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We test the Volkswagen Jetta GLI

by Ali Arsham
Wednesday, February 08, 2012

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Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Volkswagen’s GLI was always unique in its offerings.  It was partly economy car yet it offered the performance of its bigger brother, the Audi A4.  Its price was low enough that made it become a great alternative to the more expensive sport sedans. When the Jetta was redesigned for 2011, much of the good stuff from the Jetta was lost due to Volkswagen’s decision to make the car a better fit in the American market.  That meant less content and cheaper price. 

The formula has worked as Jetta sales are up 70 percent in the first nine months of the year.  For 2012, we finally get the performance oriented Jetta GLI back and we did not realize how much we missed our old friend.

For 2012, the Jetta range has been expanded to no fewer than 12 unique models, with a choice of three gasoline engines—2.0L, 2.5L and 2.0L TSI turbo, plus the 42 highway mpg TDI diesel.  The arrival of the Jetta GLI rounds out the Jetta family, offering the sportiest package in the range. With a rich heritage that dates back to 1984, the new Jetta GLI will appeal to both automotive enthusiasts and everyday drivers alike.

A cutaway of the GLI
Under the hood of the GLI is the 2.0 liter turbocharged 16 valve four cylinder that puts out 200 hp and 207 lb ft of torque.  The engine is smooth and very strong and feels very strong due to its broad power band.  The exhaust tuning on the 2.0T seems different in the Jetta GLI as the car sounds more like a Subaru boxer four cylinder engine.  It sounds very throaty and aggressive which is great on a car like the GLI and really gives the GLI great personality. 

Behind the engine, you get a choice of either a six speed manual transmission or a six speed automatic DSG transmission.  Our car had the optional DSG which works great but makes too many decisions for you that can drive you crazy.  The old fashioned manual would be a lot more fun to drive.

The Jetta GLI benefits from a track-tuned independent performance suspension that includes a multilink rear setup, retuned spring and damper settings and a 0.6-inch lower ride height.  Volkswagen’s XDS cross differential system that debuted on the GTI is standard on the Jetta GLI, helping prevent inside wheelspin during hard cornering.  Unfortunately, it would cost too much to install a real mechanical limited slip differential in the GLI. 

XDS seems to just apply the brakes on the inside spinning wheel during hard cornering to minimize wheelspin.  The system works fine on the street where you may only encounter wheelspin occasionally which is smart of Volkswagen because that money is better spent elsewhere.  However if you are planning on driving your GLI on track days, the system could wear out and overheat your brakes soon.

The GLI features a more dynamic look than the regular Jetta, courtesy of a new honeycomb grille, a deeper front spoiler, and GTI-style vertical fog lamps and red-painted brake calipers.  At the rear, there are smoked taillights and dual exhaust tips.  The look is nice but for us it is not enough to distinguish the GLI from its more pedestrian versions.  We would have preferred a more aggressive exterior treatment.

The GLI interior is really nice for a car this inexpensive
The interior of the GLI is more like it though.  Here the GLI stays true to its performance roots.  Side-bolstered sport bucket seats feature bright-red stitching and hold you in very well during hard cornering maneuvers.  Then there is the fantastic flat-bottom steering wheel with its super thick leather stitching that feels so good in your hands.  It has to be one of the best steering wheels in any car at any price.  The interior of the GLI really feels like a sports sedan. 

Perhaps the best feature of the Jetta GLI is its price and operating costs.  The GLI starts out at $23,495.  Think about that and see what else you can buy for that price.  We are talking about a car that has true sport sedan feel for the same price as most people’s economy cars.  If you really want to spend more money, you can buy the Autobahn Edition which adds 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels with 225/40-18 all-season tires, power tilt/sliding sunroof, leatherette, heated front sport seats, heated washer nozzles, cooling glove box, automatic climate control and Fender premium sound system with subwoofer. 

Once you buy the GLI, it continues to be inexpensive to operate with its 24 mpg city fuel economy and 32 mpg highway economy which is terrific.  If that was not enough, VW also gives you a 3 year or 36,000 mile warranty covering the Jetta which also includes all scheduled maintenance costs as well as free roadside assistance.  So basically for the first three years all you have to do is pay for gas.  That is a sweet deal for a bad car and an even sweeter deal for a great car like the GLI.

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