(Please give a warm welcome to Ian, who has 40,000 miles on his Jetta GLI! — JB)
About three years ago, I was the owner of a 2004 Ford Focus SVT two door and simultaneously the dad of a one-year-old child. Our family car was a 2008 Saturn Vue. One day I got a call from my wife telling me that the Saturn wasn’t shifting into second anymore. Thankfully the Saturn’s powertrain warranty covered what ended up being a clutch pack failure.
Thanks to the factory warranty, at first it seemed like the biggest hassle of the incident was going to be the sketchy tow truck guy who didn’t have a parking brake on his truck and had to resort to using part of a broom handle wedged against the brake pedal and the truck’s bench seat to keep the truck from moving while the Vue was loaded onto the bed. It turns out this wasn’t the biggest hassle. That was reserved for a week of loading my daughter in and out of a rear facing seat on a two door hatchback.
A week of that routine was enough for me to quickly consider a four door. To be fair, the Focus was getting to the point where some suspension bits needed to be replaced along with some electrical oddities popping up from a 1990s-spec aftermarket alarm installation. It was time to move on.
I starting looking for a four door. The only non-negotiable point: it had to have a manual transmission. I spent hours building cars and reading reviews, agonizing over details like miles per gallon and horsepower. I looked at new cars such as the Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, the then-just-released Ford Focus ST, and pre-owned options such as the BMW 328 sedans and Audi A4.
I wasn’t comfortable going down the pre-owned route due to the perceived ongoing maintenance costs on a German car that already had 30,000 miles on the odometer, so I ruled out that option quickly. The Civic Si had its much-maligned 2.4-liter engine that couldn’t rev like the older 2.0-liter mill. The Ford dealers wouldn’t let me test drive the ST, so that was out. The WRX was tough to pin down due to a lack of available local stock. I finally got to drive a hatch; while it was fast and I’m sure lots of fun, I wasn’t a huge fan of the styling or the five-speed gearbox.
While doing some research on the Civic, I ended up coming across a TTAC comparison featuring a 2012 Civic against a 2012 Jetta GLI. I hadn’t even realized the GLI existed! The more I dug into it, the more it seemed like a good fit. We went to the closest VW dealer and took it for a test drive. The sales guy told us to load up the car seat and just take it out. The car seat fit in easily with lots of legroom to spare for the front seats. The trunk was large and could accommodate all the kid support equipment you end up toting around, including a bulky Jeep-branded three-wheel stroller. It was more comfortable than the Focus and got the wife’s approval. We did a deal and, some time after closing, I hit the road in a 2013 GLI, complete with the obligatory box of junk from the traded-in Focus.
Now, 40,000 miles later, I still believe I made the right choice. While the Jetta is down on power compared to its competitors — at just 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque from the 2.0 TSI engine — it has enough for daily driving or spirited jaunts on back roads. My old Focus had 30 less horsepower and 50 less pounds-feet of torque. The smaller turbo keeps the power band broad enough that you’re rarely forced to downshift when the revs drop below 2,500 rpm. Below that you start to notice some turbo lag, but it isn’t much cause for concern during normal driving, such as running errands or driving to work. I have read there’s a lockout for the throttle when the brake is applied, but I haven’t experienced it.
The car has noticeable “rev hang.” I thought the clutch was slipping the first time I experienced it under hard acceleration. The electric assisted steering is light at low speeds and loads up when cornering. You can’t tell a whole lot of what’s happening with the road surface, but the relative numbness isn’t a drawback as a daily driver. The ride is firm but not punishing and only turns into a teeth gritting moment when you hit an unavoidable pothole. Most of that is due to the heavy 19-inch alloy wheels.
The six-speed manual transmission is fairly accurate. I don’t mind the longer throws, but I might be trying out a short throw shifter if I ever make any changes in the future. From inside the car, you get a faked Subaru boxer engine burble-like sound courtesy of VW’s Soundaktor device. There’s always a concern about long-term reliability with Volkswagens; so far, I haven’t had much to be concerned about.
Inside, it turns into a real dad car. Beneath the layer of grime, kid size nine footprints, and Rice Krispies sits lots of easily wipe-able surfaces. There is a healthy amount of hard plastic throughout the interior brought from the lower spec models with a smattering of soft touch materials on the dash and arm rest. The seats are covered in VW’s V-Tex Leatherette, which is a completely synthetic rubber-like leather. I’d love to have real leather, but at this time of my life, I’m better off with the fake stuff.
The entire interior works well as a dad mobile. It’s just nice enough to not hate being in every time I drive it, but fake enough that I can clean it with anything available including our never ending stock of organic baby wipes that we accrued over the years. There’s a squeak from the rear deck and, according to the internet, there’s a fix involving a tennis ball. The sound system by Fender works well enough and doesn’t distort. The steering wheel is a flat bottom unit that feels nice in your hands and adds to the sense of sportiness. It’s a bit unnecessary, sure, but I’m fine with that. The GLI has subtle styling changes over the base and SE models, with a honeycomb grill, trim accents, and a lip spoiler. The Autobahn edition comes with larger 19-inch alloy wheels, which I managed to clip a curb with a week after owning it. The outside is pretty standard Volkswagen Auto Group.
The Jetta’s infotainment system is pretty basic and does the job, but it’s far from cutting edge. The voice commands work only occasionally. When my phone cannot pair to the car via Bluetooth, it can require shutting the car off and on to get everything back online. Much of this could be updated through software fixes, but unfortunately, manufacturers aren’t going to waste their time bug fixing these problems. They’re happy to send me offers to update the maps for my navigation for over $100, however, so there’s that. The Jetta has the old proprietary MDI device cable with the Apple 30-pin connector end (iPhone 4s and older). The cable itself lives in the glove box and is long enough that you have to bend it to fit a plugged in phone in the glove box. Because of the stiffness of the cable, you will hit the first bump on your journey and the connector will pop out of the phone. I have a newer phone so the cable is useless as is.
The GLI is not a “sports sedan” but it is a sporty sedan, which makes the daily drive more enjoyable than it would be in many family sedans and mixes in enough practicality and fun in a reasonably priced package. It’s one of the few options if you want a sedan. It’s not hard to find in showrooms, and it should certainly be available at a discount given the platform’s age and recent diesel-related corporate embarrassments. For anyone looking for a family sedan, with a manual and at a reasonable price, you could do far worse — or, at least, far more mundane — than the GLI.