2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn review: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

Wayne Cunningham

Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

The Good

With its dual-clutch transmission and turbocharged 2-liter engine, the <b>2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI</b> delivers enjoyable and economical performance. The Fender audio system produces incredibly good sound, the best available for cars in this segment.

The Bad

Unlike its sibling GTI, the Jetta GLI lacks launch control and a hatchback. The iPod connecter is placed inconveniently in the glove box.

The Bottom Line

Cabin tech in the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI may not be cutting-edge, but the Fender audio system sounds excellent. The boring sedan body belies the superior handling and quick-shifting gearbox.

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.

These cleverly designed buttons control the phone and audio system.

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.

Few cars priced around the $25K mark offer such a good sound system.

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.

The first thing I noticed was that the car feels very light, unsurprising as its curb weight is just over 3,000 pounds. Over a succession of rises, it lifted at each crest, to the point where stability control had to step in as I also had to negotiate a slight bend on the way down. It made for a breathless moment.

The DSG more than proved its worth when I left it to shift in its sport mode. As I braked in the last few yards before a turn, the transmission willingly changed down a gear or two, leaving me with plenty of power as I gave it gas for the turn exit. When I tapped the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, it shifted quickly and unerringly, always ready with the right gear.

Volkswagen has been offering the DSG for more than five years now, so has had time to perfect it. It uses two computer-controlled clutches, each covering one set of gears. While one is engaged, say in third gear, the other sits poised above either second or fourth, depending on which gear it anticipates you will want next. The better the programming, the better it will be at anticipating the next gear.

In GLI trim, the Jetta gets red brake calipers and disc brakes, instead of drums, at the rear wheels.

But at times, the 2-liter, four-cylinder engine was not quite ready to give me the benefits of its 200 horsepower. Even with the engine speed kept above 3,000rpm, the turbo lagged, making me wait a few portions of a second before it could give its all.

The suspension also could have been screwed down tighter. There was a lot of body movement as I threw the car into turn after turn. However, over a long drive I began to appreciate the movement, using it as a seat-of-the-pants measure of load balance among the tires.

But the biggest problem with the Jetta GLI is that it is not the GTI. Although the two cars share the same power train, the Jetta GLI is a sedan, and therefore cannot be a hot hatchback. Volkswagen, seeming to recognize the more conservative nature of sedans, did not give it launch control, one of the most childish and fun things about the GTI.

In sum
The other Jetta models all get by with boring engine and transmission combinations, but the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is the exciting one. Volkswagen may have had direct injection and turbocharging for some time now, but other automakers are only starting to recognize the benefits. The DSG is also an excellent everyday and sporting transmission.

The navigation and phone systems available in the Jetta GLI are good, but do not push the tech envelope in any significant way. The standout piece of cabin tech is the stereo, with its Fender audio system leading in sound quality for cars in this price range.

The Jetta GLI's sedan body has an inoffensive, mundane look, but proved practical, with plenty of trunk and comfortable cabin space. The seats, an upgrade for the GLI model, were particularly nice.

Tech specs
Model2012 Volkswagen Jetta
TrimGLI Autobahn
Power trainturbocharged direct-injection 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed dual-clutch transmission
EPA fuel economy24 mpg city/32 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy23.8 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based
Bluetooth phone supportStandard with contact list download
Disc playerMP3-compatible single-CD
MP3 player supportiPod integration
Other digital audioBluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio systemFender 400-watt 9-speaker system
Driver aidsNone
Base price$23,495
Price as tested$25,545
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 8


Available Engine GasBody style Sedan