Among other things, Volkswagen is notable for having perhaps the most vocal cadre of followers. Call them fanboys or call them enthusiasts... they're proud of either label.
But, as the German automaker has been quick to prove, fanthusiasts
don't exactly call all the shots when it comes to buyers signing the dotted line in the showroom. The first to cry foul when VW unleashed a decontented Jetta sedan aimed at non-enthusiasts in 2010, those legions soon learned that they had little say in the grand scheme of things. VW has never had an easier time finding buyers for its redesigned Jetta, a sedan that aims right at the mainstream.
VW isn't entirely giving up on those who have religiously supported the brand, however. To throw its loyal legions a bone, the folks from Wolfsburg, Germany, have created a zippier version of the midsize Jetta: The Jetta GLI. The nameplate and the recipe are hardly new, but the starting point has never been so maligned by its target audience.
What is it?
GLI builds on the lengthened and cheapened Jetta recipe in a number of ways not immediately obvious. While its design is only lightly revised externally, it discards a basic (read: cheap) torsion-beam rear axle for a more advanced multilink setup, it eschews flat (read: cheap) seats and hard (read: cheap) plastics for bolstering and soft touch goodness and it tosses rear drum brakes (read: cheap) in favor of uprated discs.
On the surface, you might think that those changes bring the GLI back to pre-2010 Jetta specs, but the folks at VW took things a bit further in their quest to create a sedan version of their acclaimed but decidedly niche (in this market) GTI hatchback.
To that end, you'll find a lowered and tightened spring and shock setup that helps make the most of power from a GLI-exclusive 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. A unique body kit and a fantastic steering wheel round out the changes.
Our tester wasn't optioned up with the available $2,050 Autobahn package, which would have included 18-inch alloy wheels. Tack on an extra $900 for navigation.
What's it up against?
With 200 horsepower on tap and proportions that straddle the line between compact and midsize, the GLI competes in a narrow field.
We'd put it up against the dynamically excellent Suzuki Kizashi, the zippy Honda Civic Si and, perhaps, the upcoming Acura ILX
How does it look?
Building on the supremely conservative looks of the standard Jetta, the GLI adds in a tastefully revised front fascia, side sill extensions and an ultra-subtle rear diffuser. Our tester rode on fairly conventional-looking 17-inch alloy wheels rather than the black and silver 18s found in the Autobahn package.
Jetta rides on an elongated version of its predecessor's platform, and although it looks rather squat, it's actually a fairly narrow car at just 70.1 inches wide. Credit a long hood and a low, stretched out front grille for giving it a widetrack-styled look. From the side, its length bestows a mature look in place of its curvier predecessor, but the overall appearance borders on anonycar.
Out back, we like the big tail lamps, but only GLI badging and a virtually invisible faux diffuser make it stand out from the $15,000 super sale special Jetta S your local dealer might be advertising.
And on the inside?
Fanthusiasts requested upgraded interior materials and VW sort of obliged. Gone is the rock hard dashboard and in its place is a shiny rubbery surface that clearly lacks the Audi-level finish seen on the last Jetta. Otherwise, with the exception of some red stitching and a meaty steering wheel, things are much the same here as they are in the standard car.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. While the simple, mostly unadorned dashboard is hardly evocative, it is conveniently laid out. Big, bold gauges sit directly in front of the driver under a wide hood, while the center stack is organized with the sort of Teutonic efficiency that makes most other compact cars seem haphazard. VW's touch-screen audio system is standard and it is generally easy to operate once radio presets are selected.
Automatic climate control, heated seats and a Fender audio system come with the Autobahn package, so the standard GLI feels a bit low-spec to those seeking luxury. Adding insult to injury is the quartet of switch blanks located just ahead of the gear lever, which scream "cheapskate!" Truth be told, only one of those (a starter button for Autobahn models equipped with a proximity key) can be filled. Conspicuously absent is a stability control off button, but we'll get to that shortly.
A pair of well-sculpted front seats covered in a durable, sporty-feeling cloth wrap around the driver and front passenger. Out back, riders are treated to a flat but spacious bench with above average leg room. Shoppers who didn't buy a Jetta a few years ago said they wanted rear leg room. VW obliged.
In terms of storage, a wide trunk is made even more usable by a large opening, but we think the lack of a lining on the inside of the lid is too econocar for this price point.
But does it go?
If you're even vaguely familiar with Volkswagen and Audi products, you've probably read the specs on this 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected inline four-cylinder engine. It does duty in everything from the GLI to Audi's upmarket A6 sedan, although it's not always mated to the six-speed DSG dual clutch automatic seen here (a six-speed stick is standard).
This transmission has always struck us as an odd match for non-sporting vehicles given its tendency to deliver confusing gear changes at low, loping around town speeds, but the firmly-tuned GLI makes a pretty good home for it. Power comes on quickly after immediate tip-in, where 207 lb-ft. of torque is available from just 1,700 rpm all the way to 5,000 rpm. Horsepower, at 200 ponies, seems a bit average from two boosted liters by 2012 standards, but the fast-shifting DSG still makes the GLI feel zippy from almost any speed, especially during mid-range acceleration. Enter an on-ramp at 35 mph and you'll tickle triple digits before you know it if you're not careful. A refined growl accompanies each tap of the accelerator pedal, while paddle-style shifters on the steering wheel keep things entertaining.
That grunt still delivers an EPA-estimated 32 mpg highway. We saw 25 mpg combined including some aggressive driving.
Frankly, we think its power is exceptionally well-suited to the stiff chassis and its nicely-tuned electric power steering. The plump flat-bottomed tiller itself could have been plucked from a race car, and although feedback is a bit dull, there is a precise, direct feel to the way the GLI steers. Particularly impressive is its linear resistance, which feels nearly as natural as it would in an entirely unassisted steering rack. Only a little tugging under hard acceleration belies the Jetta's front-drive chassis.
GLI sits about half an inch lower to the ground than a standard Jetta, and it rides on a firmed up suspension, so its steering has a nice setup to work with. Ride quality reminded us of the last generation of Audi's A4 sedan, which means that it is a bit stiff over undulating pavement but still sufficiently damped to coddle passengers otherwise. Lean into corners is minimal, and the GLI generally inspires great confidence on twisty roads thanks to its more flexible multi-link rear suspension. Four wheel disc brakes aren't as special as their red calipers might suggest, but they did bring the car to a low-fade halt even in repeated hard driving. Brake dust was minimal, which indicates that these pads were selected to keep mainstream buyers happy.
We couldn't help but grin every time we flogged our GLI tester. Sure, its Continental ProContact all-season tires are better suited to family sedans, and, yes, there's a little torque steer, but this is a thoroughly composed sedan capable of netting an acceptable 32 mpg on the highway.
Why you would buy it:
You're looking for a grown-up sports sedan that won't break the bank.
Why you wouldn't:
You're not done with your Monster Energy Drink-fueled days.
Leftlane's bottom line
Fanthusiasts looking for an aggressive four-door sports sedan should head straight to their local Subaru or Mitsubishi showroom to pick up a WRX or an Evo.
For the rest of us, the GLI is pleasantly adapted to the way most enthusiasts actually drive. Comfortable, reasonably sporty and slightly more premium feeling than the standard Jetta, it caters to a wide swathe of both fanboys and enthusiasts. Don't dismiss it as the tarted-up standard Jetta it is; maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
base price, $24,075. As tested, $24,845.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.