Fun. It's what's been missing from the recently redesigned Volkswagen Jetta. VW gave the car new lines, a bigger cabin and more power across the board, but somewhere along the way, the Jetta got a bit too serious. So far there have been just two models, the entry-level 2.5 and the frugal TDI.
For 2006, Volkswagen has added two more: the luxurious 2.0T and the sporty GLI. The two models cost essentially the same, and use the same turbocharged engine, but they're as different as wine and whiskey.
With its standard heated seats and optional wood trim, the 2.0T is for the someday-CEO, the Trump wannabe that just made it out of the mailroom.
In the Jetta's sensible-yet-sporty world, the GLI, with its blacked-out honeycomb grille, sport seats and a sport-tuned suspension, is for the up-and-coming rock star. It's the fun one.
Both models are front-wheel drive and use the same 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that's also used in the Passat as well as Audi's A3 and A4. The engine produces 200 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque from 1,800 to 4,700 rpm, which is more than enough grunt to make the chubby 3,300-pound 2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI a relatively quick ride.
Buyers can choose between two transmissions, a six-speed manual or a six-speed direct-shift gearbox (DSG). We prefer the DSG, which permits fully automatic or true manual operation. In "Drive" it's a quality automatic. In manual mode, it switches gears in a heartbeat and perfectly matches revs on every downshift. Plus, there's no clutch pedal to mess with, just a couple of well-placed steering wheel paddles.
Fuel economy is good, too, 24 city/32 highway with the manual and 25 city/31 highway with the DSG, but the 2.0-liter drinks premium.
Additional features include standard stability control, traction control and 17-inch alloy wheels. A standard sport suspension is the GLI's only real mechanical difference over the 2.0T, and the cars we drove wore optional 18-inch five-spokes with summer performance tires, also exclusive to the GLI. The resulting ride is stiff and sporty but by no means uncomfortable, much like the ride in our Audi A4 long-term car.
Looking the Part
In typical German fashion, big honking wings, spoilers and faux carbon fiber are all conspicuously absent. Instead, VW's wild child Jetta has subtle touches to denote its high-performance pedigree.
Outside, the GLI gets the black honeycomb grille accented with a red pinstripe, black lower body trim, blue tinted windows, dual stainless exhaust tips, bright red brake calipers, auto-leveling high-intensity xenon headlights, and GLI badges front and rear that replace the Jetta name completely. Two new colors are exclusive to the GLI, Salsa Red and Deep Black Metallic.
Things are just as sporty yet subtle in the cabin. All the wood and metallic trim from the standard model have been replaced with genuine aluminum. The front seats are eight-way adjustable sport buckets that are exclusive to the GLI. They offer exceptional support and comfort, even on long drives. The pedals are covered in aluminum trim with rubber grip strips for quick footwork, and the tilting and telescoping F1-style flat-bottom steering wheel is thickly padded.
Safety concerns are addressed with standard dual front, front-side, front-side curtain and rear-side curtain airbags. Rear-passenger thorax airbags, which come out of the door, are optional.
Behind the Wheel
This is not a horsepower-addled rally car like the Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evolution. It's fast, just not crazy-fast. VW claims the car will sprint to 60 mph in 7 seconds when equipped with the DSG transmission. That's the same time recorded by the last A3 we tested, which used the same drivetrain, and it's nearly two and a half seconds quicker than the last Jetta 2.5 we took to the track.
Instead of stoplight-to-stoplight racing, the GLI is built for high-speed cruising and occasional canyon carving. The DSG-equipped GLI we drove positively shone on the open road. The turbo four offers plenty of bottom-end torque to get things rolling, but it really shines from 4,000-6,000 rpm, where the motor sings and the turbo whines. Tip the accelerator in the engine's sweet spot and the car leaps forward.
At triple-digit speeds on an empty stretch of New Mexico highway, the GLI's interior remained quiet and its engine purred along like a happy kitten. High-speed stability was excellent.
When the road does turn, the electromechanical steering is tight and sporty, offering excellent feedback and feel. And the suspension, which has thicker antiroll bars, gives the car a hunkered-down planted feeling in the corners. Push too hard and radical understeer rears its ugly head, but the car is easy to drive quickly and much more fun than we thought it would be.
At $23,790, the 2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI's base price is only a grand less than the starting price of the Audi A3, which shares the Jetta's platform. Order the option Package 1 for $1,460, which adds a sunroof and satellite radio, and the GLI's value remains high.
But cough up $3,200 for the option Package 2, which includes the sunroof, the satellite radio, dual-zone climate control and heated leather seats, and $1,800 for the DVD navigation system, and suddenly the affordable GLI costs about the same as an equally equipped Acura TSX.
Additional options on the GLI include the DSG transmission ($875), the 18-inch wheels ($750) and the rear thorax airbags ($350). Order it all and a loaded-to-the-gills GLI comes in over $31 thou.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as rock stars, and as much as we like driving the GLI, that sounds like a lot for the Jetta.