Comparison Review: Volkswagen Jetta GLI Vs. Honda Civic Si

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
comparison review volkswagen jetta gli vs honda civic si

Remember 1985? If you were paying attention to cars, then the then-new Civic Si and Mk2 Jetta GLI were on your radar. Which did you prefer? For the 2012 model year both cars are again new. One of them has changed surprisingly little. The other, though it retains some choice bits, has perhaps lost the plot.

“Neither the Golf nor the Jetta is likely to win any styling awards…”

So reads Consumer Guide’s evaluation…of the Mk2 Volkswagens. The same has been said of the new Jetta. Yet there’s plain, and then there’s downright generic (especially in refrigerator white). The Mk2 Jetta wasn’t a beauty, but its square lines were clearly derived from Giugiaro’s iconic original Golf, and so were clearly those of a VW. The Mk6’s side view could just as well be that of a Toyota.

Yet the 2012 GLI retains more of its predecessor’s essence of than does the latest Civic Si. For one thing, the GLI’s body style remains the same, a four-door sedan, while the Si has morphed from a two-door hatch to a coupe, then back to a hatch, and then in the last two generations to a coupe and a sedan. Beyond this the third-generation Civic hatch was nearly as iconic as the original Golf, with a boxy tail that managed to both catch the eye (as a coherent element within the car’s sharp-edged, oh-so-Japanese styling) and maximize utility. The 2012 car’s exterior seems an unskilled knock-off of its predecessor, with a poorly executed side window outline, less elegant surfacing, and little in the way of identity.

The Mk6 Jetta is 10.5 inches longer than the old one (on a wheelbase that has grown by seven inches). The Civic has grown much more over the years, with nearly a foot increase in wheelbase and (postulating a 1986 Si sedan that wasn’t) a 14-inch increase in length. Even so, it remains nearly five inches shorter than the Jetta thanks to briefer overhangs.

“…interior furnishings are austere…”

Inside the GLI the flavor also remains the same, Mk2 to Mk6. Unlike in the regular 2012 Jetta, the instrument panel upper is squishy, but the interior’s appearance is no fancier aside from red stitching and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. The Autobahn Package’s seat upholstery is clearly derived from petroleum, with a rubbery texture. Ostensibly the front seats are “sport buckets,” but they don’t provide much lateral support.

Honda interiors used to be studies in minimalism, aesthetically, functionally, and dimensionally. For the last two generations, though, the Civic’s cabin has been dominated by a massive instrument panel. The bi-level gauge layout is the most obvious sign that Honda continues to innovate, and the series of lights as you approach the redline is very helpful. Still, the costs of this layout outweigh its benefits. The massive IP colors the entire driving experience.

Classic Civics were never paragons of interior quality, but the 2012 sunk the line to a new low relative to the competitors. Thankfully, the Si’s heavily textured black fabric, on the doors as well as the seats, improves the ambiance considerably. Between it and red stitching that matches the GLI’s inch for inch, the interior no longer seems terribly cheap. Unlike those in the GLI, the Si’s “sport buckets” are truly worthy of the term.

“…quite roomy for the exterior dimensions…”

The Mk2 Jetta had perhaps the most livable rear seat among mid-80s compact sedans. The Mk6 rear seat has legroom easily worthy of a midsize sedan. Perhaps it should, as its 182.2-inch length is nearly that of a midsize sedan. Though the Civic’s exterior is more compact, its rear seat is still easily roomy enough for adults, a big change from the 1986 hatchback. And the 1986 Accord sedan, for that matter.

“…a surprisingly large trunk…”

The Mk6 Jetta’s trunk is actually a little smaller than the Mk2’s, but at 15.5 cubic feet it’s still easily the largest in the segment. The Civic checks in at 12.5.

“…potent 4-cylinder gas engines provide brisk acceleration…”

Back in 1985, a 102-horsepower 1.8-liter engine qualified as “potent.” Over the years, the GLI’s engine has gained 200 cubic centimeters, eight valves, and a turbo, but its 200 horsepower risks being classified as weak compared to the 250-plus-horsepower fours that currently rule the segment. Word is that VW underrates this engine, and it certainly feels stronger than the official specs suggest. A plump midrange (thanks to the turbo), grumbly, somewhat boxerish engine note, and the automated dual-clutch “DSG” transmission’s firm, lightning quick shifts make the 2.0T mill seem plenty energetic in everyday driving.

The Civic Si is among the few other performance-oriented compacts that continue to get by with a mere 200 horsepower (the all-but-forgotten Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V being the third). The 1,944-pound original Si scooted along with a 1.5-liter four that, thanks to the rocket science of port fuel injection, kicked out 91 horsepower (vs. the carbureted Civic’s 76). With the 2012, the Honda’s engine has grown from 2.0 to 2.4 liters. Peak output is up by only four horsepower, but at 201 remains far above the regular Civic’s 140. Torque receives a healthier bump, from 139 at a stratospheric 6,200 rpm to a much more robust 170 at a more readily achieved 4,400. The engine still undergoes a major personality change when the “VTEC” cam lobes come into play around 4,000 rpm.

Grunt south of that mark remains far below that of the Jetta. If you don’t enjoy winding an engine out, the Civic Si isn’t your car. If you do, then you’ll find a more thrilling engine note and surge of power. You’ll also love one thing that Honda continues to do better than everyone else: the Si’s mandatory six-cog shifter feels tight yet slick, engaging as positively as a rifle bolt as you snick from gear to gear.

The Jetta might be larger, heavier, and torquier, but the EPA gives it a slight edge in fuel economy. The official numbers are low 20s in the city, low 30s on the highway with either car. I wasn’t able to observe fuel economy in the Civic. In suburban driving the GLI’s trip computer generally reported averages all the way from 22 to 32. As tends to be the case with turbos, the heft of your right foot makes a big difference.

“…well-tuned chassis components produce impressive road manners…”

The 2012 Jetta GLI doesn’t deserve this evaluation quite as much as the 2005 did. The harder you drive it, the better it feels, with commendable composure and precision. But it doesn’t feel especially agile or sharp. The curb weight difference between the VW and Honda is half what it was back when the latter weighed under a ton, but the Civic remains the lighter—and lighter-feeling—car, 2,906 vs. 3,124 pounds. The VW also feels larger, partly because it is.

The VW’s steering is numb. The Honda’s is number. The GLI’s wheel at least weights up as it’s turned. The Si’s has so little feel or even sense of direction that it requires constant corrections mid-curve. The standard limited-slip differential promises aggressive corner carving, but there’s no sense of carving anything through the Honda’s tiller. If the Si’s steering was half as good as its shifter, it’d be a deal maker. Instead, it’s the most likely deal killer. The 1986 didn’t have over-boosted power steering. Then again, it didn’t have power steering.

“The ride is firm, as you would expect in cars with German origins, but the suspensions are still compliant, even over broken pavement.”

The problem with the 2012 Jetta GLI is that, conversely, the more casually you drive it, the worse it feels. The suspension remains firm, but now to a fault. It’s not compliant over broken pavement. Also, the DSG transmission bumps about when creeping along in traffic and downshifts aggressively when slowing to a stop. Overall, the GLI feels disjointed in typical driving, as if it was initially designed for one purpose then quickly re-tuned for another. In contrast, when driven casually the Si feels as pleasant as—and almost as boring as—a regular Civic, if one with much improved damping. Until you take the engine over 4,000 there’s little sign of the car’s performance potential.

Back in 1985, the Jetta GLI started at $10,510, the Civic Si at $8,188. Cruise, power windows, and power locks weren’t standard on the VW, and weren’t available on the Honda. A pop-out sunroof (remember those?) was standard on the Honda. A conventional one added $350 to the VW. Over the years the cars have gained much standard equipment, including safety features available on few if any cars back in the mid-80s, and inflation has taken its toll. The 2012 Jetta GLI starts at $24,515, the Civic Si at $23,345. Adjust for remaining feature differences (such as the Honda’s still standard sunroof) using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and the Japanese car ends up over $2,000 lower. Add a sunroof (and the other contents of the attractively-priced $2,050 “Autobahn Package”) to the GLI and nav to both, and the price tags rise to $27,465 and $24,845 while the feature adjustment shrinks to only a couple hundred dollars, now in the VW’s favor. For the DSG transmission, which has no Honda counterpart, add another $1,100 to the VW.

The GLI and Si were two very different cars back in 1985. Over the years the GLI has gotten larger and much more powerful, but as we’ve seen its basic character has changed surprisingly little. The Si has also grown and gained horsepower, but unlike the VW has retained only traces of much-loved past Si’s (in the engine, shifter, and seats). Some changes have made the two cars more alike, but overall they remain very different. Which do you now prefer?

Volkswagen provided the Jetta GLI with insurance and a tank of gas.

Mike Ulrey at Honda Bloomfield (MI) provided the Civic Si. Mike can be reached at 248-333-3200.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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3 of 107 comments
  • VerbalG VerbalG on Nov 23, 2012

    With respect to steering, is there often variance within a make and model? I ask this because I've recently test-driven a 2013 Mazda3, 2012 Honda Civic SI sedan, 2013 Hyundai Elantra, 2012 Honda Accord, and 2012 Honda Civic SI coupe. Of these, I found that the SI coupe handled the best by far as far as cornering, and that the Mazda3 is vague in it's steering. In fact, the Accord had more responsive steering then the Mazda(!) I did not expect this at all and made me wonder if (a) I got a "bad" Mazda, (b) 2013 is much worse then 2012, (c) as a non-expert driver I'm not pushing the cars the right way to find out, or (d) I'm smoking crack. Any comments/responses would be welcome!

    • Burgersandbeer Burgersandbeer on Nov 26, 2012

      e) Car preferences are subjective and you shouldn't let what reviewers think sway your opinion. If you preferred the SI coupe, then buy that. I don't drive too many different cars, but every once in a while I'll drive a rental and wonder if I'm driving the same vehicle I read about or if the rental is somehow defective. So I know the feeling. Furthermore, read enough reviews and you start to wonder if the reviewers are all driving the same car. I have no idea whether steering calibration is actually different between samples of the same car. I guess you can't rule it out; however, I think the most likely answer to why those cars drove differently than you expected is a difference of opinion. And your opinion is not wrong because you don't have a racing license.

  • Dolorean Dolorean on Nov 26, 2012

    "Back in 1985, a 102-horsepower 1.8-liter engine qualified as “potent.” Over the years, the GLI’s engine has gained 200 cubic centimeters, eight valves, and a turbo, but its 200 horsepower risks being classified as weak compared to the 250-plus-horsepower fours that currently rule the segment." In 1985, 102 HP sure felt potent pushing maybe 2000 lbs of lead sled through a nicely atuned 5 spd manual. The new Jetta somehow still keeps this very appealing aspect, though will admit the Mk6 could use a bit more oompf. Suppose thats why VeeDub offers the GTi.

  • Fred Remember when radios were an option? Do you know you can use your phone to listen to any radio station in the world? This is just a whole waste of time.
  • Pig_Iron ASTC 3.0 AM radio was successfully demonstrated at CES. It is a common standard shared with terrestrial television, so the audio equipment is commonized for broadcasters. And no royalty fees to pay, unlike HDRadio which has been a less than stellar success. 📻
  • Art Vandelay Crimes that are punished with fines encourage abuse by those enforcing them. If it is truly dangerous to the public, maybe jail or give the offenders community service. People’s time tends to be very valuable to them and a weeks lost work would certainly make a high earner think twice. If it isn’t a big danger why are police enforcing it (outside of raising money of course). Combine it with a points system. When your points are gone you do a week imitating Cool Hand Luke.
  • Cha65697928 High earners should pay less for tickets because they provide the tax revenue that funds the police. 2-3 free speeding tix per year should be fair.
  • Art Vandelay So the likely way to determine one’s income would be via the tax return. You guys are going to be real disappointed when some of the richest folks pay no speeding fine the same way they minimize their taxes