Volkswagen Jetta GLI car reviews

Review Notes: 2005 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
PersonalityAgile little sports car with oversized, but laggy, engine
EPA gas mileage20/28 (six-speed manual)
Above AverageAgility, speed, visibility, comfort by sports-car standards
Needs WorkTurbo lag
Price$24,655 as tested
NotesPassed scrape test; sedan version of Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen has, in the past decades, moved from being the inexpensive "people's car" to being a premium economy car with the Rabbit (Golf) and Jetta, and, after several generations of Golfs and Jettas, has finally ensonced itself as the front-wheel-drive BMW. To the bemusement of many middle-aged and older people, Volkswagen has garnered for itself a performance reputation and premium pricing among the young, even as the Passat attracts older buyers.

One reason why Volkswagen has been able to change its image so much is the turbocharged 1.8 liter engine in the diminutive Golf and Jetta. Carrying relatively little weight around, the 180 horsepower four-cylinder is able to propel the Jetta very quickly, while a sophisticated suspension keeps traction high - and without the problems encountered by those first exciting Rabbits, which did so well on good, clean, dry roads that many drivers lost control on wet, dirty, or bumpy roads, where they could easily get into trouble. Today's Golf and Jetta can deal with rain, dirt, and broken pavement quite well.

Though they are certainly small, the Jetta and Golf have a lot in common with near-luxury cars. Sound is fairly well insulated, and the suspension includes a fair bit of cushioning. Doors and the trunk close with a satisfying, solid sound, and there isn't any direct evidence of cost-cutting. Even the key is distinctive; while other makers put their fobs into the head of the key, Volkswagen makes the key part of the fob, with a switchblade-knife action. Press a button, and the key flips out, ready for us. A large Volkswagen emblem adorns the side without buttons.

Our test car was the premium GLI model, designed to have all the sports car conversions a buyer would normally add on: a turbocharged engine, tires with barely any rubber at all wrapped around large wheels, and Recaro seats that wrap right around the driver for support in turns of any speed. On seeing those exceedingly low-profile (225/40R18) tires, we thought the ride would be painfully firm, and that we'd have a blowout the second we encountered a serious pothole; but the wheels are apparently fairly tough, and the suspension still provides a good amount of cushioning. Larger shocks still intrude, and the ride is fairly firm and busy, but the tradeoff between cornering and ride is still good. The GLI hugs the road without pain, and does it for a reasonable overall price: about $24,000, including air conditioning, antilock brakes, sunroof, power windows, locks, and mirrors, and other features.

The turbocharged four-cylinder's 180 horsepower makes a big difference in a car of this size and weight, and when it tucks in, the Golf zooms off with amazing speed. However, starting from idle speed there is a fairly sizeable delay before you get that kick in the pants, and turbo lag occurs at highway speed as well. Though Carroll Shelby said "if you get turbo lag, you ain't driving it right," most people prefer not to be revving the engine to 4,000 rpm at each light and stop sign, or dropping two gears before passing. The result is a vehicle that's somewhat difficult to drive smoothly and quickly in the city, with slow starts followed by extremely rapid acceleration. That's not to say that the turbo isn't thrilling, which it is, or that it's bad on the highway, where the same pause can be shortened considerably by downshifting. The little engine feels great once the turbocharger's in full swing, accompanied by the turbo whistle we've come to know and love. The VR6 engine, also available in the Jetta and Golf, bypasses turbo lag entirely; though it's got a lower horsepower rating, its power is more readily accessible.

Gas mileage is poor for a car of this size and good for a car of this speed; we experienced about 21 mpg city, 26 highway, which is on par with our 1991 Spirit R/T (with a 225 horsepower 2.2 liter engine that felt remarkably like the 180 horsepower Volkswagen 1.8, but required more maintenance). The EPA rates the GLI at 21 city, 29 highway, which is par for the price class, good for the acceleration, and poor for the size.

The six-speed manual transmission is smooth and a pleasure to shift, at least partly because Reverse is where it belongs, far off to the left where you know where to find it but don't have to worry about it when driving in forward gears. The throws are short and precisely guided. There are no gears that require extra muscle or attention. The clutch is well defined and not hard to master, but the engine likes to have lots of gas going into first gear, which, combined with the turbo kicking in, can make gentleness difficult.

Steering is precise, and understeer and torque steer are both minimal. The near-absence of torque steer is especially impressive given the suddenness of power with the turbo. The lack of understeer is a testament to Volkswagen's tight tuning and their usual satisfyingly thick antisway bars. One advantage of using a turbocharged four-cylinder is better balance, because the engine is lighter without those two extra cylinders the turbo emulates. The Golf GLI doesn't just handle fast turns well, but it feels good when doing it; it seems to welcome any sort of spirited driving, instead of merely accepting it. It is hard to throw the GLI out of composure. Part of that may have been due to the active suspension, a surprisingly cheap $280 option which we figure may not have been a standard feature because some people don't like active suspensions. Not being highly trained racing drivers, we will take any help we can get - traction control, antilock brakes, electronic differential lock, and active suspensions - and the GLI has all four.

The standard tires are "summer" performance tires, and may need to be swapped for snow tires (or a Touerag) in the winter. Also, front and rear side airbags are standard, as are daytime running lights.

Comfort and convenience features include a sunroof which has a very clever control dial: you move it to the position you want, and then it goes there without your having to keep a finger on a button. That seems safer than usual since it leads to less distraction. There is also a filtered air conditioning system, which doesn't interfere much with power but also isn't especially powerful, and has somewhat cheap-feeling controls that require more effort than usual - and convenient, large buttons for engaging recirculation and the air compressor, which light brightly when engaged. The front seats have manual height adjusters which are fairly easy to use, though they also move the seat fore and aft. The power windows include pinch protection, and the steering wheel does not only move up and down, but in and out as well, for better adjustment.

Other added features include remote releases for the gas cap and trunk, floor mats, and a standard alarm with remote. The trunk release cleverly includes a valet lock for both the seat fold-down and the remote release; just as cleverly, the map pockets are padded to avoid jangling.

Instrumentation includes a large 160 mph speedometer and tachometer, and a considerably smaller, but accurately labelled, temperature and gas gauge. The gauges are very readable, though at night, the dark purple backlighting is less than ideal. Buttons to control the active suspension, hazard flashers, and rear defroster are large and lined up above the center console, with blanks where features don't exist on this particular model. 

Inside, the styling is largely black fabric and black plastic with touches of brushed aluminum, neither the classiest nor the cheapest look. The essential pieces required to drive are all in place and well designed, with optional bits presenting the opposing view. The driver has a choice between headlights and daytime running lights; there is no middle ground, e.g. parking lights. Fog lights cannot be left on all the time; they only go on when the headlights are on, and are automatically swiched off with the headlights, a sensible system since fog lights are meant for fog, not all driving. Interior lighting is eminently controllable, with a switch for each of the three lights (one up front, and one each for rear passengers) to determine whether they stay off, go on when the door is open, or stay on. Rear lights are touch actuated for convenience.

A standard trip computer cleverly has its readout in the dash, using easy to read amber LEDs; it is, unusually, controlled from a stalk. It provides the usual trip information: average and current gas mileage, hours since reset, and distance to empty. On the left hand side of the wheel is a stalk wtih the cruise control, featuring a rather stiff on/off switch, and small coast/set and accelerate/resume buttons. To cancel the cruise momentarily, you push the on-off switch just a little toward the middle. It's not the worst cruise control system, but it's also not especially easy to use.  The Monsoon stereo provides good sound, with several knobs for fast, easy adjustments, including bass, midrange, treble, balance, and fade; the stereo is tuned from either pushbuttons for seeking stations, or a rotary dial for selecting them. Overall, it's a clever system. CD listeners may appreciate the "mix" button which gives a random selection of recorded music.

Our test car ran $23,800 plus $575 destination, plus a mere $280 for the active suspension, resulting in a total of $24,655. That's $3,000 more than a Dodge SRT-4, whose straight-line performance and back-seat room are considerably better, at the cost of some cornering ability and snob appeal, and similar to the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX, which is also faster in a straight line, not quite as eager to do fast corners, and larger. Those who prefer smaller cars will find the GLI a good value, while many may prefer the cheaper SRT-4 or the AWD WRX. All three turbocars are surprisingly good, and each has a different feel and unique benefits; driving all three makes sense.

The Jetta GLI's conservative yet sporty styling and four doors bely the heart of a sports car. With outstanding grip and quite good acceleration, it's a fun car that can handle just about anything most people will throw at it, without the droning exhaust or unfiltered ride of many other sports cars. It doesn't have large back seats, but you can have four people riding at once, and the trunk is surprisingly large; in short, it can serve as a family car, though driving it gently takes time and effort. The Jetta's popularity, even given its premium pricing, is not surprising.