For many years, the Volkswagen Jetta GLI represented the four-door sedan version of the popular Volkswagen GTI, a compact car that was aimed at buyers looking for an involved driving experience but not the 'boy racer' look that came with the hot hatch. The decision to take the Volkswagen Jetta in a new direction for the 2011 model year - one that saw the formerly small car bulk up in order to satisfy the cravings for interior space and comfort on the part of American buyers - meant an end to the platform sharing that had linked the GTI and the GLI models.
What does this mean for the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI? While the GTI and the GLI might still share the same beating heart (in the form of their drivetrain), they now offer two distinctly different experiences from behind the wheel. More importantly, the GLI trim level has become perhaps the most appealing version of the Jetta currently available, aside from the fuel-miser TDI edition.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI isn't an easy vehicle to line up against. Compact but not small, sporty but not high performance, the Jetta GLI will most likely be cross-shopped against vehicles like the Honda Civic Si sedan, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, and perhaps even its GTI sibling. Indeed, if the list of potential candidates for Jetta GLI customers is expanded to include hatchbacks, then vehicles like the Mazda MAZDASPEED3 and the Ford Focus ST can also be added to the list. The fact remains, however, that its increase in size has made the GLI a somewhat unique entry into the entry-level, fun-to-drive sphere.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is offered in a pair of trim levels. The Jetta GLI 2.0T starts at an MSRP of $23,745, while the more upscale Autobahn edition checks in with an MSRP of $24,795. The vehicle we were driving was a very well-equipped Canadian-model Jetta GLI. After factoring in options and matching the vehicle up against its American counterpart, the model we drove retailed for roughly $25,895.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI stands apart from less sporty editions of the compact sedan in a number of important ways. The Volkswagen Jetta GLI is unmistakably a member of the Jetta family, but Volkswagen's attention to detail has come through in creating a sedan that is just different enough from the more affordable base models in order to keep performance-oriented buyers interested.
The Jetta GLI sits on a lowered suspension system, which gives it a more aggressive stance that is further enhanced by a front fascia that has been reconfigured to offer a sporty, blacked-out honeycomb grille. A rear diffuser additionally makes an appearance. Sharp eyes will also notice the red-painted brake calipers at all four corners, and of course the extended side sills. Although 17-inch rims are standard with the car, our model featured the Autobahn's 18-inch shoes that went a long way towards giving the sedan additional visual flair. The overall effect is quite pleasing, for while the standard Jetta's wide, bulky stance never quite caught the eye, the GLI's additions make it more than just another face in the compact sedan crowd.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI’s interior doesn’t flash its sporty personality in quite the same way as sedan’s sheet metal does. Our tester was equipped with grippy leather seats that offered comfortable bolstering that didn’t tire out either our posteriors or our lower backs during the pair of long-haul road trips we subjected the VW to. Our one complaint had to do with the headrests, which were not capable of adjusting to the point where they actually offered usable support for the backs of our skulls. Rear passengers commented on the reasonable amount of room that they were afforded, a testament to the nearly three inches of additional length associated with the new Jetta’s extended wheelbase.
In addition to the leather provided with our high-line GLI model, other special accoutrements found throughout the cabin included a leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel (with the letters GLI emblazoned in chrome on the center spoke), a soft-to-the-touch covering for the dashboard and parts of the door panels, and a sunroof. A navigation system and a Fender-branded sound system round out the infotainment goodies that came with the vehicle that was in our possession for a week, and while the touchscreen interface worked well the screen wasn’t quite as big as the version offered in the GTI. We also had problems with the voice command system, which didn’t seem to allow for interaction with navigation features and which would frequently misunderstand our Bluetooth telephone commands. When it comes to mobile phone connectivity, we were once again disappointed with VW’s decision to split Bluetooth connectivity menus across both the driver’s information screen and the main LCD display – a division of labor that also required drivers to change the automobile’s display language in two different locations.
A final word on the Volkswagen Jetta GLI’s Fender audio system. We find it surprising that what has been touted as a high-end stereo allows for only limited control over the tone of the music that is being reproduced. We were also confused by the way the audio that we had lined-in to the device seemed to cut certain frequencies in and out during playback. Our 13,000 mile press car’s rear speakers buzzed when hit with more than a modicum of bass, a sound that matched the rattle from the seatbelt anchor just to the left of the driver’s ear. It’s also worth noting that the GLI features an iPod interface, but no USB plug.
All versions of the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI are built around the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine. Tuned to provide 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, the mill is also good for fuel mileage of 22-mpg in stop and go driving and 33-mpg during highway cruising. The Jetta GLI comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, but buyers can choose to add an optional six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission like the one outfitted to our test car.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI provides a decidedly different driving experience from its VW GTI cousin. All of the elements are there to make for pleasing performance, including a multi-link rear end in place of the standard Jetta’s torsion bar system, a stiffened suspension with more aggressive shock valving, and electric power steering that doesn’t betray itself by feeling at all disconnected from the road underneath the sedan’s wheels. The Jetta GLI’s power plant is also up to the task of motivating the not-so-lightweight sedan, providing appreciable acceleration off of the line as well as at speed. Turbo lag is a non-issue with the 2.0-liter unit, as the front wheels will only wiggle slightly when asked to transmit the motor’s full output to the pavement.
And here comes the qualifier. The VW Jetta GLI is in all honesty a very pleasant sedan to drive. It’s not, however, a sports sedan. We prefer to think of it as the way all versions of the car should be ordered. Power is good, handling is reasonably responsive, and the ride doesn’t punish occupants despite being stiffer than what a passenger car might traditionally offer.
What is holding the GLI back from delivering the same type of confident performance as the VW GTI? There are a number of small ways that the compact Volkswagen sedan continually reminds you that its has not been designed with hot shoes in mind. The DSG transmission, which in the GTI offers upshifts and downshifts so crisp that it’s a wonder one doesn’t get a paper cut with each tap of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, has been retuned in the GLI in order to improve fuel economy. This decision comes at the expense of the ultra-rapid gear changes we have come to expect from the VW tranny, and also contributes to an increase in the gear-hunting behavior that the DSG ‘box is known to exhibit when cruising at lower speeds.
The GLI also lacks any method for drivers to defeat either its electronic stability control or its traction control systems. With no button to push to free one’s self from these safety nannies, it becomes quite difficult to launch the VW sedan quickly. Any hint of wheel spin instantly brings the no-fun-police into effect, robbing the car of power and impacting its ability to keep up with the competition in the sprint to 60-mph. It also hurts the GLI’s handling when it is flung hard into a corner, as the stability control overrides the driver’s efforts to keep the car pointed in the right direction and saps whatever playfulness might be locked up inside the sedan’s chassis.
We were quite happy with how the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI acquitted itself in daily driving, and even lightly-spirited forays to test the sedan’s limits didn’t have us grimacing. It’s important to understand, however, that those limits are definitely there and that they make themselves known in a way that the GTI simply doesn’t transmit. Ultimately, this makes for less driver engagement with the car, and takes a lot of the edge off of what the GLI could have to offer.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI features multi-stage forward airbags, side impact airbags for those seated up front, active front head restraints that are designed to prevent whiplash in the event of a rear impact, and side curtain airbags that extend along both sides of the passenger compartment (front and rear). The Jetta GLI also comes with anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control, and brake assist. The vehicle has been ranked a ‘Top Safety Pick’ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is an excellent passenger car – one that manages to rise above its de-contented origins – but it doesn’t attempt to fill the shoes of the previous generation GLI, nor does it make a play for the same drivers who might have once had to flip a coin in order to decide whether they would take a hot-rod Jetta or Golf home with them from the dealership. In a sense, the new Jetta GLI represents the parting of ways between VW’s rabid enthusiast fan base and the entire Jetta lineup. The GLI’s competence as a fun compact sedan will appeal to buyers who might have been shopping for a slightly larger vehicle like the Nissan Altima, but its lack of performance focus will quickly become apparent to past GLI owners looking to re-up.
Volkswagen’s decision to place the Jetta GLI outside of the sport compact performance pantheon and turn it into simply the quickest and perhaps best-looking version of its entry-level sedan is more understandable when examining the attention that has been paid to the GTI. With the new Golf R serving as an upgrade over the standard GTI, it’s clear the VW would prefer to steer its adrenaline-seeking customers towards the hatchback and away from the Jetta that has finally been transformed into the high-volume sedan for the masses that the brand has always dreamed it would become.