Full 2012 Volkswagen GLI Review
What's New for 2012
After a two-year hiatus, the VW GLI returns as an all-new model based on the recently redesigned Jetta.
Traditionally, there haven't been many cars to choose from between "econosport" compact sedans typically made by Japanese manufacturers and pricier luxury sport sedans normally produced by German automakers. Seeing an opportunity, Volkswagen filled that void years ago with its GLI, a Jetta fitted with the GTI's performance-oriented engine and suspension tuning. We liked the last iteration (VW dropped it after 2009) and now the concept has been reborn as the 2012 Volkswagen GLI.
It's easy to be a little concerned about the idea of a snappier version of the new Jetta, since we haven't been very fond of the all-new small VW sedan so far. The car reflects a number of changes designed primarily to make it more affordable, notably lower-quality interior pieces, a wheezy engine for the base model and a relatively unsophisticated rear suspension (not to mention rear drum brakes on the entry-level models). Granted, the new Jetta offers a roomier backseat and is still a nice car. But as we noted in our reviews of the Jetta, you pay less, but you also get less.
Thankfully, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI undoes some of the base model Jetta's cost-cutting changes, but not enough of them to put the car on even standing with the GTI. For instance, there is a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension and an upgraded steering system, but the resulting handling isn't as sharp as the GLI's hatchback cousin, let alone other sporty sedans and hatches. The interior also gets a thick sport steering wheel and a soft-touch dash (versus the Jetta's hard plastic one), but it's otherwise the same. On the upside, the GLI does share the GTI's 200-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which proves both energetic and fuel-efficient.
While the 2012 VW GLI is more appealing than the vanilla regular Jetta, too much carries over. The GTI is quite simply a better car, and although it's about $1,000 pricier, we think it's definitely worth it. Of course, there are also excellent competitors like the upcoming Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru WRX. And if you're simply looking for a sedan with lively acceleration, a turbocharged Kia Optima or V6-powered Nissan Altima could be good alternatives.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Volkswagen GLI is a front-wheel-drive four-door sedan available in two trim levels: 2.0T and Autobahn.
Standard equipment on the GLI 2.0T includes 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, air-conditioning, full power accessories, heated mirrors, height-adjustable front sport seats, cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth and a six-speaker sound system with a touchscreen interface, satellite radio, a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod interface.
The GLI Autobahn adds 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, heated windshield-washer nozzles, automatic climate control, a cooling glovebox, heated front seats, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery and a nine-speaker audio system. A navigation system and keyless ignition/entry can be added to the Autobahn.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 GLI is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 200 hp and 207 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. A six-speed manual is standard, while a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual known as DSG is optional. In Edmunds performance testing, the GLI with DSG went from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, which is on the slow side for the class. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined with the manual and 23/29/25 with DSG.
Every 2012 GLI comes standard with antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags.
In Edmunds brake testing, the GLI came to a stop from 60 mph in 128 feet. This is below average for a compact sedan, let alone one with sporting pretenses.
In government crash tests, the pretty much identical Jetta earned an overall score of four stars out of a possible five. Within that rating, it earned four stars for overall front crash protection and five stars for overall side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Jetta its best possible rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset, side and roof strength tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
Past GLI models were essentially four-door sedan versions of the hatchback GTI. This is no longer the case, and it's perhaps most noticeable in the cabin. Not only is the Jetta-derived GLI's design different from the Golf-derived GTI (though they were certainly drawn with the same restrained pen), the materials used to construct it are of a lower quality. The doors in particular are covered in an abundance of hard plastic. It's also missing some of the GTI's extra-mile features like an adjustable front armrest and rear air vents, along with its tartan upholstery and optional leather. The GLI makes do with plain black cloth or "leatherette" vinyl.
On the upside, the GLI is quite roomy. It's easy to find a comfortable seating position, and a pair of full-size adults can sit in the back with room to spare. The 15.5-cubic-foot trunk is actually bigger than the Honda Accord's. We're also fans of the available touchscreen stereo interface, which features a redundant control knob ideal for controlling an iPod.
As with the cabin, driving the GLI is a letdown compared to the GTI. The steering isn't as sharp when turning into a corner and it has a considerable numb spot on center that's more indicative of the less sporting Beetle Turbo. Ultimate grip and handling are also disappointing whether you're comparing the GLI to the GTI or one of the other "hot" hatches or sedans it competes with. However, those simply looking for a quicker, sportier version of the Jetta will likely find the GLI a solid upgrade.
This is especially so since the 2.0-liter turbo engine is still a bright spot, offering a nice wallop of torque and cool, snarling noises. The standard six-speed manual is the transmission to get. It's direct and remarkably easy to drive, even when stuck in traffic. The DSG automatic is less desirable. In its normal Drive setting, throttle response is annoyingly delayed. Switching to Sport corrects this, but then the transmission becomes overly eager to downshift and hang onto revs. Using DSG's manual mode corrects both issues, but at that point we figure you might as well stick with the regular manual.