2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

2012 VW Jetta GLI, 2012 Honda Civic Si, and Hyundai Veloster + Fiat 500 Abarth Preview

By Peter Bleakney

Photo Gallery:
Small Sporty Cars

Small, economical, punchy, and fun as a bag of candy bars. Here we look at four front-wheel-drive rides that successfully combine all these attributes in distinctly different ways. Two are freshly remade veterans, one a Euro-transplant, and the other a quirky Korean upstart.

2012 VW Jetta GLI

In its second year, our “North Americanized” Mexican-built Jetta comes in sporty GLI guise. Much more than just fitting the GTI’s punchy 200 hp/207 lb-ft 2.0-litre direct-injection four, the GLI gets multi-link independent rear suspension and the Electronic Transverse Differential Lock (XDS) that mitigates inside front wheel spin when cornering.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI; top photo by Nelson Sta. Mina. Click image to enlarge

Starting at $27,475, the GLI sports a more aggressive front fascia with fog lights, side skirts, a new rear diffuser and twin chrome-tipped tailpipes. The sedan sits 15 mm lower on its standard 17-inch alloys, but you’ll be wanting the $975 18-inchers—they give the car some needed visual swagger.

First impressions are favourable, starting with a lovely multi-function steering wheel lifted from the GTI. It looks richer in here thanks to the dash now being rendered in pleasantly squishy soft-touch plastics. As with all Volkswagens, the seats are right on the money, dishing out comfort and support in equal measure. Adults in the back seat will find sufficient headroom and legroom.

The six-speed manual transmission and clutch operate with expected VW precision, although Volkswagen predicts 70 percent of buyers will choose the $1,400 DSG twin-clutch unit, which is one of the best out there. It operates seamlessly in auto mode and responds pronto to tugs on the steering wheel–mounted shift paddles.

The GLI is a fine-handling sedan, although we found it tuned more for street than track—the brakes being the weakest link out on the Driver Development Track at Mosport where they became soft and lost effectiveness after a couple of hard laps. This, of course, will be of only academic interest for most buyers.

If you appreciate the premium and buttoned-down feel of the Volkswagen family, then the GLI with its extra turn of speed and sharp handling will delight.

2012 Honda Civic Si Sedan

2012 Honda Civic Si. Click image to enlarge

While the 2012 Civic has been taking flak for its cautious redesign and plasticky interior, purchasing one with an Si badge on its rump diminishes the boredom factor dramatically. Yes, the $25,990 Si sedan is still not much to look at despite the 17-ich alloys, more aggressive snout, and small trunk spoiler, but it sure is a scrappy little number when pressed.

In true Honda tradition, the engine remains naturally aspirated, but the old high-strung 2.0-litre VTEC makes way for the more torque-rich 2.4-litre VTEC four lifted from the Acura TSX. It is hooked up to that sedan’s excellent six-speed close ratio manual transmission — no auto is offered.

They’ve tuned a nice little rasp into the exhaust, and with this newfound mid-range torque, you’re not caught flat-footed under 6000 rpm like in the old Si. Out on the AJAC’s TestFest test track, the 2012 Si came alive — it absolutely loves to be thrashed. The steering is direct, the chassis finely balanced and the Si’s ace-in-the-hole helical limited-slip differential lets you put the power down hard and early in this front-driver.

Still, the Si is a comfortable daily ride and presents great value with standard Bluetooth, touchscreen navigation with bilingual voice control, 360-watt, 7-speaker audio, fog lights, sunroof, fabric sports seats, multi-information display and XM Satellite radio.

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