2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Laurance Yap

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With a turbocharged engine, six-speed transmission and red brake calipers, the GLI is the sportiest version of Volkswagen’s Jetta line-up, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by looking at it.

The $32,000 GLI doesn’t look all that sporty – certainly not as sporty as the last GLI, which ushered out the previous-generation Jetta with a ride height that looked illegal, gorgeous multi-spoke 18-inch BBS alloys, a great-looking body kit and red badging. Park the new GLI up by an old one, and it looks frumpy in comparison: the profile is attractive but kind of Corolla-like in its anonymity; the stance has that uncomfortable look of a fat guy standing on his tippy-toes (Euro GLIs are lower thanks to different bumper-height regulations); the wheels look too small and dainty; and there are no aero tricks to be found anywhere. Indeed, the only indications that the GLI is the sportiest member of the Jetta family are the blacked-out grille with red stripe (shared with the GTI) and the badges on the back. Otherwise, it’s even plainer than the regular Jetta 2.0T, which has chrome side trim and a couple of other upscale touches.

While it may not look that upscale, the Jetta certainly has an upscale drivetrain, one it shares with entry-level Audis (the A3 and A4 2.0T share the same basic pieces). Save for a slightly dieselly-sounding idle when it’s cold, the Jetta GLI’s drivetrain is a dream. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder pulls hard from idle right up to redline, with no perceptible turbo lag; toe into the gas at any speed and at any revs, and the power is right there. It’s not just the 200 horsepower to thank for the engine’s responsiveness; it’s also the broad, flat torque curve that has the GLI producing 207 lb-ft of torque all the way from 1,800 to 4,700 rpm. The engine also impressively smooth and quiet, so much so that one (no doubt distracted) morning, I managed to drive the entire length of the Don Valley Parkway in fourth gear when I thought I was in sixth. On the other hand, for a car of sporting pretensions like the GLI – it does have a red stripe around its grille, for instance – the engine might actually be a bit too refined; there’s little of the exhaust rattle and hum that tuner types might want or expect.

2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

Power is delivered to the GLI’s front wheels through your choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch sequential gearbox, available for an extra $1,100. As nice as the manual transmission is – it has nice short throws, a slick action and a metal/leather shift knob that feels great to use – I’d definitely spring for the optional DSG. Not only is it as smooth as an automatic in regular driving (indeed, it’s even smoother since there is literally no interruption in power on upshifts), but is also more fun when you want to have more fun. There are paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel and the gearbox will automatically match revs on downshifts, making you look like a driving hero. Driving the DSG really feels like driving the future.

Given the greatness of the GLI’s drivetrain – and the sportiness suggested by some of its styling cues – it’s a softer car than you might expect. It’s most at home, it seems, cruising at high speeds on the highway while its suspension soaks up even the worst bumps and ruts 400-series roads can offer and while wind merely whistles past the roof pillars. In-town performance is good too, with lots of torque for quick getaways, a tight turning circle and quick steering.

2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

It’s in the twisty bits that the GLI falters a bit. The brakes, which have a long-travel pedal, are easy to modulate in traffic but not sharp enough for precision work. The suspension leans over a fair bit during quick direction changes and the standard 17-inch all-season tires don’t generate a lot of grip. The optional 18-inch summer performance radials (which were fitted to all of the cars the press drove during the car’s launch) offer much better grip and road feel. Their additional $900 cost, as well as the cost of a good set of snow tires, is a worthwhile upgrade if driving fun is your goal in this car.

Despite a long list of standard equipment, the GLI is one of those cars that really shines only after you’ve loaded it up with some options. The five-spoke 18-inch wheels not only look better than the stock multi-spoke 17-inchers but also improve the car’s stance and overall looks. The interior’s standard cloth is attractive but the optional leather really kicks things up a notch; it’s also a coal bin unless you order a sunroof. Unfortunately, there is no upgrade for the GLI’s six-disc, MP3-playing stereo: it may have a big screen, it may be really easy to use, but FM reception is atrocious and the volume control sometimes seems to have a mind of its own, cranking the tunes up and down with no discernible correlation to road speed, ambient noise, or even the volume knob’s position.

2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

As you would expect, the interior is made to Volkswagen’s typically high standards for quality materials and excellent fit-and-finish: most every panel you touch feels expensive even if it looks kind of plain and the whole cabin has a solid bank-vault feel that imparts a real sense of security when you’re inside. It’s spacious, too: a lot more spacious than the last Jetta (whose rear-seat legroom was minimal at best) and, thanks to a high roof and upright seating position, competitive with its class-mates. Interior storage spaces are numerous and voluminous: there are huge map pockets in the doors that will also accommodate water bottles; there’s a deep bin in the centre console along with a pair of cupholders. The trunk is simply enormous: I made a run to the furniture store with a friend of mine and we filled the car up with so much house stuff (including a couple of pairs of speaker stands perched on concrete blocks) that the rear suspension was sagging – and we never even had to fold the rear seat down.

2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Click image to enlarge

The GLI is a paradox. It’s supposed to be sporty, but unless you opt for the DSG and the 18-inchers, doesn’t really feel that way. Take those elements out of the equation and, as a value proposition, the GLI looks expensive compared to the Jetta 2.0T, which shares its superb drivetrain but has a more luxurious interior, a more upscale look and a lower price (which starts at $27,700 before you add the almost-mandatory luxury package with leather seats and a sunroof). Within the Jetta line-up, that car would be my pick, combining the high points of the GLI’s driving experience with a more relaxed feel that better suits its chassis and body. If you want sporty, Volkswagen’s GTI will soon offer its more extreme chassis set-up with the option of five doors – offering you as much space as the Jetta GLI, more fun behind the wheel and even more versatility.

At a glance: 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

  • Base price: $31,995
  • Options: $ 2,610 (luxury leather package including leather seats, power sunroof, power lumbar adjustment)
  • Freight: $ 695
  • Price as tested $35,300
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four
  • Power: 200 hp @ 5500-6000 rpm
  • Torque: 207 lb-ft @ 1800-4700 rpm
  • Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 10.1/6.8/10.0 L/100 km
  • Fuel type Premium unleaded recommended
  • Competition: Acura TSX, BMW 320i

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