A $30K Volkswagen Jetta didn't seem possible until the arrival of the high-performance 2006 Jetta GLI. It starts at $23,790, but order up every option and it will break through the $30,000 barrier faster than Paris Hilton on a Versace bender.
For that price you get the GLI's engine, suspension and styling upgrades in addition to a long list of luxury options. Ditch the navigation system and a few other choice features, however, and you can get a well-equipped GLI for just under $28K.
But there are a lot of good sport sedans for $28,000. The 2005 Acura TSX is one of the best. It starts at just $27,190. For that price, all of its high-end features come standard except navigation.
On paper, you couldn't find two more evenly matched cars if you tried. From their prices to their packaging, the GLI and TSX are as close to twins as two cars from Germany and Japan could be. Their dimensions are nearly identical, as is their hardware. Both use 200-horsepower four-cylinder engines, front-wheel drive and in our case six-speed manual transmissions — both offer an automatic as an option, but we like to row our own.
The numbers say they're the same, but one of these sedans deserves your $28K more than the other.
What Do You Get for $28K?
Power in the GLI comes from the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder used in the larger Passat as well as Audi's A3 and A4 models. With 200 hp at 5,500 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm, it's one of the strongest four-cylinders on the market. Its advanced direct-injection design also gives it solid mileage ratings of 24 city/32 highway.
Our Salsa Red test car had Option package #2 that adds leather, dual-zone climate control, a sunroof, satellite radio and heated seats for an extra $3,200. Optional 18-inch wheels and 225/40 summer performance tires added another $750 for a total of $28,355.
All GLIs get a sport-tuned suspension, black honeycomb grille and blue window tint. Sport seats are standard along with aluminum pedals and a thick, sport steering wheel.
Like all Acuras, the TSX comes fully loaded with just about every option you could want. Our test car included its sole option, a $2,000 touchscreen navigation system that pushed its price to $29,190.
The standard engine is a normally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder that generates 200 hp at 6,800 and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. It's connected to a precise six-speed with a light, but tricky-to-engage clutch. A set of 17-inch wheels are standard, but they come wrapped in a meager set of 215/50 all-season tires.
How We Drove Them
These sedans are designed to make the everyday commute just a bit more bearable, so that's the kind of driving we did. Mind-numbing trips to the office, lunch runs and long freeway slogs were the order of the week. If they had any ergonomic flaws we were going to find them.
They are sport sedans, too, however, so we took them to the test track to see what they could do without a bunch of SUVs in their way. Acceleration, braking and slalom numbers were tallied to see how they measured up.
When the track testing was finished, we headed north for the Monterey Peninsula to see what five straight hours behind the wheel would feel like. Fuel mileage was logged, stereos were evaluated, trunks were filled.
This was a close one. With a final spread of just 2 percentage points — in favor of the GLI — it's one of the closest comparison tests we've ever had. Things were so close that if you removed the nav system and its associated price penalty from the TSX we're pretty sure it would have been a dead heat.
A little slower and a little softer than the GLI, the Acura does deliver higher refinement, as well as the prestige and dealer service that comes with a luxury nameplate. It was also the favorite on our road trip. But for our $28K we want more personality, and more torque.
Although it's as roomy and comfortable as the Acura, the GLI's strong acceleration, tight steering and firm suspension, always kept it one corner ahead of the slower, softer TSX. Its superior performance simply makes it the better sport sedan.
As much as we enjoy the TSX, the GLI is more fun. And more fun is always better.
First Place: 2006 Volkswagen GLI
Forget for a moment that the GLI is nothing but a dressed-up Jetta. Cross your eyes, knock down a six-pack, whatever it takes. Pretend that it's just another $28,000 European sport sedan. You don't even have to look past the Jetta badges, Volkswagen didn't put any on.
Now consider the GLI's credentials. It's a compact German four-door with 200 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, standard sport suspension and optional 18-inch wheels and tires. It has aluminum pedals, a flat-bottom sport steering wheel and leather-trimmed sport seats. There's a sunroof, seat heaters and satellite radio.
Instead of the standard Jetta's big slab of chrome on the front, the GLI gets a black honeycomb grille with red trim and dark lower bodywork to help slim the profile. For a car that starts life looking like an overweight Corolla, the GLI cleans up nicely.
It Drives Even Better
As close as the GLI and TSX are on paper, they're completely different from behind the wheel. Jump from the TSX to the GLI and the Volkswagen instantly feels like a more serious sport sedan. The seats are firmer, the steering wheel thicker and the seating position more upright. The GLI's gauges look less cartoonish and the Volkswagen's door closes with a solid thud instead of the Acura's soft whump.
Let out the clutch, there's instant power. Forget about turbo lag, this motor is awake right off idle. Compared to the tricky clutch and lazy low-rpm power of the TSX, the VW is an easy drivin' dragster. We also prefer the GLI's large, leather-covered shift knob as it's easier to handle than the Acura's small, metal-topped shifter.
With 200 hp from its turbocharged 2.0-liter, the GLI has no significant horsepower advantage over the TSX other than the fact that its 5,500-rpm power peak arrives 1,300 rpm earlier than the Acura's.
It's the GLI's torque that's the difference. There's 207 pound-feet of it versus 166 lb-ft in the TSX. The Volkswagen not only has more torque, it peaks at just 1,800 rpm compared to 4,500 rpm for the Acura. From zero to 60 the GLI bests the TSX by a half second with a pass of 8 seconds flat.
All that torque isn't surprising as the Volkswagen's 2.0-liter uses direct fuel injection similar to a diesel engine. At idle the GLI even sounds a bit like a diesel. Get it spinning, however, and it smoothes out nicely with a low hum that stays consistent right on up to its 6,500-rpm redline.
With its slick-shifting six-speed gearbox, it's easy to find power in the GLI. Drop it to 3rd on the freeway and it pulls hard. Floor it in 4th and you can still get a surge of acceleration. Go easy in 6th and it returns solid mid-20s mileage. You can't ask for much more from a four-cylinder.
A Jetta With Bite
For sheer power in a straight line, the TSX can't match the GLI. Take them through a few turns and it's not so clear-cut.
The Volkswagen's biggest advantage is its tires. The GLI comes stock with 225/45R17 high-performance tires that are wider, stickier and have a lower profile than the Acura's standard all-season 215/50R17s. Upgrade to the 18-inch wheels on the GLI and you get even more aggressive 225/40R18 rubber. You also get a lot more road noise.
The small differences in size make a big difference on the road. The GLI has grip to spare, a more direct connection to the road and more initial bite in the turns. Its steering is heavier, quicker to respond off center and delivers more road feel.
Although the GLI's sport suspension is stiffer, the Volkswagen rolls more under hard cornering and is less predictable at the limit than the softer-sprung TSX. It was even a tick slower through the slalom. More experienced drivers might be able to pull some better times out of it, but just about anybody can find the limits of the TSX.
It was no contest when it came to braking, however. The GLI's 121-foot stop from 60 was a full 10 feet shorter than the TSX. The pedal was firm with little vibration and ABS noise was minimal.
Both cars have standard traction and stability control. The GLI's system isn't overly aggressive about shutting you down under hard cornering, but the throttle-by-wire system doesn't put up with left-foot braking.
All GLIs come with interior upgrades over the standard Jetta. Our test car had optional leather covering the eight-way sport seats, cloth is standard. They don't require much fiddling to get comfortable which is good since all the controls except lumbar are manually controlled. The firm side bolstering holds you in tight, but wide bodies might find them too restrictive.
The steering wheel is another GLI-only piece. It's a thicker, sport version of the standard three-spoke wheel. It's covered in leather, has auxiliary stereo controls and big indents for your thumbs. Look hard and you'll notice its flat-bottom design, a racecar-inspired touch that's cool but barely noticeable.
There's extra metallic trim inside as well. From the strip that runs along the doors and dash to the pedals, shifter and GLI badge on the steering wheel, it all looks good. We also liked the GLI's gauges with their radial numbers, sunken faces and individual silver-ringed covers.
Compare the dimensions of the two cars and there's barely an inch of difference in any direction. The rear seats of the GLI have more contouring but less room for feet under the front seat. The only real advantage the GLI has is its massive trunk. At 16 cubic feet it has a solid advantage over the TSX's 12.8-cubic-foot hold.
Details we like include the GLI's one-touch lane change turn signal, big storage pockets in the doors and full auto up-and-down windows. We could do without the shallow cupholders, puny center console and weak stereo.
Look at nothing but the GLI's spec sheet and the upgrades don't look all that impressive. If you just want a more powerful Jetta, you can get the luxury-oriented 2.0T model with the same engine and a softer ride for the same price.
The GLI's hook is how it brings all the right pieces together. From the subtle exterior changes to the comfortable and functional cabin upgrades, it looks and feels right. It's fast and fun, with sharp reflexes and a just enough road feel to remind you that you're not driving a Camry.
A standard Jetta's interior is forgettable; the GLI's cabin has character. Order up the big option package and it'll have all the right features, too.
To some people the GLI will never be anything more than a dressed-up Jetta. To the people who actually drive it, the 2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI will be $28K well spent.
Second Place: 2005 Acura TSX
Entry-level luxury sedans with four-cylinder engines rarely amount to much. Infiniti never got it right with the G20. Mercedes tried it with the C-Class, but gave up in favor of V6s. Audi's A4 is an exception, but good luck trying to find a well-equipped version for $28K.
Acura finally proved that the formula could work with the introduction of the TSX in 2004. Instead of a bare-bones Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series you could get a fully loaded TSX with 200 horsepower, sharp handling, an upscale design and a comfortable, stylish interior. Upgrade it with a voice-controlled navigation system and it still didn't break $30K.
Two years later it's still a lot of car for the money, one worthy of a recommendation to anybody looking for a well-rounded entry-level luxury sedan. But for our $28K we want some personality, torque is nice, too. We still appreciate the refinement of the TSX, but the GLI is more fun.
Needs More Guts
The TSX isn't underpowered, but it feels like it is if you drive the torque-rich GLI first. With 200 hp and 166 pound-feet of torque, the Acura's 2.4-liter is hardly gutless. From zero to 60, it trailed the GLI by just half a second, laying down an 8.5-second run. The performance difference was slightly less at the end of the quarter-mile, with the Acura trailing the GLI by four-tenths with 16.2 at 86.8 mph.
At anything under 4,000 rpm the engine is soft. Lug it off the line and you're dead in the water. Floor it in 4th gear on the freeway and you get the same result. Both 5th and 6th are overdrive gears so they don't help when it comes to tightening up the first four cogs.
A tight, short-throw shifter makes the constant shifting less aggravating than it could be. And with twin balance shafts and i-VTEC variable valve timing, keeping it pegged near its 7,100-rpm redline doesn't seem so bad.
Keep away from the redline and the TSX returns excellent mileage. We averaged nearly 26 mpg for the week, with one all-highway stretch well over 30 mpg.
With its front and rear double-wishbone suspension, quick steering ratio (14.8 vs. the GLI's 16.2) and predictable handling at the limit, the TSX is an easy car to drive fast. It changes directions quickly, doesn't get unsettled over midcorner bumps and understeers progressively.
It was quicker through our slalom course than the GLI and earned a better overall rating from our test-driver. Give it a serious set of tires and it would leave the GLI even further behind.
The Acura's forgiving suspension and soft tires make it better on the highway, too. It has less road noise, and even with the quicker steering ratio it requires fewer small corrections.
We also blame the Acura's tires for its long 130-foot stopping distances from 60 mph, which is 10 feet longer than the GLI's. We blame the tires because it weighs 67 pounds less (3,241 vs. 3,308) and has larger front rotors than the VW. ABS vibration and front-end dive were also more pronounced in the TSX.
When the TSX came out two years ago, we considered it one of the best interiors in the class. It still is.
Leather is standard and the driver gets an eight-way power-adjustable seat. It's considerably softer than the GLI's sport seat, with less aggressive side bolstering. Perfectly comfortable for long drives, but start ripping through a canyon and you realize how much less support there is than the GLI.
As clear and easy to read as the TSX's big analog gauges are, we preferred the GLI's more traditional-looking dials. They have a more upscale look and won't appear as dated down the road.
The optional navigation system is not only easy to use, it keeps the dash free from clutter. Some of the climate and audio controls are integrated into the 7-inch touchscreen, but most major functions can be adjusted without sifting through electronic menus. There's also a good set of auxiliary steering wheel controls as well as voice activation of most functions.
Unlike the GLI, the TSX comes with everything but navigation as standard equipment. Heated seats, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, a premium stereo, side curtain airbags — they're all there. The only option the GLI has that the TSX doesn't are rear side thorax airbags.
After a week of commuting we found little to complain about. The TSX has better cupholders than the GLI, more console storage and a superior stereo. Rear-seat room is comparable and but its trunk isn't as big.
For 2006 the TSX gets a minor refresh that addresses its lack of power and anonymous styling. The upgrades will make the TSX a better car, but we doubt the changes will be a big enough personality injection to choose the TSX over the GLI.