The motoring press hasn't had the greatest of relationships with the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta. When the sedan debuted, critics slammed the newest generation as a Walmart interpretation of a model many of us had grown up loving. The nicer-than-expected materials, playful handling and quiet cabin had all been scrapped in favor of a bargain basement price tag wrapped in styling as risky as sunblock in summer. The machine simply felt like the latest casualty of the Volkswagen campaign to become the world's largest automaker. To make matters worse, buyers didn't seem to care.
Gallery: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Despite a tide of vitriolic ink that's risen around the 2012 Jetta, the model has seen an explosion of sales that's left plenty of critics tapping their microphones and asking, "Is this thing on?" If anything, the exercise has proven that when it comes to moving vehicles in the now fiercely-competitive compact segment, price is still king no matter what the critics say. So, when Volkswagen promised to satiate the model's longtime fans with a new GLI, the rank smell of skepticism came wafting through newsrooms across the country.
But with a stylish exterior, sporty indoor appointments and an upgraded suspension, the 2012 Volkswagen GLI seemingly makes up for the base model's deficiencies, at least on paper.
Every Jetta GLI comes from the factory wearing a unique, more aggressive front fascia. A honeycomb grille replaces the standard slats, and vertical fog lights help give the sedan a more poised look compared to the dopey round treatments of the standard model. The GLI's fascia also includes a faux splitter that juts out from the vehicle's nose. That sort of garb typically serves as a magnet for steep gas station entrances and parking barriers, but we didn't notice any unwanted touching during our week with the vehicle. The 2012 Jetta GLI manages to keep its nose far enough from the pavement to prevent scraping.
Move to the vehicle's flanks and it's easy to spot the stylized 18-inch alloy wheels that come as part of the Autobahn package. These rollers replace the 17-inch pieces that arrive with the base GLI and do much to improve the Jetta's presence. Look closely and you can spot a set of red painted calipers peeking through the spokes, though don't get too excited. The calipers themselves aren't any larger than those found on the Jetta 2.5L. Volkswagen has been kind enough to swap the base 11.3-inch ventilated front rotors for 12.3-inch discs on the GLI, however. The rear discs remain the same solid 10.7-inch rotors found elsewhere in the lineup.
Speaking of the rear of the vehicle, the GLI Autobahn wears the same back valance as its less sporting kin, though those with a keen eye will spot dual exhaust outlets and smoked taillamp lenses. Move indoors, however, and the changes are more readily apparent. Volkswagen swapped the base cloth seats for heated sport buckets draped in leatherette and stitched in contrasting red thread. While the seats offer more bolstering than the base chairs, they still aren't what we'd call form-hugging. That is, unless your form happens to be one derived from frequent feedings at the Golden Arches.
What the seats lack, however, the steering wheel more than makes up for. Volkswagen has bolted on the same flat-bottom piece found elsewhere in the company's stable, and the perforated leather-wrapped wheel feels just as excellent here as it has in other applications. Since our tester came equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, discreet matte black paddles were tucked behind the steering wheel's spokes. The clickers offer a good enough action. Take a gander around the rest of the cabin and you'll note that the same contrasting red stitching that shows up on the wheel and seats also adorns the shift boot and hand brake lever. Volkswagen even replaced the hard shell dash with what we thought was a long-lost soft-touch covering.
The pricier Autobahn trim also rolls in a fantastic Fender premium audio system. The kit was co-developed by Fender and Panasonic and pumps 400 watts of power through nine speakers. Trust us when we say this is one that will make you want to ditch your iPod and satellite radio in favor of a good old-fashioned, high-quality CD.
GTI fans will find plenty familiar under the hood of the GLI. The four-door offers 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque from the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine found under the hood of the hot hatch. While a six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, buyers can opt for the six-speed DSG gearbox found in our tester. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the first configuration should net 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway while opting for the DSG fetches 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. We saw around 18 mpg, but we did indulge in abnormally aggressive driving up the valleys and ridges of Appalachia's Cumberland Plateau and 26 combined in somewhat more sane circumstances. We're guessing that a driver with all of their marbles in place will see fairly close to what the EPA estimates for the Jetta GLI.
That same 2.0-liter turbo four finds its way into everything from the GTI to the Passat and the Beetle as it has for years, but at some point in the not-too-distant future, Volkswagen is going to have to answer to the fact that it isn't the only company putting forced-induction four-cylinders into its products anymore. Ford has managed to wring 240 horsepower from its EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and even the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T is good for 274 ponies these days. Ludwig, you've got some explaining to do.
It took us a spell to grow accustomed to flipping through gears in anger with the DSG, though once we did, we found the 2012 Jetta GLI Autobahn to be remarkably playful. That's thanks in no small part the vehicle's rear suspension. While the base Jetta is left to trundle along with bits lifted from a Roman ox cart, the GLI benefits from a multi-link rear set up and special damper and spring rates on all four corners. The entire machine is more than half an inch lower than the base model, and the lower center of gravity certainly helps when it comes time to pick your line through a few apexes.
Volkswagen has also thrown in the same XDS electronic locking differential found in the GTI. The system utilizes the brakes to limit the amount of torque sent to the inside wheel during hard cornering, reducing wheel spin in the process. XDS promises to be both cheaper and lighter than a true limited-slip unit, and the tech works fairly well, but if you get too aggressive with the throttle, the specter of traction control will float in and put a stop to your fun in a hurry. Unfortunately, there's no way to turn the latter system off.
Under a serious thrashing, the Jetta GLI is happy to offer up handling that could likely give the 2012 Honda Civic Si Sedan a run for its money, especially given how Honda has softened its performance compact in its latest generation. The 18-inch wheels on the GLI provide fairly sharp turn in and body roll is kept to a minimum, especially compared to the base Jetta. Even the electronic power steering is weighted nicely enough and provides some semblance of feedback. Those larger rotors helped dissipate heat and keep brake fade to a minimum, too.
Make no mistake, with only 200 horsepower on tap, this is a momentum machine more than a powerhouse, but that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. This combined package offers more mature styling than compacts like the Ford Focus with a sharper driving experience and more backseat room. It's a commuter that can handle a little after-work flogging on the way home and ask for more.
There are some issues, however. Volkswagen will ask you to pay for the pleasure of putting Jetta GLI Autobahn keys in your pocket. At $25,545 plus a $770 destination, our tester is the second-most expensive Jetta available, falling only behind the Autobahn with navigation. That's nearly $3,000 more than the Ford Focus Titanium five-door and over $3,000 more than the Honda Civic Si. It's also only $50 cheaper than the much more powerful Subaru WRX. Even so, the more refined Jetta GLI Autobahn would be easier to live with on a daily basis, and, if you're willing to sacrifice the leatherette seats, 18-inch wheels and Fender audio system, a base GLI can be had for $23,495. That's a number that's much more in line with other topped-out compacts in the segment.
You can still expect to see a few ghosts of the base Jetta floating around the vehicle, however. The cabin is still a bit noisy at highway speed with the Fender audio system turned down. The door caps are still rendered in elbow-aching hard plastic, and there's plenty of engine, tire and wind noise to live with. This is still a compact, after all. We also found the DSG's shift logic to be a bit on the lurchy side around town, leading us to believe that the six-speed manual could provide a smoother option. Almost no one at this price point is particularly concerned with how many hundredths of a second faster a dual clutch box can swap gears over its human counterpart, and if they are, they'd probably choose something inherently quicker like the WRX or perhaps a Mazdaspeed3.
It might not be quite as entertaining to drive the GTI, but even so, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn remains a vehicle that simply feels good. That's nothing short of a shower of praise given the base model's considerable shortcomings. With our tester's purposeful fascia, larger wheels and lower ride height, it even looks good sulking in a parking lot. Buyers concerned that VW has lost its way with the Jetta need only point their eyes toward the GLI and breathe a sigh of relief.