Of all the states in the US, California is generally regarded as the friendliest. There are plenty of smiles and many a query of "how are you?" not restricted to the usual interaction between coffee shop clerk and customer. That said, as I stood on the tarmac of a car park overlooking the idyllic and picturesque Bodega Bay — just a couple of hours drive north of San Francisco — I wasn't expecting this: "Hey!" shouted the heavily tanned man from across the lot, waving manically in my direction.
I waved back, not wanting to seem uptight around the surf guys and girls limbering up for another day on the waves. But as this flip-flopped individual came bounding excitedly over to me, it soon became clear that his real interest was in the large mass of silver-coloured metal behind me.
"Is that the, it is…. It's the 2011 Jetta, isn't it? Wow! Can I take a look?"
I should have realised. His T-shirt, emblazoned with several illustrations of the classic Beetle, gave it away. Here was clearly a bona fide Volkswagen fanatic. And here we were, in the epicentre for the Sixties counterculture revolution, where lovingly-maintained and colourfully-painted VW Samba buses and Beetles still whizz and bang up and down the coastal roads and winding forest highways.
But the Jetta? What to many is simply a Golf with an oversized boot added on the end was getting some serious love from my new friend as he carefully inspected the exterior. Later on, I was given a statistic that made me understand his fascination. The Jetta might not be as era-defining or iconic as its Type 1 and Type 2 siblings, or even as worldly adored as the Golf, but here in North America it has been Volkswagen's most successful model for over 30 years. Of the 6.6 million Jettas sold worldwide by 2005, more than one-third went to the States.
To give credit to the VW enthusiast, now in the driver's seat and fiddling with the onboard technology, the new 2011 Jetta, the sixth generation of the saloon that first appeared in 1979, has upped the ante somewhat on its predecessors. Rather than simply being a near-identical twin to the Golf but with a vast trunk, the new Jetta doesn't share parts and components with its sportier peer anymore. Gone are the soft contours of previous models, replaced with a new chiselled and purposeful appearance. Gone too is the chrome grille surrounding that bridged the bumper, making way for an upper and lower grill, with the top piece blending into the headlights.
"It's bigger, isn't it?" asked the Jetta fan rhetorically, showing off his rather impressive eye for detail. Indeed, the MkVI Jetta's wheelbase is 70mm longer than before and the whole car itself has been stretched overall by 90mm. Such enhancements have upped conditions inside considerably, with added legroom across the five-space seating area, making it spacious enough to comfortably carry four well-fed adults without the usual squashing of knees. The interior as a whole has seen some excellent improvements, with seats, steering wheel and dashboard exuding a feeling of quality I had only seen recently in the Touareg.
Given the 2.5-litre SEL model to test drive, I also had navigation, Bluetooth and iPod integration, plus an eight-speaker audio system thrown in as standard. It all made for a rather sleek and business-like experience.
Surfing the black stuff
Eventually, it was time to leave the Volkswagen expert to his surfing and put the car through its paces on the roads of California. While it was difficult to instantly feel any noticeable differences to driving the previous model, I didn't think this was such a bad thing. The MkVI Jetta may not have been blessed with beauty, but it certainly handled well.
And this latest instalment continues the tradition; composed and extremely quiet, coupled with excellent steering and braking (four-wheel discs on the SEL model). Winding through the meandering Pacific-neighbouring roads was an absolute pleasure and not just because of the gob-smacking views on either side or the promise of fresh oysters at the end. I was able to throw the car through turn after turn with ease, the stabiliser bars in the suspension keeping it well planted on the road.
As I eventually drifted inland (after lunch) into flat rural lanes and the famous Napa grape fields, the 170 horsepower inline-five engine shone throughout, with plenty of oomph to spare for confident overtaking and a bit of fun without being too excessive. Expert work from VW's acoustics team had even allowed for satisfying growls as the six-speed automatic transmission shifted upwards.
The 2011 Jetta looks and feels expensive, with confident driving and a handsome interior that could easily run in the same circles as bigger luxury offerings. But, crucially, despite the added comfort and larger size, it's actually cheaper to produce than the previous model. And this is how VW is hoping to gain market share against the Jetta's competitors, namely the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. In North America, it starts at a base price of $15,995 (about Dh58,756), a figure that VW hopes will help contribute to its aims to push overall sales to 800,000 across the continent by 2018.
While burgers and oversized malls may be among the many ways the UAE keeps up its cosmopolitan image, we've never quite taken to the Jetta in the same way as the US.
Here, it's the all-conquering Corolla that is the class leader and VW will have a tough job trying to alter this.
But with the MkVI Jetta, however, the manufacturer has all it needs for an excellent attempt. In line with the Europeans, we'll be getting the 2.0-litre four-cylinder variant (113bhp at 5,200rpm and 170Nm at 4,000rpm; less than both the 1.8-litre Corolla and Civic) at first when the car is introduced here towards the end of March next year.
The spec of this model doesn't exactly give it the power to compete with the Japanese on the road, but the size and build quality make up for this. Then there's also the lower price which will give it some sizeable advantages economically.
Now all VW needs is for the UAE to build Californian-style coastal roads or a Golden Gate Bridge to complete the superb driving experience.
Model Jetta SEL
Engine 2.5-litre inline-five
Transmission Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power 170bhp @ 5,700rpm
Max torque 240Nm @ 4,250rpm
Top speed 204kph
Plus Big, comfortable and handles well
Minus Battling against the popular Japanese cars