Review: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn DSG

There are several ways to make your critics shut up.  One is to address their criticisms point by point, giving in to your critics’ concerns.  One is to ignore them and press on, sort of doubling down if you’re confident that you are making the right decision despite what the critics say.  Or, you could respond the way Volkswagen did to criticism directed at its de-contented 2011 Jetta and do both – pressing forward with the lower-end models, but adding a higher-end model that addresses most of the criticisms levied at the lower-spec cars (albeit at a much higher price point).

“Why can’t we get the good Jetta that they get in Europe?”

“Why does Volkswagen’s management think Americans will settle for bigger, cheaper cars?”

Well, it seems to be that Volkswagen was correct in its decision, at least in the short term.  They are selling more Jettas than they have in years.  Despite brutal de-contenting, you’re actually getting a decent car for the money.  Any aspirations that the company’s management may have had about charging premium prices for their products can probably be thrown out when the Jetta starts at a Corolla-like $16,645.  By the way, a Touareg starts at a mere $43,375.  But let’s worry about branding another day.  For today, we’re talking about the Jetta.

Specifically, we’re talking about the Jetta GLI.  Think of it as more or less a GTI sedan, except the Golf and Jetta on which the two models are based are no longer fundamentally the same car.  The Golf/GTI is the old, “good” VW, while the Jetta is newer and bigger (but lighter) than the car it replaced.

Even though almost nobody can tell the difference in ride and handling between independent rear suspension and torsion beam rear suspension (which is why VW removed it from the non-GLI Jettas, to cut costs), the platform is capable of accommodating it, and the GLI gets it back, like its true-Euro Jetta cousins.  Theoretically, on uneven pavement, it can allow the wheels to articulate more to keep them planted, and improve handling.  It’s nice to say that the GLI has it, because that kind of makes the GLI a more special Jetta, but it’s not necessary.

You’ll also find that the interior of the GLI has a few special touches that set it apart from its pedestrian brothers and sisters.  The steering wheel is awesome.  Thick, covered in nice black leather with red contrasting stitching, and a flat bottom so you can pretend you’re driving an Audi TT RS.  A bit hokey perhaps, but it looks cool and feels great in your hands.  The seats (with red contrasting stitching, of course) are covered in a leather-like substance called “V-Tex” (not to be confused with M-B Tex, Gore-Tex, or anything that likely comes from Texas, aside from perhaps the petroleum products that served as their raw materials).  Front thrones are better than the rears, and boast excellent side bolstering for hugging you tightly when the road gets curvy.

Having a GLI-exclusive engine really makes this a special Jetta.  The Volkswagen 2.0 TSI four cylinder is a gem of an engine, with strong torque and a thunderous exhaust note.  There isn’t much of the typical turbo whistle from this, but that may be a function of the exhaust sound overpowering the turbo sound.  Under hard acceleration, you can certainly tell that the Jetta GLI has sporting intentions.

The 2.0T engine sports a cast iron block and aluminum heads, and produces a stout 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque.  The torque peak occurs at just 1700 RPMs.  There’s a moment of turbo lag (at least if the car is in Drive and you simply stand on the gas pedal), but once into the meat of its powerband, it’s a strong little engine.  Though 200 horsepower is not a ton of power by current standards, remember that it only has to pull around 3,157 pounds of Jetta.  The 207 lb-ft of torque is quite good for a compact sedan, sporty or not.

Driving a car with a dual-clutch gearbox takes some getting used to if you’re accustomed to traditional torque converter automatic transmissions.  The controls are identical, of course, but the DSG shifts much faster than any automatic does (that’s the good news) and sometimes struggles a bit at low speeds (that’s the bad news).  By ‘struggles,’ I mean that you can actually feel it feathering the clutch when backing out of a parking spot.  Where you’d typically expect to just release the brake and creep in a car with an automatic, the DSG gearbox sometimes forces you to give it a little gas to actually move.  Not really a problem – but something to keep in mind that you may need to get used to.  For sports-sedan traditionalists, you’ll be happy to note that a six-speed manual is standard, and saves you $1,100 up front when buying a new Jetta GLI.

In spite of being one of the lightest cars in its class, the Jetta feels quite solid on the road, with no obvious flexing or rattling.  When opening and closing its doors, one’s perception is of the opposite of solidity, with their lack of heft and metallic echo, but that may be a function of smart engineering, since the Jetta boasts five-star side-impact crash-test scores according to the NHTSA and “good” across the board according to the IIHS.

Buyers of compact cars have traditionally not had much to cheer about when it comes to interior quality and design, but upstart competitors like the Cruze, Elantra, and Focus are rapidly changing that.  Like the Jetta’s conservative-yet-handsome exterior design, its interior isn’t breaking any new ground, but VW’s interior designers never seem to be slaves to the latest fashions.  Some may call it stodgy, but it’s more like “timeless.”  The fact is, aside from the touchscreen radio and electroluminescent gauges, the instrument panel isn’t all that different from ones we saw years ago from VW.  Evolution, not drastic change – the same way the original Beetle evolved over its decades-long production run with only incremental changes.

So what exactly do you get for your almost $10,000 more in a Jetta GLI vs. a base Jetta S?  We already talked about the 2.0T engine and the DSG transmission.  We also mentioned the independent rear suspension, that happens to be exclusive to the GLI in the US (though it’s my understanding that in other markets, more mainstream Jettas get it).  Those are three big-ticket items, but you also get the soft-touch dash and fabric-covered A-pillars instead of the hard plastic pieces in the lower-end Jettas.

The focal point of the center stack is the touchscreen radio display; in non-navigation models such as our tester, the display is not particularly sharp or large.  At least it’s easier to use than the touchscreen unit in the Beetle (review of that car coming soon).  With Fender providing the premium part of the Fender Premium Audio System, the sound is strong, but seemed to lack in some details of the music I tried it with.  Nonetheless, it sounds better than the systems found in many more expensive competitors such as the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra, not to mention the next-larger models in the Honda and Hyundai lineup (the Accord and Sonata).

Bluetooth is included and well-integrated, and there is a useful trip computer nestled in the gauge cluster between the speedometer and tachometer that shows things like travel time, two fuel economy readouts (be aware that the first one resets automatically, but that’s still handy for scoring your performance on a given commute).  The display will also show your speed, the radio station you’re tuned to, and telephone information – almost like a poor man’s head-up display.

The Autobahn package adds 18 inch alloy wheels, power tilt/slide sunroof, the V-Tex seating, heated front steas, heated washer nozzles (that apparently GM can’t offer anymore due to the fire hazard), a cooling glovebox, automatic air conditioning, and Fender Premium Audio System.  The wheels and sunroof alone are worth the $2,100 upgrade price over the base GLI; the car looks great with the big shoes.

Observed fuel economy was about 26 MPG, and that’s in line with the EPA’s prediction of 24 MPG city, 32 MPG highway.  (The GLI with the manual is rated at 22/33).  It’s easy to exceed 30 MPG on the highway if you can keep your foot out of the accelerator.

The GLI is my favorite Jetta, only because it’s the closest to the GTI and the closest to what gave Volkswagen its cult following in the US.  As the company works hard to broaden its appeal to a wider, more diverse audience, we can only hope that the inherent solidity and good-ness of its less-mainstream cars can continue to soldier on.  If I was interested in buying a Jetta, I’d either buy a GLI or a TDI.  The base 2.0 is too slow and cheap and the 2.5 liter I-5 is too agrarian and too thirsty.  Kudos go to the true believers in Wolfsburg who managed to put the good stuff back into the Jetta.

A word about photos: my apologies for not getting photos of the car during its week with me. I then had to use VW’s press photos, but they are not a great match for the Autobahn Red DSG sample that I reviewed.  We’ll do better next time.

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great review. I had been looking for a while now and was trying to decide between about five different brands. Last night I read your review and today I went and bought a red GLI Autobahn DSG. I absolutely love it. It’s the least expensive of all the cars I was considering but it’s by far the most fun to drive.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Jim. Congrats on your new GLI – may you have many trouble-free miles of happy motoring!

  3. I read through the review pretty quickly but one question I still have, is does the GLI use the same dash as the regular Jetta? Or does it use better materials and knobs/switches? The knobs and switches in the regular Jetta are embarassingly cheap and nasty, so did they improve things in the GLI? Thanks

  4. Mike, the GLI uses a different dash (soft touch) and has fabric-covered A-pillars rather than the hard plastic parts in the other Jettas. Generally the switchgear felt substantial to me (the buttons on the steering wheel and steering column stalks in particular are nice pieces). The GLI I tested had automatic climate control, so those controls are different – they felt a little more chintzy than the other buttons. So, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but definitely better in there than the other US Jettas.

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