The Jetta GLI is as different from the Jettas S, SE, and SEL as the movie originally called "Star Wars" is from "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." The first is exciting and fun, while the latter is merely a vehicle to get you from point A to point B.
With the 2012 Jetta GLI, Volkswagen starts with a standard Jetta, then puts a turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter engine under the hood, and joins it to a Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG), Volkswagen's version of the dual-clutch automated manual transmission. This engine and transmission combination is one of the best on the road today.
Volkswagen also replaced the rear drum brakes with discs for the Jetta GLI, and even swapped out the rear torsion bar suspension for a more capable multilink system. Cosmetic enhancements, such as a honeycomb grille and front air intake, give the Jetta GLI a distinct look.
Having previously reviewed a Jetta SEL, I was surprised at the lack of an interface control dial under the center LCD. That is, until I realized that this Jetta GLI lacked the navigation system I had seen in the other car. That system, Volkswagen's RNS-315 head unit, is available as an option. But I was not missing much, as the RNS-315 is pretty basic, using maps stored on flash memory and not integrating traffic data.
Without navigation, that left the stereo system as the major piece of cabin tech in this Jetta GLI. As the stereo included iPod integration and satellite radio, the touch-screen LCD served to show music libraries and lengthy channel lists. Volkswagen puts the iPod connector in the glove box, something I find inconvenient as I want to plug in my iPhone every time I get in the car. If I owned a Jetta, I would keep a dedicated iPod in the car.
Given the Jetta GLI's Fender audio system, I would also want to keep a lot of really good music on the car's iPod. Testing this car was the fourth time I've listened to the audio system Fender designed for Volkswagen, and it was just as impressive as the first. Boasting nine speakers and a mere 400 watts, it delivers the best audio quality among cars in the Jetta's price range, and even bests the audio in cars costing much more.
The system stages music neatly in front of the cabin, giving it that first-row-at-a-concert feeling. And the system's clarity and depth make every instrument clearly audible. It is incredibly pleasing to hear instruments you never noticed before on a track. When I first starting testing the system, the bass and treble were cranked all the way up, making the door panels hum uncomfortably. But once brought down to proper equalization the system got on with its near-perfect reproduction.
The music sounded excellent as I ran the Jetta GLI through mundane driving situations, like the endless stoplights of a city or the mindless 65 mph drone of the freeway. In these circumstances the car drove easily, with the DSG left in automatic mode to take care of gear changes. The electric power-steering system did its job, giving the right amount of boost for slow parking-lot maneuvers and high-speed lane changes.
But on what this car was made for--twisty back roads where you can enjoy the quick shifts from the DSG and the precision turn-in of the wheel--the music takes a back seat as the car delivers a fast and thrilling ride. Put through these paces, the Jetta GLI proved very fun, despite a few faults.