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First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI


In the first five generations it was pretty easy to comprehensively sum up the difference between a VOLKSWAGEN GOLF and a Jetta: One had a trunk. The sixth-generation VOLKSWAGEN Jetta has established its own identity in the Volkswagen product line as a bigger, more mass-market-friendly car. Now, the differences between the two run much deeper. Mechanically and spiritually, the VOLKSWAGEN Jetta stands apart from its former fraternal twin the Golf. It makes sense the 2012 VOLKSWAGEN Jetta GLI would follow suit and differentiate itself from its Golf-based brethren, the GTI.

 Although the sixth-gen VOLKSWAGEN Jetta has seen record sales volumes since its introduction last year, longtime fans were let down by the newest offering. In an effort to compete in the hotly contested compact market, a few corners were rounded to bring prices to a level not seen on a VOLKSWAGEN Jetta window sticker since the MKIII in 1999. The Volkswagen faithful will be happy to know that the folks in Herndon, and maybe more importantly Wolfsburg, are listening. The GLI is equipped with a thoroughly squeezable soft-touch dashboard that feels just as luxurious as the GTI's when poked and prodded. The rear suspension is now fully independent and the beam axle is gone, replaced with a multitude of multi-links soaking up bumps and cornering forces. Last, the exterior looks far more aggressive than the standard Jetta, with big air intakes, flared sills, bigger wheels, and possibly the biggest difference -- a lowered ride height.

On the road, the GLI is its own animal, falling somewhere between the standard VOLKSWAGEN Jetta and the GTI in terms of sportiness. The VOLKSWAGEN Jetta has roughly 16 inches of extra length over the GTI, and this fact alone changes the car's feel quite a bit. The GLI feels more settled and comfortable in fast sweepers, but it doesn't feel as adept at quick direction changes in switchbacks where hot hatches excel. It feels slower to react and doesn't like to rotate as fast. Some of this has to do with tuning as well as size.

 In order (we suppose) to better differentiate the two cars, the GLI feels a bit more luxurious than the GTI on the road. The suspension tuning isn't nearly as stiff as the current GTI's or even that of past GLIs. The result in tight corners is increased understeer. VW's X-Diff electronic limited slip differential still works well here, but doesn't seem quite as effective as in the GTI. Turning in with too much gusto causes the front tires to break loose almost immediately. Getting back on the throttle pulls the front end back around, but the GLI really needs more front grip. Part of the understeer may have been the all-season tires on the vehicles at the press drive. It may also explain why the front end never really felt planted. We have a feeling a proper set of performance tires will probably be the best money a GLI owner will ever spend.

The GLI comes with just one engine: VW's celebrated 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection I-4. Buyers will, however, get their choice of six-speed transmissions -- manual or dual-clutch automatic. After driving both, it is hard to say that one has an advantage over the other. Clearly the DSG is the faster alternative, but driving enthusiasts will likely choose the manual. Both operate flawlessly with the DSG firing off shifts either in full automatic or from the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The manual has a very damped yet still mechanical clutch feel, and while the shifter throws are rather long, the action is smooth and the stick falls into gear easily. Acceleration is easy from anywhere in the rev range with the small turbo spinning up even before 2000 rpm.

Besides the much-anticipated dashboard, the GLI gets a new steering wheel -- essentially a GTI unit -- that is easily one of the 10 best in any car at any price. It's flat-bottomed, thick-rimmed, red-stitched, and sculpted enough around the two horizontal spokes to make your hands happy on long drives or during spirited driving. The new sport seats are up to the task as well. Although not as deeply bolstered as some of the Recaro-branded seats in past GLIs, they remain comfortable over long distances and provide ample support for cornering. (We expect the Recaros are being saved for the rumored VOLKSWAGEN Jetta R at some point.) VW had both cloth and leather versions available for testing. Being enthusiasts, we would be more likely to take the stickier, breathable cloth. Our one complaint is that the black cloth seems too subdued compared to the plaid design available in the GTI. The leather looks classy and decidedly more upscale, and it may actually be more appropriate for the character of the car. First and foremost, this GLI assumes the role of a people-carrier, albeit one with a sporty side. The back Seat feels larger than in previous Passats. The ride is smooth and quiet, wind noise is barely noticeable, and the Fender audio system is a revelation for cars in this class.

 The GLI feels more grown-up than its three- or five-door brother. While the GTI has certainly evolved a long way from its hot hatch-hooligan roots, it still feels like a partner in crime. It's a vehicle that gets you out of bed on a Sunday morning to head to the track or the canyons. The GLI may inspire you to get off the freeway an exit early to take that favorite cloverleaf, but it just doesn't have that same desire to be pushed. Maybe, then, the target buyer won't miss the traction/stability control defeat button that's deleted from the GLI. The car allows a decent amount of tire spin coming out of slow turns, but you can never defeat stability control. The lift-throttle oversteer that was always a hallmark of GLI fun is now nipped by the computer's desire to keep things safe and sane.

Past-generation GLIs have always occupied a weird station in the VW lineup. The rest of the world sees the VOLKSWAGEN Jetta as an old man's car, something no self-respecting hoon would be caught reckless driving in. In the States, it was something a driving enthusiast -- but not necessarily a VW enthusiast -- bought as an entry into the European performance world. It gave an owner 95% of the thrills of the GTI while still being a bit more traditional. With the rising popularity of hatchbacks in the U.S., albeit slow, maybe it is time for the GLI to establish its own place on the VW lot. The GLI is certainly a good entry into the mainstream compact sport sedan market. It has all the features VOLKSWAGEN Jetta enthusiasts have been clamoring for, plus most of the traditional performance. It will appeal to the mass market with its supple, sport-tuned suspension and agreeable looks. If VW's current success with the VOLKSWAGEN Jetta is any indication, this will likely find a home in the garages of several customers who wouldn't have considered a VW in the past.
.hdr {color:#ffffff;font:bold 12px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#343434;} .hdr1 {color:#000000;font:bold 09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#aba9a9;} .hdr2 {color:#000000;font:09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#dddddd;} .hdr3 {color:#000000;font:09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#FFFFFF;} 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI BASE PRICE $24,265 VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door, sedan ENGINE ENGINES 2.0L/200-hp /207-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 TRANSMISSION TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 6-speed twin-clutch auto CURB WEIGHT 3150 lb (mfr) WHEELBASE 104.4 in LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 182.2 x 70.0 x 56.6 in 0-60 MPH 5.8 sec (MT est) EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 22-24 / 32-33 mpg ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 102-105 / 153-159 kW-hrs/100 miles CO2 EMISSIONS 0.72-0.75 lb/mile ON SALE IN U.S. September

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