The automotive world looks to Germany as the performance standard for good reason. What prevents more car enthusiasts from parking German cars in their driveways is price. It's not just the MSRP; parts and service costs make certain luxury models very costly to own.
Enter the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, with a combination of uncompromised performance and affordability. The newest member of the Jetta family comes with a turbocharged 2-liter engine rated at 200 horsepower, with 207 foot-pounds of torque. An available DSG automatic transmission utilizes friction couplings to enhance fuel economy and deliver performance similar to a manual gearbox.
Base price is $24,595 for the automatic transmission model, excluding the $770 destination charge. Volkswagen includes three years of complimentary scheduled maintenance with its factory warranty.
The base GLI comes with 17-inch alloy rims and all-season tires. Buyers wanting a bigger footprint can upgrade to the GLI Autobahn, which adds 18-inch wheels.
Standard comfort and convenience features on all grades include remote keyless entry, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column with redundant audio controls, air conditioning, satellite radio, IPod and Bluetooth interface and heated outside mirrors.
The premium Autobahn Navi model adds keyless start and navigation. MSRP with the DSG automatic transmission is $27,545.
Test drive in Phoenix
I had the opportunity to drive the Jetta GLI with the DSG automatic transmission in Phoenix, Arizona this week. After a few days of driving on surface streets and highways through the east valley, I headed south into the Gila River community, to experience the Jetta GLI's performance on some rural roads.
Although the weather in Phoenix rarely veers from warm and sunny, this week included several days of rain. I drove the Jetta GLI through some downpours serious enough to leave standing water on the farm fields south of town. In the rain, the sedan feels as rock solid as it does on dry pavement.
When designers revamped the Jetta lineup for the 2011 model year, they gave the sedan a longer wheelbase, to enlarge the passenger cabin. On the outside, a strong beltline gives the sedan a sportier appearance. Wrap-around headlamps and red brake calipers are cues to the GLI's strictly-business performance.
The best part of the Jetta GLI, however, is what engineers have packed under the hood. The new turbocharged four-cylinder engine is a sweet piece of work. Not only is it a great performer, it's also built to last. A timing chain with an automatic tensioner replaces the serpentine belt found on many new cars. Because the chain doesn't wear out, buyers can avoid an expensive maintenance procedure at about 60,000 miles.
Peak torque is available at 1700 rpm, so the driver doesn't have to dig into the throttle to get power. At the same time, engineers avoided the harsh throttle tip-off characteristic of some competitors.
Inside the car, a flat bottomed steering wheel is reminiscent of some Audi designs. The steering wheel, which comes with formula-style paddle shifters, is designed to help the driver achieve the best grip with minimum effort.
The dual-clutch automatic transmission shifts crisply and precisely. The transmission's friction coupling gives the automatic version of the GLI better fuel economy in the city than the six-speed manual, and almost as good gas mileage on the highway.
A four-wheel independent suspension consists of struts with coil springs in front and a multi-link setup with coil springs in the back. The GLI variant rides 15 mm lower than other Jetta models for enhanced high-speed performance. Anti-roll bars on both axles keep the chassis flat in the corners.
Volkswagen uses an electric power steering system in lieu of a hydraulic setup, to save weight and space under the hood. The new model's longer wheelbase translates to a bigger turning diameter. Still, it's possible to perform U-turns on wider suburban roads. On-center response from the rack-and-pinion system is excellent.
Large vented rotors up from and solid discs in the back stop the sedan in a firm, linear fashion.
Visibility around the perimeter is good. I had no problems monitoring traffic in the adjacent lanes driving on the highway. The car's rather thick rear pillars create some blind spots in the back corners which are most noticeable when driving in reverse.
Engineers did a good job of minimizing road, wind and engine noise inside the car. Passengers in both rows of seating should have no problems conversing.
The Jetta's well-equipped interior makes the GLI feel like a more expensive car than it actually is. Textured aluminum pedals are reminiscent of high-end sport sedans. The standard cloth seats are stylish and comfortable, with plenty of support for aggressive driving.
Both the gauges and digital center stack display are easy to read in a variety of lighting conditions. A digital information display in the gauge cluster gives the driver trip meter and odometer readings, range, and fuel economy. The driver can also set speed warnings to appear in the display.
Radio and climate controls are easy to reach and intuitive to operate.
A large locking glovebox provides secure storage inside the passenger compartment. The iPod interface is in the glovebox, so the driver can keep his portable music player out of sight. Music selections are displayed on the center stack screen.
Both rows of passengers have access to 12-volt power outlets for recharging portable electronic devices. There are cupholders in the center console and a fold-down armrest in the back.
The longer wheelbase translates to better legroom for rear passengers, especially in the two outboard positions. The location of the center console takes up some legroom in the middle.
The rear seats fold flat to extend the Jetta's cargo floor for long items. With the seats in place, the trunk has plenty of room for luggage, smaller camping equipment and groceries. Cyclists will be better served by the Jetta Sportwagen.
The Volkswagen Jetta GLI comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, four-channel antilock braking and electronic stability control. A standard hill hold feature applies the brakes on steep grades to prevent the car from sliding backwards when the driver accelerates from a stop.
Volkswagen's intelligent crash response system automatically unlocks the doors, turns off the fuel pump and illuminates the hazard lights in any collision severe enough to trigger the airbags.
The all-new Jetta GLI sport sedan is rolling into Volkswagen dealerships nationwide.
Likes: An affordable European sport sedan with upscale styling and exceptional performance. Volkswagen adds free scheduled maintenance for the first three years of ownership, making the high-performance Jetta an even greater value.
Model: Jetta GLI
Base price: $24,595
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 200 Hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque: 207 lbs.-ft. @ 1700 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 24/32 mpg city/highway
Comment: Volkswagen recommends the use of 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline.