In just two short months, the odometer on our long-term 2011 VW Jetta has already rolled past 5,000 miles. That's more than twice the national average for miles driven per month, and our goal is to continue racking them up until next April.
We recently had the opportunity to travel to Chattanooga, Tenn., a 120-mile drive from the AutoTrader HQ, to tour Volkswagen's new factory and get behind the wheel of the upcoming 2012 Volkswagen Passat. Since it was a short drive, it made sense to hop into our Jetta, rather than a jet. Interestingly enough, a 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited arrived in our garage just before we left.
Now, there are a few things that are significant about the Elantra this year. It was totally reimagined for 2011, and Hyundai aimed to make it a major contender in the market. The Elantra is beautifully designed with swooping curves, large wheels and a gorgeous interior, and Hyundai has packed the car so full of technology and premium features that would feel right at home next to a Mercedes S-Class. Navigation, sunroof heated front and rear seats, automatic headlights and a six-speed automatic transmission ? the Elantra follows the same "unexpectedly luxurious" mantra successfully implemented by the bigger Sonata and Genesis.
Plus the EPA rates the Elantra's gasoline engine at 40 miles per gallon on the highway. Wait ? 40 mpg? That's surprisingly close to the 42 mpg rating for our Jetta TDI. We think Olga wants to rumble.
Comparably Equipped, Mostly
When it comes to features, the Elantra wins, hands down. Sitting side by side, the Elantra Limited is similarly equipped at a lower price than the Volkswagen. Though there aren't many differences, the Hyundai comes with real, albeit somewhat stiff, leather seats instead of leatherette, automatic headlights and heated rear seats, all for just under $23,000. The Jetta costs around $26,000, but it has heavy, substantial feeling doors that swing and click closed in a way that only German cars do, while the Elantra's doors feel thin and hollow by comparison. Both cars come equipped with navigation, satellite radio and keyless ignition, so we push the start buttons and head north for the mountains.
German Driving Advantage
On the highway, both cars are smooth, comfortable rides, but each has its own special brand of road noise. The Jetta's dash is made of hard plastics, and in our short ownership so far, it's already developed a few minor creaks and rattles. Turning up the music drowns them out with ease, but given that our test Elantra had more miles on the odometer and lacked any rumblings from its soft-touch dash, we think it's worth mentioning. The Elantra isn't without fault, though, because its tiny 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine whines at high speeds. While the Jetta's diesel engine emitted only a low burble for the duration of the drive, the Elantra struggled to keep up at highway speeds, and its audible engine drone was distracting.
Probably the most noteworthy difference in the cars comes with the steering. With its beefy, weighted wheel and intuitive response, the Jetta feels planted at 75 mph. By comparison, the Elantra feels nervous at speed, and both of our drivers complained about the amount of work required keeping the Hyundai in place with its overly fussy electrically-assisted steering. The Jetta is the clear victor here.
Not Quite 40 MPG
Of course we were maintaining a brisk pace and driving uphill into the Appalachian Mountains, but neither car achieved its full fuel economy potential. The EPA rates the Elantra at 29 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, while the Jetta comes in at 30 city/42 highway. During the course of this all-interstate drive, the Hyundai averaged a total of 35.1 mpg, while the Jetta made a competitive 38.4. Given that the price of diesel is typically costs 30 cents more than regular 87-octane gasoline, we can't conclusively name a fuel-sipping winner.
After almost 250 miles in each car, we think both the Volkswagen Jetta and the Hyundai Elantra make excellent companions for long commutes. The loaded Elantra is a value buy for the consumer most interested with getting premium-grade features in their economy ride. The Jetta TDI has the heart of an enthusiast's car, though, and while it may not have quite as many bells and whistles, it's certainly more fun to drive.
Stay tuned for our next Jetta TDI update, where we try to see which is cheaper: Diesel or jet fuel. One of our writers takes Olga to Maryland and back, and tries to do it for less than the cost of a round-trip flight.