Review and photos by Laurance Yap
Second opinion by Richard Russell

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First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
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Santa Fe, New Mexico – One letter can mean a lot if you’re talking Volkswagens – in this case, the “L” in the new Jetta GLI.

I came to the car’s press preview in Albuquerque expecting to get a first taste of the Golf GTI that I’d seen and sat in at the Geneva auto show last March, and which has been on sale in Europe for more than a year now. That car, a three-door hatchback, was low and aggressive, with a retro-inspired (but still kinda tasteless) tartan cloth interior, a low-set driving position, and squared-off steering wheel. It was also, according to what I’ve been reading in the European press, not only the king of the hot-hatchback hill, but also a return to the purity and responsiveness of the first- and second-generation GTIs.

Ah, but what we’re here to drive is the GLI. Its outward styling cues may be a bit reminiscent of the GTI, with a deep front spoiler, two grilles wrapped in a big black panel with red trim, 17-inch alloy wheels (with 18-inch five-spoke wheels available as an option), and subtle badging, but it’s an entirely different car. For one thing, it’s a four-door sedan, with the new Jetta’s tall roof, long trunk lid, and ever-so-slightly awkward proportions. Its interior is a whole lot more luxurious, its attitude is just a touch more relaxed, and it’s an entirely different drive than what the GTI will be when it (finally) hits our shores next spring.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

While its red brake calipers, red stripes, and graphite wheels may scream “sport”, the new high-performance Jetta is luxurious – hence the “L” – too. Indeed, it seems most in its element on the highway, cruising along at high speeds. In sixth gear, the engine is eerily hushed but provides superb torque (207 lb-ft all the way between 1800 to 4700 rpm) and passing power; the ride, despite the aggressive wheels and tires, is as smooth as any luxury car’s, and wind and road noise are both absent until you’re well past most local speed limits (in New Mexico, that’s 75 mph). The fluid steering levers the Jetta between lanes with a mere twitch of the fingers, and the upgraded disc brakes are reassuringly powerful when the inevitable slow-moving white Taurus pulls out in front of you without looking.

Much of the credit for the GLI’s superb highway demeanour must go to its engine. One thing the GLI does share with the GTI – and indeed with the new Audi A3 – is its engine, a 2.0-litre turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder that produces a healthy 200 hp along with a rousing burble from the twin exhaust pipes. While refined and smooth under most circumstances, when used aggressively, the engine takes on an angry (if muted) snarl, and you can clearly hear the turbo’s wastegate whooshing and popping.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

It’s teamed with either a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission or Volkswagen’s superb six-speed DSG (direct-select gearbox) sequential manual. Featuring two clutches that pre-engage the next gear before you actually shift, it’s not only incredibly smooth whether it’s in automatic or manual mode, but its incredible shift speed also make it faster than the base transmission. If you can afford the extra cash for the DSG, I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

That the GLI works best with the DSG – even in automatic mode – gives you a hint that it’s more of a balanced European driver’s sedan than an outright performance car. While its tires generate a lot of grip, and you can ultimately maintain quite surprising speeds through corners, the GLI feels softer than it looks. Its body rolls quite a bit, the front tires eventually succumb to squealy understeer, and there’s little real road feel through the steering. Turn the intensity down just a bit, though, and it feels just great, instantly responsive to your control inputs, and with a slick, smooth feel to all of the controls that gives it a real feeling of quality and integrity.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

As does the interior. While there is certainly visible evidence of cost-cutting in comparison to the cabin of the previous-generation Jetta – the lid on the ashtray, for instance, springs up instead of sliding elegantly out of the way, and the plastics on the lower parts of the dashboard and door panels are hard and scratchy – the GLI is still a superb place to sit. Deeply sculpted bucket seats with huge side bolsters hold you firmly in place, and have a wide range of adjustment; the three-spoke, flat-bottomed steering wheel is just the right size and thickness; the deep-dish gauges are easy to read at a glance; and the audio and climate controls couldn’t be simpler to use. Perhaps more importantly, the new Jetta’s lengthened platform means that the rear seats actually offer quite a lot of legroom – something you couldn’t say about the old car. As has always been the case with Jettas, the trunk is absolutely huge – that’s why its butt is so big – and there are many useful storage bins scattered around the cabin.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

The GLI arrives early next year – it will be sold as a 2007 model – about the same time as the new GTI, but Volkswagen is keen to point out that despite the styling similarities, the two will be very different cars, with different purposes in life and a different attitude. It’s sportier than the “regular” 2.0-litre turbo Jetta that’s starting to become available in Canadian dealers, but provides a more refined driving experience than the GTI, which still promises to provide the harder edge that hot-hatch enthusiasts have been waiting for. VW anticipates that the GLI will form a fairly significant proportion of Jetta sales in Canada, too: it was originally going to be only sold as a special-order product, feedback from dealers has meant it’s now going to be a mainstream model alongside the 2.5, 2.0, and diesel Jettas. Pricing has yet to be decided for Canada, but in the States, the GLI’s base price of $23,790 is quite reasonable for a car of its features and capability, and only a few hundred dollars more than the cheapest version of the Passat.

Second Opinion


2007 VW Jetta GLI

by Richard Russell

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

Volkswagen decided to tackle the issue of declining sales and market share by bringing the new fifth-generation Jetta to North America ahead of the new Golf. Introduced last Spring as the Jetta 2.5 with a five-cylinder engine, it was followed recently by a 1.9-litre turbo diesel variant tagged Jetta TDI. Sales have indeed been climbing so now Canada gets the third version of the Jetta 2.0T.

The differences in the Canadian and American markets resulted in a decision to bring the Jetta GLI into Canada as a trim level only. But once Canadian dealers saw the final product in the flesh at a dealer meeting in Texas, they changed their minds and VW has put a Canadian GLI into the product cycle with arrival set for next Spring as a 2007 model. In the interim we get the mechanically-identical 2.0T.

We put more than 500 kilometres on the GLI, providing plenty of opportunity to see where the 2.0T gets its genes, and how it behaves, since the two share the same engine, transmissions and most other non-trim bits.

The first thing we noticed is that the more powerful engine transforms the Jetta. Whereas the five-cylinder can only charitably be called adequate, the turbo four transforms this car. With 50 more horsepower (200) and gobs of low-end torque it acts like a six. There is very little discernible turbo lag and with a torque curve that peaks at 1,700 rpm and stays there until 4,700, the 2.0T can accelerate from rest to 100 km/hr in less than seven seconds, putting it in with some pretty impressive company. Top speed is electronically-limited to 210 km/h. This from a four-cylinder engine!

The manual gearbox features light shift action, short throws and a relatively well-defined gates. But the optional ($1,100) DSG transmission won us over. DSG stands for Direct Shift Gearbox. The design first appeared in the Audi TT a couple of years ago. A version is now used in the world’s fastest production motor vehicle, the 1001-horsepower, 253 mph Bugatti Veyron (VW owns Bugatti). This is a dual clutch design. While in one gear it pre-selects the next and engages a second clutch. When a shift comes – whether initiated by the driver or in automatic mode – it is instantaneous. This is a true manu-matic. You can leave it in drive or shift for yourself with the console-mounted lever or paddles on the back-side of the steering wheel. VW’s own in-house performance instrumented testing and our seat-of-the-pants experience reveals the automatic (DSG) Jetta is actually quicker than the manual.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

The slick transmission is also smaller, lighter and more efficient than a conventional automatic and has earned a spot atop our list of favourite transmissions.

The 2.0T carries a $27,700 price tag, compared to $24,975 for the 2.5L and $26,650 for the 1.9 TDi. That figure includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, six-way adjustable driver seat with power recline and a raft of significant safety items including ABS, electronic stability control, front side and side curtain airbags.

The fifth generation Jetta is 60% stiffer than the previous version and with a multi-link rear axle, can now be tuned for serious road work. The base 2.0T rides on 16-inch all-season tires wrapped around alloy wheels. But if you spring an additional $2,250 for the “luxury” model, you’ll get not only a power sunroof but 17-inch alloy wheels, performance all-season tires and a sport suspension that closely mimics that used on the GLI with stiffer springs, shocks and bushings.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

The sport suspension-equipped Jetta shows a nice balance of ride and handling with considerably more grip and less lean than the standard model.

Len Hunt, then executive vice-president of VW of America, said during the introduction of the GLI, the road the company is on has no turns. “VW stands for affordable German engineering that is fun to drive. We will not stray from that, we are working hard to re-establish what we are good at,” he said. He claimed Germany has finally recognized the quality issues that have plagued VW over the past few years and that both German and Mexican plants are meeting tough new standards. With this issue in hand and a raft of new models in the pipeline, including the Golf and a wagon version of the Jetta, the company does appear to be on the return road.

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