Vital Stats

Turbo 2.0L I4
200 HP / 207 LB-FT
6-Speed DSG
0-60 Time:
6.8 Seconds
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
3,124 LBS
15.5 CU-FT
22 City / 33 HWY
The Jetta We've Been Waiting For

The motoring press hasn't had the greatest of relationships with the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta. When the sedan debuted, critics slammed the newest generation as a Walmart interpretation of a model many of us had grown up loving. The nicer-than-expected materials, playful handling and quiet cabin had all been scrapped in favor of a bargain basement price tag wrapped in styling as risky as sunblock in summer. The machine simply felt like the latest casualty of the Volkswagen campaign to become the world's largest automaker. To make matters worse, buyers didn't seem to care.

Despite a tide of vitriolic ink that's risen around the 2012 Jetta, the model has seen an explosion of sales that's left plenty of critics tapping their microphones and asking, "Is this thing on?" If anything, the exercise has proven that when it comes to moving vehicles in the now fiercely-competitive compact segment, price is still king no matter what the critics say. So, when Volkswagen promised to satiate the model's longtime fans with a new GLI, the rank smell of skepticism came wafting through newsrooms across the country.

But with a stylish exterior, sporty indoor appointments and an upgraded suspension, the 2012 Volkswagen GLI seemingly makes up for the base model's deficiencies, at least on paper.
Every Jetta GLI comes from the factory wearing a unique, more aggressive front fascia. A honeycomb grille replaces the standard slats, and vertical fog lights help give the sedan a more poised look compared to the dopey round treatments of the standard model. The GLI's fascia also includes a faux splitter that juts out from the vehicle's nose. That sort of garb typically serves as a magnet for steep gas station entrances and parking barriers, but we didn't notice any unwanted touching during our week with the vehicle. The 2012 Jetta GLI manages to keep its nose far enough from the pavement to prevent scraping.

Move to the vehicle's flanks and it's easy to spot the stylized 18-inch alloy wheels that come as part of the Autobahn package. These rollers replace the 17-inch pieces that arrive with the base GLI and do much to improve the Jetta's presence. Look closely and you can spot a set of red painted calipers peeking through the spokes, though don't get too excited. The calipers themselves aren't any larger than those found on the Jetta 2.5L. Volkswagen has been kind enough to swap the base 11.3-inch ventilated front rotors for 12.3-inch discs on the GLI, however. The rear discs remain the same solid 10.7-inch rotors found elsewhere in the lineup.

Speaking of the rear of the vehicle, the GLI Autobahn wears the same back valance as its less sporting kin, though those with a keen eye will spot dual exhaust outlets and smoked taillamp lenses. Move indoors, however, and the changes are more readily apparent. Volkswagen swapped the base cloth seats for heated sport buckets draped in leatherette and stitched in contrasting red thread. While the seats offer more bolstering than the base chairs, they still aren't what we'd call form-hugging. That is, unless your form happens to be one derived from frequent feedings at the Golden Arches.

What the seats lack, however, the steering wheel more than makes up for. Volkswagen has bolted on the same flat-bottom piece found elsewhere in the company's stable, and the perforated leather-wrapped wheel feels just as excellent here as it has in other applications. Since our tester came equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, discreet matte black paddles were tucked behind the steering wheel's spokes. The clickers offer a good enough action. Take a gander around the rest of the cabin and you'll note that the same contrasting red stitching that shows up on the wheel and seats also adorns the shift boot and hand brake lever. Volkswagen even replaced the hard shell dash with what we thought was a long-lost soft-touch covering.

The pricier Autobahn trim also rolls in a fantastic Fender premium audio system. The kit was co-developed by Fender and Panasonic and pumps 400 watts of power through nine speakers. Trust us when we say this is one that will make you want to ditch your iPod and satellite radio in favor of a good old-fashioned, high-quality CD.

GTI fans will find plenty familiar under the hood of the GLI. The four-door offers 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque from the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine found under the hood of the hot hatch. While a six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, buyers can opt for the six-speed DSG gearbox found in our tester. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the first configuration should net 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway while opting for the DSG fetches 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. We saw around 18 mpg, but we did indulge in abnormally aggressive driving up the valleys and ridges of Appalachia's Cumberland Plateau and 26 combined in somewhat more sane circumstances. We're guessing that a driver with all of their marbles in place will see fairly close to what the EPA estimates for the Jetta GLI.

That same 2.0-liter turbo four finds its way into everything from the GTI to the Passat and the Beetle as it has for years, but at some point in the not-too-distant future, Volkswagen is going to have to answer to the fact that it isn't the only company putting forced-induction four-cylinders into its products anymore. Ford has managed to wring 240 horsepower from its EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and even the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T is good for 274 ponies these days. Ludwig, you've got some explaining to do.

It took us a spell to grow accustomed to flipping through gears in anger with the DSG, though once we did, we found the 2012 Jetta GLI Autobahn to be remarkably playful. That's thanks in no small part the vehicle's rear suspension. While the base Jetta is left to trundle along with bits lifted from a Roman ox cart, the GLI benefits from a multi-link rear set up and special damper and spring rates on all four corners. The entire machine is more than half an inch lower than the base model, and the lower center of gravity certainly helps when it comes time to pick your line through a few apexes.

Volkswagen has also thrown in the same XDS electronic locking differential found in the GTI. The system utilizes the brakes to limit the amount of torque sent to the inside wheel during hard cornering, reducing wheel spin in the process. XDS promises to be both cheaper and lighter than a true limited-slip unit, and the tech works fairly well, but if you get too aggressive with the throttle, the specter of traction control will float in and put a stop to your fun in a hurry. Unfortunately, there's no way to turn the latter system off.

Under a serious thrashing, the Jetta GLI is happy to offer up handling that could likely give the 2012 Honda Civic Si Sedan a run for its money, especially given how Honda has softened its performance compact in its latest generation. The 18-inch wheels on the GLI provide fairly sharp turn in and body roll is kept to a minimum, especially compared to the base Jetta. Even the electronic power steering is weighted nicely enough and provides some semblance of feedback. Those larger rotors helped dissipate heat and keep brake fade to a minimum, too.

Make no mistake, with only 200 horsepower on tap, this is a momentum machine more than a powerhouse, but that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. This combined package offers more mature styling than compacts like the Ford Focus with a sharper driving experience and more backseat room. It's a commuter that can handle a little after-work flogging on the way home and ask for more.

There are some issues, however. Volkswagen will ask you to pay for the pleasure of putting Jetta GLI Autobahn keys in your pocket. At $25,545 plus a $770 destination, our tester is the second-most expensive Jetta available, falling only behind the Autobahn with navigation. That's nearly $3,000 more than the Ford Focus Titanium five-door and over $3,000 more than the Honda Civic Si. It's also only $50 cheaper than the much more powerful Subaru WRX. Even so, the more refined Jetta GLI Autobahn would be easier to live with on a daily basis, and, if you're willing to sacrifice the leatherette seats, 18-inch wheels and Fender audio system, a base GLI can be had for $23,495. That's a number that's much more in line with other topped-out compacts in the segment.

You can still expect to see a few ghosts of the base Jetta floating around the vehicle, however. The cabin is still a bit noisy at highway speed with the Fender audio system turned down. The door caps are still rendered in elbow-aching hard plastic, and there's plenty of engine, tire and wind noise to live with. This is still a compact, after all. We also found the DSG's shift logic to be a bit on the lurchy side around town, leading us to believe that the six-speed manual could provide a smoother option. Almost no one at this price point is particularly concerned with how many hundredths of a second faster a dual clutch box can swap gears over its human counterpart, and if they are, they'd probably choose something inherently quicker like the WRX or perhaps a Mazdaspeed3.

It might not be quite as entertaining to drive the GTI, but even so, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn remains a vehicle that simply feels good. That's nothing short of a shower of praise given the base model's considerable shortcomings. With our tester's purposeful fascia, larger wheels and lower ride height, it even looks good sulking in a parking lot. Buyers concerned that VW has lost its way with the Jetta need only point their eyes toward the GLI and breathe a sigh of relief.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I liked the old one better. Inside and out. Ya know, with the HID projector headlamps, better styling, better wheels, better everything.
      • 3 Years Ago
      GTI 4 door makes more sense.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Much improved over the base model, but I have a 2007 GLI and I'm not seeing much here to get me excited about. Sure it's new, but aside from that? My engine has the same output, same MPG, basically the same steering wheel. I could get a more powerful sound system installed if I wanted but what I have is fine. This would be a great car for someone who has a standard Jetta and wanting to upgrade, but it offers nothing new or exciting to those already driving them.
        • 3 Years Ago
        The cars are not really totally comparable. I have one like yours so I know the pain of seeing the interior of the new car, but really its a different animal. In the end, It's probably a better car on balance. The new car is physically larger. The new TSI is actually not the same engine as the old 2.0T. It shares few if any parts with its predecessor. In terms of power, VW the new 2.0 puts down 200 at the wheels in a GTI, i.e, it really makes circa 230. APR shows the same results for the stock motor. Also, the new Jetta is actually lighter than the MkV. So this will be quicker than a MkV GLI. The CC numbers bear this out. Don't forget inflation. In current dollars, a MkV Pk2/Pk3 Jetta or GLI is more than 26K. You are getting a few less goodies here there, but you are also getting some new stuff, and it costs less. More to the point, the person who bought a 25-27K MkV Jetta/GLI would be looking at a low-level CC now---at about the same price as inflated. The old GLI is really replaced by the entry level CC. That's your true upgrade.
        • 3 Years Ago
        that's ok, people like you bought it because of the street cred, you know, that it's a VeeeeeDub.
        • 3 Years Ago
        That's a good point. I guess it's just for prospective customers and perhaps those whose leases are up. Still, VW definitely should have done something to make it a true upgrade over the previous GLI.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Some of the upgrades should make it down to the lower models, but that'd jeopardize the bargain basement price, which Americans seem to be attracted to like moths to a flame. The more I see it - the more I don't mind the styling - but the interior really needs some work on the non-Autobahn models.
      • 3 Years Ago
      If it came in a wagon with a manual i would be interested. If it had more power in the same guise i would be buying. Sitting tight and waiting for the next great small wagon.....2013 WRX? activ non-smiling MS3?....something? please????
        • 3 Years Ago
        Well, the 4dr GTI strikes a nice balance. Maybe not quite as large as a true wagon, but much more practical than a sedan. I'd imagine we won't be seeing a Jetta SportWagen GLI largely due to the GTI being available. It's also not an option offered anywhere else either from VW.
          • 3 Years Ago
          actually the GTI has less than half the cargo volume that the jetta wagon has. Plus the wagon has that awesome sunroof!! But what wagons are great at is having storage length. Many small SUVs have the same or greater cargo volume but its vertical which limits what they can store. I need the length of the wagon for hauling windsurfing equipment. But one thing i dont understand with VW wagons, is they always make the wagon look like it has the previous models roofline. Why is this VW??? the new passat and jetta wagon need a sharp angular window to match the rest of the car.
      • 3 Years Ago
        • 3 Years Ago
        that would be a mid-cycle refresh, along with LED tail lamps.
      Krishan Mistry
      • 3 Years Ago
      So for the lower 2012's, they took the VW out of the Jetta, and with this GLI, they put it back in again, but not fully
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Krishan Mistry
        Right? Those of us that know and expect what a real GLI should be are not fooled OR happy.
      James Mackintosh
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Buyers concerned that VW has lost its way with the Jetta need only point their eyes toward the GLI and breathe a sigh of relief. " ...What? The fact that the only not-shitty Jetta is the top of the line version is proof VW hasn't lost their way? That's odd, I think it's proof of the opposite. The new Jetta is garbage, and the new GLI is worse in every way except price from the old one. Meanwhile, the competition continues to sh*t on them. The 2.0T is an unreliable, oil-burning, spark-plug-eating, maintenance intensive piece of junk. The DSG is nice when it's working right, and when you aren't doing a 40k mile fluid change for a million bucks on it. The new 2.4L Si might be lame, but it's still a better car than this dookie GLI, and that's sad, because the new Si is pretty dull. People shopping in this segment would have to be mentally deficient to get the GLI over a WRX, a Speed3, an Si, or the new Focus ST that's coming out next year (around 26k.) I think the Focus ST will put the final nail in the GLI's coffin. Or if Suzuki makes a turbocharged version of the Kizashi, which in all honesty is more of a Jetta than the Jetta is. Funny that Ford and Suzuki (who?!?) are making better VW's than VW is. VW has lost the way, and they have a lot of catching up to do. Also, wtf VW? Fender makes guitars, not stereos, who are you trying to fool?
      • 3 Years Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      For 26k? Crackpipe.. Wait, where am I
      • 3 Years Ago
      Oh boy. A 200 HP depressing stretch of black plastic for 27k. Sign me up for two!
      • 3 Years Ago
      After reading this, it made me long for the previous gen GLI. Sorry VW, your current offerings aren't doing it for me #bland.
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