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Auto review: Jetta GLI not enough to please VW fanatics

By Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press –

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI offers a step up from the compact sedan’s base model, but a small step that’s unlikely to satisfy VW’s most-demanding drivers.

Jetta sales shot up 54.5 percent last year because VW slashed the car’s price and dropped some features that had made it more expensive than leading compacts.

In marketing terms, this is known as giving the customers what they want. German buyers happily shell out big bucks for the Volkswagen badge. Most Americans prefer their VWs budget-priced.

Not everyone likes the new, Americanized Jetta, though. A loyal and vocal group of VW fans said the new Jetta’s less-expensive suspension, interior materials and engine choices were a sell-out, a corporate “dumbing down” to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The GLI is VW’s answer. It offers an independent rear suspension, more power and some different interior materials.

Prices for the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI start at $23,745 for a model with a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission raises the price to $24,845.

The base price for the top Jetta GLI Autobahn model with a navigation system is $26,895 with a manual and $27,795 with the dual-clutch.

I tested a base Jetta GLI with the automatic transmission that stickered at $23,745.

The base GLI comes with an appealing number of standard features, including excellent voice-recognition for hands-free phone calls, a touch screen to control the audio system, and six air bags.

The GLI’s competitors include sporty and well-equipped compact cars like the Acura TSX, turbocharged Chevrolet Cruze 2LT, Ford Focus, Honda Civic Si, Mazda 3 S Touring and Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V.

The Jetta GLI’s price is at the high end of that class. So is the engine’s output, but the 3,124-pound GLI weighs more than most of the competition. That reduces the power’s seat-of-your pants impact, despite the turbo’s generous production of 207 pound-feet of torque at a low and accessible 1,700 rpm.

Acceleration is adequate, but unexciting.

The steering is relatively numb and slightly over-assisted.

The suspension absorbs bumps for a comfortable ride. It doesn’t deliver the exciting handling Jetta fans probably expected from an independent rear suspension, though.

The brakes, per usual with VW, are firm and confident.

Passenger and trunk space are excellent. The Jetta’s upright, conservative styling creates plenty of shoulder and head room. The 15.5-cubic-foot trunk ties the Cruze for largest among the compacts I’ve named. Its big opening and squared-off shape make the most of that volume.

The gauges and controls are simple and legible. A sporty, leather-wrapped steering wheel and soft-touch dash top and armrests are the high points among the interior materials.

The hard plastic sun visors feel shockingly cheap. It’s difficult to believe anybody in VW purchasing touched the part before approving it for the car.

Road and wind noise are surprisingly noticeable at highway speeds. The hands-free phone system picked that up. Phone calls sounded like they came from inside an airliner.

The Jetta GLI’s EPA fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway and 26 in combined driving trails the Cruze and Focus but tops the TSX, Civic Si, Mazda 3 S Touring and Sentra SE-R Spec V.

The Jetta GLI uses premium fuel, as do the Acura, Honda and Nissan. The Cruze and Focus get full power and fuel economy from regular fuel. The EPA estimates a GLI owner will spend $432 more a year at current fuel prices than Cruze 2LT and Focus SE drivers.

That expense and the GLI’s higher sticker price buy you a clear upgrade from lesser versions of the Jetta. It’s not enough to raise it to the top of the sporty compact class, though.



—Front-wheel drive five-passenger compact sedan

—Rating: Three out of four stars

—Reasons to buy: Passenger space, luggage room, voice-recognition system

—Shortcomings: Premium fuel, steering feel, wind and road noise

—Base price: $23,745

—Price as tested: $23,745 (excluding destination charge)

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