When the current-generation Jetta was launched, its big advance over the previous model was its much lower price. Unfortunately, that lower price was achieved with some severe cost cutting both in the car's mechanicals -- a cheaper rear suspension and a smaller, less-powerful engine -- and its interior. The arrival for 2012 of the top-spec GLI edition of the Jetta, goes a long way toward remedying those issues.
Traditionally, the GLI was the enthusiast's express, basically a GTI with a trunk. That remains the case, with the Jetta GLI sharing much of its mechanicals with the highly regarded GTI. Unlike other Jettas, which have reverted to a beam axle, the GLI has an independent rear suspension, like the GTI. Likely as a result, the ride quality is not bad, despite rolling on (sharp-looking) 18-inch wheels wrapped with low-profile, 40-series all-season tires. Although the GLI has a lower ride height than other Jettas, it's really not as tossable as the smaller GTI, although it does ride more comfortably. The electrically assisted power steering also didn't feel quite as sharp as we remember from our last stint in a GTI. At low speeds it's way too light on center although it firms up at higher speeds; still, it's somewhat disappointing that VW feels to need for so much low-speed assist in a sports sedan like this.
Happily, however, the wheel never squirms in your hands, as torque steer is never an issue. The chassis is very effective in putting the power down (with an assist from the extremely well-calibrated and minimally intrusive traction control) and that goes a long way toward making the 2.0-liter turbo four's 200 hp and 207 pound-feet of torque seem like exactly enough power for this car, despite the fact that some competitors offer more. Acceleration is plenty quick and fuel economy is pretty good: 24/32 mpg, according to the EPA. I was able to just exceed the latter figure, with an indicated 33 mpg on a two-hour highway trip.
In my test car, the 2.0T was paired with the six-speed DSG automatic. The DSG is great for whipping off lightning-fast shifts, but it is awfully eager to get into top gear. That's fine for gas mileage, of course, but it makes the GLI seem less lively than it might. The solution is to use the shift paddles, which are available anytime -- not need to move the shift lever out of Drive. Still, the manual transmission strikes us as the enthusiast's choice here (it also saves $1100).
The other area where the new Jetta is notably cheaper than the old model is the interior, and that's still true in the cabin of the GLI, albeit to a lesser degree. Hard plastic features prominently on the center console and the door panels. The GLI-specific sports seats, however, are comfortably firm and have additional lateral bolsters; and the flat-bottom steering wheel, borrowed from the GTI, is nicely shaped. The driving position is very good, with great sight lines and a prominent dead pedal. And although many have criticized VW for making its sedans bigger, you won't likely hear any complaints from those relegated to the back seat of the Jetta, where legroom is plentiful and the car's boxy profile makes for generous headroom and easy access. The GLI Autobahn comes with V-Tex leatherette upholstery -- real leather is not available. All GLI trim levels gets VW's touch-screen radio, which doesn't have any real advantage over a standard radio, and its iPod connector is somewhat inconveniently located inside the glove box. One final note about the interior: My test car suffered from a persistent rattle from somewhere in the rear of the cabin and an occasional squeak in the dashboard, which cast some doubt as to this VW's quality image.
The GLI starts at $24,265 (with destination), which is about $7000 more than the cheapest, price-leader Jetta. But this is a whole lot more car, and it goes a long way toward redeeming the latest version of VW's most popular sedan.