Volkswagen 2.0T Intramural League, First Place: 2012 Jetta GLI

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

The difference between “bold” and “foolhardy” is not always apparent at first glance. While I was driving the GLI around Volkswagen’s Virginia test loop (insert standard narrative devices here: 11/10ths, drive like the wind, straining the limits of machine and man, et cetera) I saw a tall, lithe young woman by the side of the road. She was holding a dog and chatting with a rather fearsome-looking fellow in an old Toyota truck. Without thinking too much, I whipped the Jetta around at the next driveway and returned to the couple. Flashing my hotel room card very quickly and identifying myself as “Jonny Lieberman of Motor Trend magazine”, I convinced the girl to pose with the Jetta. This was intended to be a sort of homage to AutoSpies founder Donald Buffamanti’s habit of photographing all available women, and it was particularly amusing given the very rural circumstances.

At the time, however, there was a very real chance that the fellow in the Toyota would simply step out and maul me like a crazed bear working its way through a deer carcass. I never found out what his relationship to the young woman was — husband? father? cello teacher? dog trainer? — but he didn’t care for me one bit. In retrospect, that little impromptu photo shoot was less “bold” and more “foolhardy”.

The same fine line applies to “forthright” and “contrarian”. After driving the Beetle Turbo, Golf R, and Golf GTI, I steered two examples of Volkswagen’s new Jetta GLI down the same route. Why two Jettas, when I’d driven one each of the other cars? Two reasons: I wanted to try the DSG and the six-speed manual back-to-back, and I wanted to be sure. My drive of the DSG-equipped Jetta GLI suggested to me that it was a better, more enjoyable car than the GTI, but I knew that this “forthright” opinion would come off as “contrarian” to many of TTAC’s readers. After driving the standard-shift GLI, I was sure.

Will you, the reader, be as easily convinced as I was?

Once each year, the Italian fashion house of Ermenegildo Zegna holds a competition for Australian sheep. The award-winning sheep are shorn and their wool becomes Zegna’s “Trofeo” fabric. Rare, expensive, and possessed of an ethereal tactile quality, Trofeo is a true delight to touch and wear. As I dragged my aging carcass under the Jetta to photograph the revised rear suspension, grinding a one-of-a-kind green plaid Trofeo sportcoat into the hot Virginia tarmac, I wondered why I was the only person I’d seen do this all day. After all the pissing and moaning about the base Jetta’s twist-beam rear suspension, surely this would be the photo that everyone wanted? Guess not. I’m not likely to ever step through the revolving door between automotive PR and “journalism”, but if I had VW PR guy Mark Gillies’ job, I would have moved heaven and earth to put twist beams under the test GLIs just so I could chuckle over the “brilliant multi-link suspension” reviews afterwards. Kind of like the time two Chicago-area journos tested a Mustang and raved about how the “Track Pack” completely changed the character of the car. Oops! Turns out that their Mustang tester didn’t have the Track Pack. Oh well. Everybody still got paid.

Why waste time looking at suspension when we can offer caustic opinions on the revised interior? Speaking personally, I couldn’t tell much difference between this and the GTI. Don’t take my word for it, however, since not even the worst Volkswagen dealer in the world (an honor I would personally give to Checkered Flag VW in Virginia, the place which apparently ran a Brillo pad over my 2006 Phaeton and curbed the wheels before delivering it to me) is going to keep you from sitting in one. Check it out yourself. As in the GTI, the controls are mostly logical and accessible. It seems nice enough, particularly for the money. Speaking of: Twenty-five grand will get you all the GLI you need.

The GLI’s mission, stated or unstated, has always been “provide Americans with the most affordable sporting German (or German-brand) sedan available” and the styling continues to reflect this. The changes are just enough to let people who care about this sort of thing know that you’re driving the sporty Jetta and not the base model.

Just how sporty is it? If you read my GTI review yesterday, you know that the GLI’s hatchback cousin is quite sporty indeed, and deserving of superlatives. It seemed like it would be a tough contender to beat on the backroads — and yet the GLI manages to do exactly that. How? Why?

We’ll start with the one real black mark on the GLI’s report card (other than the ones Consumer Reports will give it, wink, wink): the button to disable traction control has disappeared. How VW can justify letting Phaeton owners turn DSC off but prevent GLI drivers from doing so is beyond me. This is something the company needs to fix. It’s not that the car needs to have DSC disabled in order to make good time down a backroad. That’s not the case at all. Rather, it’s the simple fact that over the course of a car’s lifetime, there will be times when it’s best to turn a brake-based traction-control system off. Deep snow, nursing a car with a frozen brake caliper or worn-out pads to a service station, and so on. There’s no reason not to have the option available. It’s a fifty-cent button.

Enough griping. I come to praise the GLI, not bury it. Start with the suspension. It’s measurably softer than that of the GTI, but the same excellence in damping is there. If anything, the GLI was even more competent through the “whomp” zone I detailed in the GTI test, controlling the body nicely even though I really jammed it through that secion when driving the manual-transmission car.

Hear me now and believe me later: you want a relatively soft suspension in a road car. Suspension absorbs bumps and controls the body. That’s its purpose. Stiff suspension, particularly suspension that is stiff in “jounce”, decreases the car’s ability to stay in contact with the road. The same goes for roll stiffness. A little of it is nice, because we don’t want to heel over so far that the car won’t steer correctly, but in general we want the car to comply with the road’s demands. Stiff suspension feels fast, but outside a racetrack it’s rarely the quickest way to get anywhere. Just keep the car from hitting the bumpstops or stroking the shocks all the way to their extension point, and leave the rest to me.

Some TTAC readers theorized that the GLI would be lighter than the GTI. VW’s own figures disagree, placing the GLI a few pounds above the four-door GTI and therefore making it heavier than both GTI bodies and the Beetle. (The Golf R is, of course, heaviest of all.) Nor is this shell appreciably stiffer than the GTI. Yes, the GLI is easier to place on the road than the Golfs are, but I would put that down to the intersection of steering geometry, suspension geometry, and wheelbase.

Remember how, in the Beetle test, I complained that the Beetle has the shortest wheelbase and should be the most nimble, but simply isn’t? There’s a reverse effect here at work in the GLI. The steering is lighter than that of the GTI or Beetle, and it’s more willing to be steered. I was faster everywhere in the GLI than I was in the GTI. Some of that was due to increasing familiarity with the road, but at least half of my better pace was because the GLI gives a slightly surer sense of place. It’s not something that I can empirically describe in a road test, but I found myself running a few inches farther out on every corner exit, loading up the steering just a touch more, simply getting more from the GLI than I could from the others.

Driving the manual-transmission Jetta after the DSG model removed my fears that I’d somehow accidentally gotten Puebla’s Best GLI Ever the first time. If anything, the manual car was even more willing to run at the edge of the tire. As with the Golf R, there’s a frustrating refusal to “blip” the revs when heel-and-toeing. I eventually learned to actually use my heel to kick the accelerator almost to the carpet. Problem solved, albeit inelegantly. Were I to buy a GLI, I would pick the manual for simplicity and fun, although the DSG is certainly faster in almost all circumstances.

This is a good car, and although we live in an era of good cars, this one deserves your attention and consideration. As much as I enjoyed the GTI, I simply enjoyed the GLI more. It has nothing to do with the trunk, or the value, or the interior quality, or any of the other canards raised when we discuss the current-generation Jetta. This very subjective test boils to down the fact that, had VW given me time to drive the route yet again, I would have chosen another GLI over another GTI. It’s a greater pleasure to drive, and since driving pleasure is the whole reason to spend the extra money for the red-trim Volkswagens, I think it’s the winner. If that seems contrarian, I apologize. It’s like to think that it’s “forthright”, or perhaps even that most reassuring of words: “truthful”.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Sobhuza Trooper Like fusion power, the I.D. Buzz is only 30 years away.
  • Lou_BC "respondents between 18 and 80 years old" Basically anyone deemed an adult who might be allowed to drive.
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