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Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn, 2012: Responsive, fun to drive compact

When I heard I was going to test drive a 2012 Volkswagen Jetta, I had low expectations. I didn’t know it was going to be a GLI Autobahn Jetta, just a Jetta. And as someone much wiser has told me, having low expectations is the key to happiness in life. It's especially true with  VW Jetta GLI Autobahn. It's a ton of fun and perfect for the daily comuting grind.

The GLI is the range-topping Jetta, with its 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumping out 200 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque married to six -speed DSG automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is also possible, and I would have preferred it.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Driving Impressions

Having just tested the new Beetle Turbo, I’m quite familiar with what the four banger, two-liter turbo with direct-injection can do. Despite some noticeable turbo lag, the engine is quite responsive and happily revs to redline on command, assuming you drop the transmission into the S mode. And floor it.

From a complete stop, flooring the GLI in S mode will get you some almost-satisfying wheel spin. This car feels quick on its feet and is fun to toss around a bit. The traction control keeps you in check most of the time. The Jetta GLI felt more balanced to me than the Beetle Turbo, which felt like it had a light tail end.

The Jetta GLI also has great steering feel for a FWD compact sedan, heavy enough even at low speeds without too much excessive give. On the freeway the GLI Autobahn lived up to its name, exhibiting very stable and confident cruising manners. I had a fun time driving the Jetta GLI Autobahn on my balanced highway plus local commute, with a good mix of fun turning highway connectors thrown in.

I mostly kept to S mode, which means higher shift points for the 6-speed DSG, but the Jetta GLI Autobahn still managed to score a very respectable average 23+ MPG during my time with the tester.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Styling

This latest generation Jetta is perhaps the finest looking sedan to come out of Wolfsburg’s design studios since the B5 Passat and the CC. The Jetta finally looks less like an afterthought and looks like it was designed as a sedan instead of somebody sticking a trunk in the back of a Golf.

The stance is fairly good for a FWD sedan with enough distance between the front axle and the base of the A pillar, and the 18-inch alloys with red brake calipers on the Autobahn trim give the Jetta GLI great road presence. The GTI-like fog lights, smoked taillights, and the honeycomb mesh front grille in addition to sport body kits in the back and on the sides distinguish the GLI from lesser Jettas, and the result is a subtle hint of performance like a wolf in sheep clothing.

Not the “in-your-face” styling like certain Japanese compact performance sedans that we’re all familiar with. Certainly no major air scoops on the hood here. The design language works well on Jetta’s compact size and less well on the new North America Passat. It's hard to tell apart from a Jetta in a line-up.

2012 VW Jetta GLI

Interior Comfort and Ergonomics

The interior of the 2012 Jetta GLI Autobahn is roomy and the controls feel great to the touch. You feel quality when a button is not too easy to press in and not too hard like it’s stuck. The leatherette seats are supportive and the adjustable lumbar support on the driver’s seat adequate. There’s plenty of legroom and headroom both front and back, a vast improvement over Jettas of yore.

The center console controls are all easy to reach and fairly intuitive, and the touchscreen interface is straightforward. Steering wheel-mounted controls are easy to learn but the buttons are a bit on the small side, if I had fat fingers I might have trouble hitting certain controls correctly.

There is also a huge trunk, a pleasant surprise on a compact sedan these days.

2012 VW Jetta GLI interior60/40 split folding rear seats extend trunk spaceTrunk has 15.5 cubic feet of cargo space

Conclusion

So were my low expectations responsible for my high marks for the Jetta GLI Autobahn? Partially.

Is the Jetta GLI Autobahn a well-balanced, fun-to-drive compact sedan with plenty of room for your friends, family and stuff? Yes.

Is 200-horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque enough to push the Jetta GLI around the city and on the highways in a dynamic manner while still delivering very decent 22/33 city/highway MPG figures? Definitely.

Priced competitively against the competition in a segment dominated by the Japanese, the VW Jetta GLI Autobahn is quite a contender. If your expectations have also been lowered by years of boring compact sedans with the performance of washing machines, it’s time to experience the Jetta GLI for yourself. Just remember to floor it.

Pros
• Spirited acceleration & driving dynamics
• Solid sedan styling & spacious interior
• Refined interior & build quality

Cons
• Happy shifting DSG
• A little turbo lag
• Lame name

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