In the mists of memory the BMW 2002 looms as the most pleasurable car many of us have ever owned, even if we’ve moved on to far more powerful, plusher vehicles.
Volkswagen’s Jetta GLI recalls its spirit.
I’m driving a GLI now on the same roads I drove many times in my 2002, back roads leading to the Mosport race track, and the character of the GLI’s two-litre engine – the same size as that of the BMW, but more powerful – makes the car seem like a living, breathing thing. The light action of the manual gearshift and clutch, too, gives pleasure approaching that of the BMW’s gearbox.
The thing about the 2002 was, it carried four persons but drove like a two-seater. In it you could be a responsible parent or a rabble-rouser, your choice. Another thing, this Bavarian confection was as solid as a bank machine (albeit prone to rust) if not at all luxurious. A charmer.
Ever since its heyday – in the 1970s stretching into the 1990s as enthusiasts kept them running long after the last one came off the assembly line in 1976 – competing manufacturers have tried to capture the magic combination of the little car with the large engine. (BMW itself ceded the territory as its more exhilarating models became increasingly pricey.)
As it happened, Volkswagen’s Golf GTi gained similar status after its introduction in 1975, as an industry leader that actually prompted the coining of the term, hot hatchback.
Today’s GTI continues as the premium Golf – and it still sizzles. But the Jetta GLI that Volkswagen that has introduced as a 2012 model sells for $1,900 less, with the same engine and transmission as the GTI, similar suspension tuning, and unlike the GTI, a commodious trunk. At $27,475, it’s a well-priced charmer in much the same way as the 2002 in its day.
The understated styling of the workaday Jetta has been zapped with sculpted rocker panels, the GTI’s honeycomb grille, and spectacular 17-inch wheels – 18-inch optional. At the rear, the tail lamps are smoked and stainless-steel exhaust tips crown a diffuser-like panel. The usual tricks associated with “sports” models, then – but they successfully transform the bland basic Jetta into something special.
Underneath and within are the key ingredients. The GLI is 15 mm lower than other Jettas, and carries a different rear suspension that affords far more grip on bumpy surfaces. This multilink suspension is fitted on all Jettas exported to Europe from Volkswagen’s Mexican factory, while a less-expensive beam axle suspends North American Jettas other than the GLI.
Nearing Mosport, I’m in the passenger seat when my colleague behind the leather-bound wheel gets carried away in one tree-lined corner, charging far too fast into its tightening radius. I brace myself as the GLI begins to skid, tires moaning, seat belts tightening, when the stability control system takes over and arrests the skid with computer-controlled application of the brakes on different wheels. I would not want to experience a similar situation in a 2002.
We arrive at Mosport’s training track adjacent to the Grand Prix circuit. After kissing the ground in appreciation for having survived, driving solo around the treeless circuit in a series of GLIs is nothing short of refreshing.
The GLIs equipped with the optional automatic are most fun for this overjoyed-to-be-alive driver. The dual clutch operation delivers crisp, instantaneous shifts on its own, or the driver has the option of controlling the process with the steering wheel paddles. Incidentally, Volkswagen Canada expects as many as 60 per cent of GLI buyers to choose automatics. GTI buyers are more traditional enthusiasts with a 50-50 split between manual and automatic transmissions.
The upgraded suspension keeps the cars surprisingly flat in the constant cornering – the training track has every kind of turn imaginable but an absence of straights. But what’s most amazing is how the brake pedal stays firm despite hard usage. The stink of hot rubber and hotter brake pads surrounds the cars after every 20-minute session, but there’s no brake fade. Impressive.
We’re told the stereo has eight speakers and the optional Fender sound system will blow us away. I confess I never tried it. I can report, however, that the sound actuator installed on the GLI engine – a hollow tube within the induction system – does give the engine a marvellous throatiness that’s very satisfying during hard acceleration.
Like the 2002’s two-litre engine, this one sings a happy tune as you put its 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque to work.
Whether this powertrain would be even better in its GTI installation remains in question, because there is no hot hatch present at Mosport for purposes of comparison. The GTI is 42 kg lighter for a superior power-to-weight ratio, and in all likelihood its body is torsionally more rigid, which generally enhances handling.
But the truth is that GLI buyers probably won’t care if their car isn’t the hottest Volkswagen in the showroom. That would be the new Golf R, eclipsing the GTI with 270 horsepower, all-wheel-drive and a $39,675 price. The GLI? Its combination of price, practicality and personality render it a charmer and that’s enough. As was the case with the fabled 2002.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Type: Four-door sedan
Base Price: $27,475
Engine: 2-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder with DOHC and direct injection
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.8 city/6.2 highway (manual); 8.8 city/6.1 highway (automatic); premium recommended.
Alternatives: Mazdasport3, Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Subaru WRX, Suzuki Kizashi, Nissan Sentra SE-R