Test Driven: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI (8/10)

The GLI that I drove

Volkswagen’s Jetta is one of the old reliable pals of the automotive world, a solid everyday package for everyday people. In America Jettas have always been seen as a slightly nicer, better built alternative to Japanese and American compact cars. Volkswagen means “people’s car” in German, and the Jetta continues to be an exemplary specimen of those ideals. The Jetta you see here is not just any Jetta though, this is the GLI, the hot version. In the VW lineup GLI is to Jetta as GTI is to Golf, and they are basically the same car other than the body style. I liked the GTI when I drove it against the Beetle Turbo last year, but I wanted to see how the package transferred to the larger Jetta platform.  

I could have taken home the GLI you see here for around $27k after taxes and everything, not a bad price but it does have some stiff competition. Right up front I will tell you that the GLI keeps its character as a Jetta despite all of the extra stuff, unlike many other compact performance models, which tend to feel entirely different from the cars they are based on. This quality in its character distinguishes the GLI from the Mazdaspeed3’s and WRXs of the world, for better or worse depending on a buyer’s tastes. This Jetta-ness is a theme that echoes throughout every aspect of the car, despite its more performance oriented nature.


From the outside the GLI basically looks like a normal Jetta to all but the most trained eyes. Sure there is some slightly more aggressive bodywork, but it is hardly hopped up on steroids like an Evo seems when compared to a normal Lancer. VW has even gotten rid of the red trim outlining the grill on the previous model, which was the tell tale sign of a GLI, so now you need to be very discerning to tell the difference. This lack of extreme styling will keep GLI owners fairly anonymous on the road; nice because they won’t have to deal with ricer Hondas trying to race them all the time, but a bit mundane because nobody will be able to tell that your car is something a little more special than the rest. Image is not really the GLI’s thing, so toolbags should leave now and continue their search for Mercs and Bimmers.

On the inside you will find a fairly standard, but well equipped VW interior. This is certainly nothing to complain about given how VW makes some of the best interiors around, but it is also not much to write home about. The car I drove didn’t even have plaid seats like the GTI had, which did detract from the perception of “fun” a little, if I’m honest. This GLI was far more business like than the GTI I drove, but its not really a bad thing at all is it? Everything was put together nicely and the whole interior felt solid, like it would look the same in 120,000 miles as it currently does. It had all the modern gadgets people want these days, and overall you do get your $27,000’s worth. Its all the typical German stuff, everything is there, and its all done well, but there’s not much style for style sake.


In the driver’s seat it felt a lot like a GTI, unsurprisingly. The seats were comfortable but well bolstered, giving a hint at the car’s higher performance level. The steering was nicely weighted and direct in its action, a really nice touch in a car that seems so pedestrian. Maybe it’s just me but the clutch in the GLI felt a tad softer than the GTI’s, and was a little light on engagement feel. The shifter was also a bit vague in its throws, but notchy to let you know when you were in gear. Having said that, I never missed a shift, so overall it wasn’t too much of an issue. Everything worked well enough while driving, so there were no big complaints to be had.

The GLI has a really solid feel on the road, one that is present in more standard Jettas as well. The whole car feels grounded as you roll along, with a seemingly low center of gravity. German cars are famous for this sort of road feel, and the GLI is a prime example. While its suspension is a bit stiffer than the standard Jetta’s, the GLI had no trouble smoothing out bumps to an acceptable degree; not too soft and not too hard, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it was just right.

The GLI’s German-ness really shines on the highway as well, where it is so composed that you will often feel like you are going 40mph when you are really going 80mph. It has a nice tall sixth gear too, so revs are at just 2500rpm during an 80mph cruise. Great for long journeys.

Between its high gearing, its small 2.0L motor, and a lack of any extravagant extremities the GLI can achieve 33mpg on the highway, and 22mpg in the city. This is far better fuel economy than the Mazdaspeed3 or WRX, and a real advantage over them in the real world. Fun often demands a compromise in fuel economy, but with GLI it is minimal.

The GLI has no trouble getting onto the highway either. Its 2.0L turbo delivers a solid amount of power over a large rev range. VW claims 211bhp, but real world dyno tests show stock output being more in the neighborhood of 225-230bhp; and it felt about that quick on the road. Either way, it definitely has enough punch to get you in trouble, and the wide turbo powerband makes the GLI a dream to drive both in traffic and on open stretches. You don’t have to work too hard to access the car’s performance, and for me that a major plus in real world driving situations, as well as for fuel economy and reliability purposes. Having a turbo also helps people who want more power get it easily, and for a relatively low cost. The 2.0T in the GLI is a big winner in my book, it has proven itself across the VW/Audi lineup, and when you drive one you can see why.

The handling is also an impressive feature on this car. Underneath its approachable, somewhat pedestrian package lies a genuinely good chassis that will make even the most accomplished drivers crack a smile. The GLI settles nicely into corners, feeling properly chuckable and composed. Again that German solidity gives the GLI a feeling of utter confidence in any dynamic situation. Despite its somewhat Vanilla surface, there is quite a bit of fun to be had once you chow down in with this car.

When it comes down to it, the GLI really is a GTI in Jetta form. It offers all of the same benefits, and the same well rounded package. It is perfect for dropping off the kids at school in the morning, and then Mario Andretti-ing your way to work after. That brings me to the comparison I made the day I drove this GLI. I tried the Mazdaspeed3 immediately after I tried this car, and what I found was that the Mazda was a lot crisper, and more of a hardcore driver’s car. The GLI though, had the well rounded nature that is so valuable in the real world, so what you may forfeit in pure driving excitement you gain back in practicality. The GLI is still enormous fun too, so you aren’t really sacrificing much at all in the grand scheme of things.

That is what strikes me most about this car. VW has really found a wider appeal with the GLI, one that can please both normal drivers and diehard enthusiasts; a quite an accomplishment. As someone who does drive a more hardcore Subaru on a daily basis, I have to say that I found the GLI somewhat refreshing. I would probly still need something hardcore on the side, but I could definitely see myself getting a GLI as my daily driver at some point. It remains a true Jetta in its character, something friendly and approachable, but if you dig in the spurs a bit you will find that it can perform quite well too. I can confidently proclaim that the GLI is one of the great all-rounders on sale today.

WoM Score: VW GLI

Primary Function: Performance: 1
Secondary Functions: Luxury(1), Practicality(2), MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 8/10

-Nick Walker


One thought on “Test Driven: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI (8/10)”

  1. Great test-drive post! I drive an MK-IV (2001) Jetta VR-6, and I love it, but the time will come when I need to get something a little fresher, so your detailed write-up about the GLI was super helpful and will be tucked away for when I need it. 🙂 I am pretty sad that they eliminated the red on the grill, as it was always fun to point out a GTI/GLI when it passed by, but ah well.

    (loved the quip about the Honda drivers too. It’s unbelievably true.)


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