It's hard to argue with success, and since its redesign the Jetta has been a showroom superstar. Sales are up by about 75 percent with the new model and there's no sign of that trend stopping any time soon. The redesign's interior space, trim styling, and recession-era pricing have offered a badly needed alternative to the Japanese/Korean midsize players for mainstream buyers
There's just one little problem: The hardcore VW crowd doesn't like the car. Frankly, that is a little problem, because hardcore VW buyers don't offer the kind of volume the automaker is seeking in this segment. Just to prevent hard feelings, however, the GLI badge has been revived for 2012, bringing with it a few goodies.
Zip for the Jetta
We drove the six-speed manual and DSG twin-clutch automatic versions of the GLI around southern Virginia, at speeds ranging from "enthusiastic"¯ to "ridiculous"¯, and we have good news: If you loved the old GLI, you will love this one. A carefully chosen array of improvements have addressed the enthusiast gripes and created a new Jetta that is simply a delight to drive.
Let's start with the exterior. The upgrades are subtle but effective; your Corolla-driving neighbor might not recognize the GLI for what it is, but every Euro-car fan who sees the deep-mouthed new fascia will smile in sympathetic recognition. Sensibly-sized and sporty-looking 18-inch wheels carry 225/40R18 Dunlop SP Sports. From the rear, a dual-pipe exhaust and a mild diffuser-styled bumper differentiate the $23,495 GLI from the $16,496 Jetta S.
The interior isn't quite as restrained, with available red-stitched black leather seats and a thick, grippy flat-bottomed steering wheel as seen in the Aud R8, RS4, and other various sporting VW/Audi products. While many of the dash plastics don't seem to have received any sort of upgrade from the base car, metallic trim panels and a healthy dose of red stitching combine to elevate the mood. It's recognizably a German sporting sedan, even if it's not actually made in Germany.
Once under way, the direct-injected, 200-horsepower turbo two-liter four is throaty and responsive. This engine appears all over the VW/Audi kingdom, from the old Mk5 GTI to the current Audi A6 and A7 overseas. No, it isn't fast in the modern sense of the term, but the GLI was never about raw thrust. In an era where Hyundai and Kia offer 274-horsepower turbo engines in plain-wrapper sedans, however, it's reasonable to wonder why VW is content to continue serving up much less.
Sweeping through a set of fast, steeply banked blind corners, the GLI inspires iron-clad confidence. A multi-link rear suspension replaces the cost-cutting twist-beam rear axle found in the base car. It was impossible to upset the GLI's rear wheels; even a sharp left-foot kick to the brakes in a 60 mph downhill bend provoked nothing more than a light, controllable step out of perhaps six inches. The steering tugs sympathetically to the left and right under full throttle and mild cornering load, just enough to remind you that you're behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive car. Don't like it? Buy a Subaru WRX.
The power steering in the GLI is light and controllable, just what we want for fast back-road work. The subject of power assistance in FWD sporting cars is always controversial, but ask anybody who has to race a Civic or Golf in touring-car classes without it and you'll get an unequivocal answer. Lighter is better, as long as the feel is preserved. There's plenty of feel to be had here.
Do you want the six-speed or the DSG? Of course the DSG is faster in pretty much all situations, and it offers the option of full-time left-foot braking. Remember to pack a CG-Lock in your glovebox to slap on if you're really serious about doing that, by the way. The six-speed is so charming and pleasant, however, we ended up preferring it despite the time lost in shifting and swapping feet around.
One complaint: The drive-by-wire throttle is mapped in such a way as to make heel-and-toeing very difficult. While the clutch is engaged, the electronics dampen throttle response. More and more manual-transmission cars, particularly European ones, have this "feature,"¯ presumably to reduce stray emissions during shifting. This is something to which most drivers will eventually adjust, but it shouldn't be that way. It would also be nice to see a lower (numerically higher) first and second gear in the manual box to help the car come up to speed.
Once the GLI has the boost up and the tacho has swung all the way to the correct side of the dial, any doubts about its authenticity or platform heritage vanish like thin fog in sunlight. The performance numbers will never show it, but this is simply a joy-filled car and a sharp response to criticism of the 2011 Jetta. There's genuine pleasure to be had at the edges of the grip envelope. The stability control minds its own business. Rebound damping is sure and strong. It's a car that wants to make the most of its power and hold revs to the very last moment on every corner. Be warned that if you drive like this, the brakes will fade. They're painted red, but they are pretty standard fare.
The rest of the GLI is standard Jetta fare as well. There's plenty of room for four people, a spacious trunk, and a set of well-located controls. The ride is just fine on most roads, even with the 18-inch wheels, and cabin noise is reasonably well-controlled. The emphasis is on simplicity and value.
Leftlane's bottom line
Truthfully, the GLI is most convincing as a six-speed manual, base-equipment automobile. It will never compete head-on with the Evolutions and STIs of the world, so keep the options light and enjoy the car for what it is: a solid value, a delight to drive, and a GLI which absolutely earns the right to wear the letters.
Don't expect a BMW M5, or even a poor man's BMW M5, and you won't be disappointed.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI base price, $23,495
Words and photos by Jack Baruth.