Volkswagen Jetta GLI, 2012: Sporty and roomy 'Little Giant'

James Raia

Volkswagen continues to add driving excitement to its models. The new Jetta GLI provides this practical, roomy sedan with additional driving kicks.

Far more Americans have welcomed the larger Jetta since it was redone for 2011 to give it greater U.S. appeal. The GLI version arrives for 2012 to make it sportier.

The front-drive GLI comes in three trim levels, starting with the $23,495 base model. It comes with a six-speed manual transmission and has items including hill-hold control, power mirrors, tilt/telescopic steering column and split-folding rear seats with an armrest. There’s also cruise control, Bluetooth, touch-screen radio with six speakers and one-touch up/down power windows.

A six-speed DSG automatic transmission with shifter paddles for manual operation provides super-quick shift times and rev-matched downshifts. It raises the price to $24,595.

The Autobahn model adds items including larger alloy wheels, power tilt and slide sunroof, heatable front seats, automatic air conditioning and a premium audio system. It costs $25,545 with manual, $26,645 with the DSG automatic.

Volkswagen Jetta GLI, 2012: Sporty and roomy 'Little Giant' 1

The top-line Autobahn version adds a navigation system, keyless access and push-button engine start. It’s priced at $26,445 with manual, and $27,545 with the automatic.     

This front-drive GLI’s features include Volkswagen’s potent turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder with 200 horsepower and lots of torque. My test GLI had the manual gearbox, which shifts precisely and works with a long throw, but light, clutch.

Third gear was best in town and during 65-75 mph passing on highways. Fifth gear was OK for moderately fast passing on freeways, but sixth is an overdrive gear that only allows lazy passing times. The DSG gearbox is a good alternative for those who don’t want a standard shifter and clutch, but the manual makes the GLI sportier.

The turbo four-cylinder is a little giant, with 207 pound-feet of torque at just 1,700 rpm. The tires can easily be squealed in first gear. The new GLI is lighter, and thus more efficient, than the previous GLI. It weighs 3,124 pounds with the manual transmission and 3,157 pounds with the automatic.

Estimated fuel economy is 22 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on highways with the manual and 24 and 32 with the automatic. Premium fuel is recommended.    

The new GLI has a track-tuned suspension, with retuned spring and damper settings. Its independent rear suspension replaces the standard Jetta’s torsion beam axle. There’s also VW’s SDX cross differential system that debuted on the racy Volkswagen GTI model. It  helps prevent inside wheel spin during cornering. Four-wheel disc brakes have floating red-painted calipers.

Steering is quick and precise, with 3.01 turns lock-to-lock. Handling is sharp, and electronic stability control is among standard safety features.The ride is supple, although it may be too firm for some on rough roads. The anti-lock all-disc brakes bite quickly and are controlled by a pedal with a linear action.  

Any higher-performance model should look the part. The GLI has the clean but generally plain styling of the regular Jetta, but looks more dynamic. It sits slightly lower and has a new honeycomb grille, deeper front spoiler, side skirts, GTI-style vertical fog lamps, smoked taillights and dual-exhaust tips—and discreet “GLI” badging.

Standard are 10-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels, with a wide-spoke 18-inch design for the Autobahn model. An 18-inch Motorsport Black rim is offered as an option on all GLIs. 

Side-bolstered front sport bucket seats provide excellent support during spirited driving and have attractive bright-red stitching, with matching red stitching on the flat-bottom steering wheel.

Even the rear seat is unusually supportive for two adults, although the middle of the rear seat is too stiff for comfort. There also are aluminum pedals, shift knob, dash and door trim.

All door open wide for easy entry to the roomy, no-nonsense interior. Gauges can be quickly read and dashboard air vents are nicely placed. Front/rear cupholders are located to avoid spills, and all doors have storage pockets. But the covered front console bin is set too far back.

The large trunk has an opening that’s a bit high, but the split rear seatbacks fold flat to easily increase cargo space.

The heavy hood must be held open by a prop rod, instead of hydraulic struts, but the underhood area looks neat and fluid-filler areas can be easily reached.

The Jetta GLI has a heritage that dates back to 1984. The new version should appeal to both auto enthusiasts and everyday drivers, although it’s aimed at those who love spirited driving.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years, To read more of his news and vintage car reviews, visit his website, www.danjedlicka.com

Article Last Updated: May 31, 2013.

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