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

First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Test Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Manufacturer’s web site
Volkswagen Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Gallery:
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

I’m convinced the GLI badge on the back of this car is the German spelling of “glee,” not just the trim designation for the sportiest version of Volkswagen’s Jetta sedan.

And by glee, I’m talking about the synonym for joy, not the musical television sitcom. That’s because driving this car actually made me gleeful, something that doesn’t happen too often.

There are many cars I like, but all too often something gets in my way of loving them. A too-harsh ride (this is very common), a motor that doesn’t make quite the right noises, or a transmission (automatic or manual, because there are good and bad examples of both) that takes away from what should be an entertaining experience.

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

The GLI is a new-for-2012 variant of the redesigned Jetta introduced for 2010, but at its heart is a familiar piece of engineering—VW’s 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. This motor has powered GTIs, GLIs and various other Volkswagen and Audi vehicles for years, and I’ve always liked it a lot, but what kept it from truly winning my heart was that it never made a soundtrack to match its intoxicating performance. It was never trashy, but always a little thrash-y.

That’s why the first thing I noticed when I drove away was how much better the motor sounds in this car than it has in any other I’ve tested with it. This is the result of VW’s engineers routing some of the engine’s intake resonance into the cabin. It’s a percussive sound that fits the car’s character, and kept me and my right foot coming back for more.

Its 200 and 207 lb-ft of torque look like nothing on paper, compared with the power to be had in many less interesting cars. Does 268 hp make a Toyota Camry fun to drive? No. But a quarter less than that is plenty to make the GLI scoot; the equally modest torque figure peaks at just 1,700 rpm, as it always has in this engine, and that plays a big part in making this car feel fast.

That’s just the thing: the GLI isn’t that fast. It managed a 7.6-second 0–100 km/h sprint in performance testing in AJAC’s 2012 Canadian Car of the Year event, and that was with the quicker-shifting DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. My test car had the standard-kit six-speed manual. As good as the DSG is, it’s still not as enjoyable as a proper manual, especially not when compared to a well-sorted stickshift like this one. The shifter moves lightly through its six forward ratios, and the clutch has a long, forgiving takeup that makes the car a cinch to drive smoothly. Part of the manual transmission’s declining popularity is due to commuters choosing an automatic’s ease of use in the daily stop-and-go driving that so many people endure; I’m convinced that if more manuals were as nice to drive as this one, more people would buy them, rush hour traffic or not.

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

The GLI’s Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption estimates are 9.8 L/100 km in city driving and 6.2 L1/100 km on the highway (or 10.7 and 7.1, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s more realistic figures). My tester averaged 9.5 L/100 km in city driving, which I call impressive given that I drove this car more aggressively than I normally do.

A nice ride makes daily driving easier to take, too. Unfortunately, too many cars are fitted with too-stiff suspensions, perhaps in the hope of convincing the unwitting that this makes the car “sporty.” Short answer, just like the 268-hp Camry: no. The GLI leaves the overstarched suspenders on the shelf in favour of a setup that is firm but never harsh in the way it handles rough pavement (and there’s lots of that in Ottawa). And though (sadly) this car’s ride could be considered soft by current standards, the GLI would probably still out-handle most cars in its sub-$30,000 price range.

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