cars (like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic) have moved decidedly upmarket, spawning an entirely new breed of competition.

In this brave new world, compact cars must now compete in areas like trendiness, features and build-quality. 20 years ago, Mrs. Middleton’s Chevy Cavalier didn’t have to look cool, it didn’t have expensive features, and it certainly wasn’t built very well. She bought the Cavalier because it was a cheap car, and it got good gas mileage. With 5 cats and 2 kids to feed, she needed to save money somehow. So her car decision was based on simple economics. If she had opted for the more expensive Corolla or Civic, she would’ve gotten a car that was screwed together a little tighter. But, it still would’ve been just a boring little gas-saver.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Mrs. Middleton’s daughter is about to buy her first new car. But Patti Middleton doesn’t know how to use a cassette player, she listens to her music on an iPod. She doesn’t know how to read a map either. So Navigation is a must-have accessory. Fortunately for Patti, most of today’s compact cars have become like a fashion accessory. So, she can get all of the latest blueteeth technology, in a two-tone leather bag. (When her mom bought that Chevy, her only options were a deluxe cloth interior…and mud flaps.)

Two of the latest entrants to the compact car fashion show are the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, and the 2011 Chevy Cruze. The Jetta is an all new car, designed for America, and built in Mexico. The Cruze on the other hand, was launched overseas back in 2008. It didn’t make it to our shores until the 2010 model year, but when it did, 2 Million units had already been sold. So, Chevy Cruze vs Volkswagen Jetta, how do they stack up? Let’s find out…

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

GM has never been good at making small cars. Pickup Territory and Sedanville were conquered long ago. But the General has never won a war in Compact-Land. The Japanese used superior technology, and bunker-like build quality to defeat the General’s army. Colonel Cavalier, and Major Cobalt suffered badly at the hands of the Corolla-kahn, & Civic-san armies. So a new weapon had to be developed. Far away, on the other side of the world, the General’s R&D teams crafted a stealthy little compact called the Cruze. Brigadier-General Bob Lutz was in charge of the General’s product army, and he demanded that the new yank-tank must be built to win a war anywhere in Compact-Land, not just the America’s.

So the Cruze’s interior was fitted with soft-touch materials, and extra sound insulation. Then they added upmarket features like a 6-speed automatic, 10 airbags (including side/side curtain airbags), satellite radio, blueteeth, OnStar, traction control, stability control, navigation, and an endless array of interior color and material choices.

Under the hood, base 2011 Chevy Cruze LS models get a 1.8 liter 4-pot, producing 136-hp and 123 ft-lb torque. When mated to the standard 6-speed manual, this engine is good for 26 MPG city / 36 MPG highway, with a combined average of 30 MPG. With the 6-speed auto, it does 22/35/27. The other engine is a miniscule 1.4 liter 4-banger…with a turbo. This busy little engine makes 138-hp, and 148 ft-lb of torque. If you know cars, then you know that torque is what gets you off the line. And this turbo-4 has plenty of it. It’s also pretty thrifty, with a fuel economy rating of 24/36/28. At the end of the day, the 2011 Chevy Cruze isn’t the kind of car that you’d expect to come from GM. It doesn’t feel as solid as a Corolla, and it isn’t as pretty as the Jetta. But it could easily pull off a Hyundai or Subaru badge. And that’s high praise for something wearing a Chevy Badge.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta

2011 Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen has an interesting reputation. They’re built like a 7th Century Castle, but they’re not quite as drafty. They have all sorts of electronic equipment, and some models (the old-new Beetle) even have dash-mounted flower vases. But all that stuff will eventually short out or fall off, requiring you to spend some quality time at your local dealership. But aside from the electronics, VW’s are usually pretty bullet proof. And they’re pretty nice too. One look at most VW interiors, and you’re immediately reminded of VW’s relation to Audi. However, that’s not really the case with the new Jetta.

While this latest incarnation is the most visually appealing Jetta…ever, the interior falls a bit short of VW’s own high bar. The previous generation had an interior that wouldn’t be out of place in an Audi. This new one uses materials that…were obviously chosen by the accounting department. But, you still get a lot of car for the money. For a base price of $16,495, the base Jetta S gets power everything, heated mirrors, and a wheezy 2.0 liter engine. For around $21k, you can add leather, heated seats, Halogen headlights, a big, annoying touchscreen with navigation, a 170-hp 5-cylinder engine and keyless start. But given VW’s electronic reputation, getting the keyless go system might not be the best idea in the world.

For around $23,000, you can get a diesel powered Jetta TDI. In this form, you get the VW Group’s legendary 2.0 direct-injected turbo-diesel, which makes 140-hp and averages 34 MPG (it’s rated at 42 MPG on the highway too). Compared to the 2011 Chevy Cruze Eco (which averages around 36 MPG), the more expensive Jetta TDI will surely hold its value better over time.

So the winner in the Chevy Cruze vs Volkswagen Jetta comparison is… The 2011 VW Jetta is a very likable family car. It has the right amount of style, and the right amount of equipment to make it competitive in this segment. But it’s the Jetta’s overall appearance that set it apart in my book. While the Chevy Cruze gives you a lot of car for the money, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta just looks like something that you’d want to drive. Add to that, VW’s excellent resale value, and the more expensive Jetta looks like a no-brainer.

Cruze vs Jetta

Specifications2011 Chevrolet Cruze2011 Volkswagen Jetta
CYLINDERS4 inline4 inline
DRIVE-TYPEFront wheel driveFront wheel drive
AVERAGE FUEL USAGE32.0 mpg29.0 mpg
POWER138 hp115 hp
TORQUE148 ft-lbs.125 ft-lbs.