Flung around an orange-coned handling course with tire-squealing abandon, Volkswagen’s latest Jetta GLI sports sedan proves fast but not furious, acquitting itself competently in a game you soon sense it would rather not be playing.
Steer it on to an Ontario secondary road though – one with lots of curves of varying radii, camber and surface and that throws the occasional little surprise at you – and this sporty edition of Volkswagen’s new-last-year, sixth-generation compact sedan enthusiastically responds with a “game on.”
Although in the GLI’s case this doesn’t mean driving it like you’re running hard in a closed-stage tarmac rally but at a pace that hopefully won’t excite too much interest from lurking coppers or have your passengers reaching for the grab handles.
Yet it is quick enough to create that delightful rhythm generated by strong acceleration, confident braking, a good gearbox and accurate steering that focuses your attention fully and makes driving the pleasure it should be.
The 2012 GLI does this very well, even though Volkswagen’s redesign of the Jetta family last year turned it (successfully, given the sales numbers) into a somewhat bigger car more suited to North American tastes and ideas of affordability – and that would hopefully erase the stigma of its being nothing more than the Golf-with-a-trunk it used to be.
GLIs are the Jetta sedan version of the legendary Golf GTI but have never been quite as hard-edged as their slab-backed siblings and neither is this one.
If you want a weekend autocross cone-killer, you should still pop $29,375 on a hard-riding hot-hatch Golf GTI. But if you’re looking for something more civilized that’s still entertaining to drive, the more-grown-up GLI at a starting price of $27,475 would be a good choice.
The GLI merits its special status atop the Jetta range, where prices start at $15,875 and run up to $27,175 and engine offerings include 2.0-, 2.5-litre gas and 2.0-litre turbo-diesels, with a couple of major equipment additions and some unique styling and equipment features outside and in.
Providing its sports sedan cred is Volkswagen’s great little 2.0-litre turbo-charged TSI four-cylinder engine that pumps out 200 hp, but also 207 lb-ft of torque, which it makes available from 1,700 rpm to 5,000 rpm.
This willing, flexible and pleasantly growly power producer comes with either a six-speed manual gearbox (with which the test car was equipped) or a trick six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox.
This power-pack will get the 1,417-kilogram GLI to 100 km/h in about 7-1/2 seconds, from 80 km/h to 120 km/h in about 5-1/2 and accelerates it out of corners with real vigor while letting you stretch its rev legs to almost 7,000 rpm between shifts.
And when you’re not having fun and light-footing-it instead, it gets close to its fuel economy ratings of 9.8 litres/100 km city and 6.2 highway.
The other area that shows serious intent on VW’s part was replacing the twist-beam axle employed by more junior Jettas in favour of an independent multi-link rear suspension, tuned to provide a high degree of control, aided by lowering the ride height and using suitably thick anti-roll bars and firm bushings.
The GLI’s electromechanical steering has realistic weight and, despite the fact the trick is performed using wires, has a more direct (than some systems of this type) link to the front wheels. The test car’s optional 18-inch alloys shod with P225/40 R18 all season rubber (versus standard 17-inchers with P225/45R17s) likely helped sharpen response a bit. Brakes have been upgraded with larger discs front and rear and coped well enough with a few laps of on-track running.
But, perhaps concerned all this would lead to wild and crazy behavior, VW has decided it won’t let you switch off the stability control system.
Upping the cool factor on the outside are a unique GLI grille, fog lamps and front and rear bumpers and red-painted calipers inside those 18-inch rims. On the inside, you lock and load yourself into eight-way adjustable sports seats and grab a flat-bottomed leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel.
Equipment includes the usual power items, plus trip computer, keyless access, dual-zone climate control, cruise, compass, 60/40-split rear seats (that access the 440-litre trunk), Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio.
The test car added a $2,100 sunroof and leather package (Titan black with red stitching), the 18-inch wheels at $975 and a tech package comprising navigation and a premium audio system – which brought the total price with dealer charges to $33,305.
The GLI feels like it has lost a little of its overall performance edge with this new generation, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if run head-to-head with its predecessor, it turned out to be at least as quick. And if it has, it has traded it for a much-improved level of civility that will suit most buyers better anyway.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Type: Compact sports sedan
Base Price: $27,475; as tested, $33,305
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.8 city/ 6.2 highway; premium recommended
Alternatives: Honda Civic SI, Fiat Abarth, Mazdaspeed3, Mini Cooper JCW, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Nissan Sentra Spec-V, Scion TC, Subaru WRX