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2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Photo © Volkswagen

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Regular readers know that I was a bit underwhelmed with the new-for-2011 Jetta, which I thought lost some of its essential VW-ness in the interest of pandering to the Honda-buying masses. But I was hoping the hot-rod Jetta GLI might absolve some of the Jetta's sins. So will the GLI appeal to VW purists like me? Read on.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: What a hot-rod Jetta ought to be

The Jetta GLI is an old favorite of mine. The previous-generation GLI was essentially a GTI with a bigger back seat and a trunk, which made it the ultimate family-friendly hot-rod. But now that VW has taken the Jetta in a slightly different direction than the Golf (the car on which the GTI is based), the Jetta GLI, too, has changed -- but I still like it. Quite a bit, in fact.

First, let's cover how the GLI differs from the regular Jetta Along with the 200 hp direct-injected turbocharged 2.0T engine -- the same fantastic engine that has been powering GLIs and GTIs for several years -- the GLI gets an independent rear suspension and a soft-touch dashboard, both of which are missing from the regular Jetta, along with a racy body kit, red interior stitching, and all-around stiffer suspension tuning. Unfortunately, the Jetta's shape doesn't really lend itself to the hot-rod body treatment; the GLI does look a bit more aggressive than the regular Jetta, but the changes are pretty subtle. That said, with a car this quick, subtlety isn't such a bad thing.

Out on the road, the new GLI is an absolute joy. Compared to the regular Jetta, the GLI has sharper and more responsive steering, slightly better ride quality, and, of course, it's much, much quicker. And while the base-model Jetta actually handles rather well, the GLI has that much more grip and poise. The 2.0T engine's power output (200 hp/207 lb-ft) is a bit tame by today's standards, but the engine still produces plenty of thrust when it's needed, and you can't go wrong with either the six-speed stick or the quick-shifting DSG twin-clutch automatic.

Is it a GTI sedan? Not quite. Now that the Jetta and the Golf have grown apart, there is a pronounced difference. The GTI feels lighter, quicker, and a bit more raw; the Jetta GLI feels heavier and a bit more refined. Even the engine note is a bit different; the GLI has a deeper voice than the GTI. All in all, the Jetta GLI feels like a GTI that's grown up a bit -- it's put on a bit of weight, but it hasn't lost its edge. I suspect that's what VW was going for with this car, and considering the GLI's generous dimensions, I think it's a worthwhile trade-off.

Pricing is very reasonable -- the Jetta GLI starts at $24,265 with a manual transmission (the DSG costs $1,100 more), a couple grand less than the previous-generation GLI and in the same ballpark as the Mazdaspeed3 (which is quicker but not as well behaved). Pricing tops out at $28,315 for a GLI Autobahn model with DSG, dual-zone climate control, a sunroof, and a high-end Fender stereo; at that level it's competing with nicely-equipped all-wheel-drive cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, but the WRX can't be had with an automatic transmission and the Ralliart's interior has all the ambiance of a Cuban prison cell.

All in all, I'm very, very pleased with the 2012 Jetta GLI. It's everything a proper Volkswagen ought to be: Refined, solidly engineered, and good fun to drive. And it delivers great value-for-money, an attribute not normally associated with Vee Dub. So the new Jetta GLI is what the old Jetta GLI was: The ultimate family-friendly (and budget-friendly) hot-rod. And just like the old Jetta GLI, I highly recommend it. -- Aaron Gold

Pros:

  • Great fun to drive
  • Roomy back seat and trunk
  • Excellent value-for-money

Cons:

  • Dull styling

Description:

Disclosure: This test drive was conducted a manufacturer-sponsored press event. Travel, accommodations, meals, vehicles and fuel were provided by Volkswagen. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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