2013 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Ask the average car buyer what's more important, price or performance, and they'll vote with their wallet nine times out of ten. Volkswagen knows this, which is why it debuted the sixth-generation 2011 Jetta with two principal new features: more interior space and a significantly lower price tag. The new car was a resounding success among the price-oriented majority, with U.S. sales jumping by 44 percent from 123,213 units in 2010 to 177,360 in 2011, and Canadian sales nearly doubling from 14,758 units to 26,749.

But those who prefer performance were quick to point out that the new car featured a lower-cost torsion beam rear suspension instead of the previous Jetta's sophisticated multilink setup, and replaced pricey soft touch materials inside the car with less expensive hard-touch plastics. Volkswagen's answer to these buyers was the Jetta GLI, introduced for 2012.

The GLI carries a significantly higher price tag - the 2013 starting price is $28,985 destination in, versus $16,385 for the vanilla Jetta - but it's considerably more performance-oriented and upmarket, with independent multilink rear suspension, a soft-touch dash, unique styling details (including honeycomb grille, textured black side skirts and revised fog lights) and the same 200-horsepower 2.0-litre turbocharged engine as in the Golf GTI.

For 2013 the Jetta GLI carries over with a couple of key revisions that should make the performance crowd even happier: First, you now get launch control if you choose the DSG automatic transmission, and second, there's a new switch down by the gearshift that allows you to disable the ASR (anti-slip regulation) system. Holy smoking burnouts, Batman!

Other subtle changes include thicker glass in the windshield and side windows for improved acoustic damping, an adjustable centre armrest for the front seats with a storage bin underneath, an upgraded automatic climate control system, and some seating revisions for improved comfort. There's also new optional equipment rolled into the Technology package including bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, an LED license plate light and a backup camera.

My test car was fully-loaded with the all-inclusive $5,650 Technology Package and the DSG automatic transmission (a $1,400 option), so it got all of the above equipment and more including the power sunroof and 18-inch "Bathurst" alloy wheels from the Sport package (17s are standard), the leather upholstery from the Leather package, plus the navigation system, 400-watt Fender audio and other equipment from the Technology package.

This all adds up to an as-tested price of $36,035 including destination fees, and frankly the GLI doesn't look that much different from the bread-and-butter Jetta, so your neighbours won't likely be all that impressed. Still, if you like a sporty car that keeps a low profile (at least in any colour other than my tester's loud Tornado Red) and offers hidden performance and comfort, then a GLI is money well spent because it's a hoot to drive.

Inside, the GLI's upgraded materials, excellent switchgear and usual high level of Volkswagen fit and finish give it the sophisticated, upmarket ambience associated with Volkswagens of yore. The Leather package certainly helps - I quite like the upholstery's classic rib-stitched look, and I found the seats to be a perfect fit for my 5'11" frame. There's a fat, flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel adding a racy edge to things, while brushed metal accent trim and abundant red contrast stitching provide visual interest.

In the back, as with all other sixth-generation Jettas, the GLI has a split-folding seat that can accommodate up to two passengers in genuinely roomy comfort, or three with only a little bit of squeezing. There are even individual overhead reading lights back there, which is a nice touch (speaking of nice touches, the glove box is cooled, so your chocolate bars won't melt in the summer). The trunk, at 440 litres, is enormous so you shouldn't have any problem fitting in sports gear, groceries, luggage or what-have-you.

As for the optional Fender audio system, it lives up to its name with a clean bright sound and good deep bass response, to the point that it tended to generate interior rattles if I really cranked it.

I did notice a few quirks and quibbles inside the GLI: The first is that Volkswagen supplies the car with a switchblade key even though it has keyless entry and pushbutton start, although while at first this seemed puzzling it does make locking and unlocking the glovebox a whole lot easier and more convenient. I also found the navigation screen to be a bit small, so it can't show much detail unless you zoom in so close that any frame of reference is lost.

The GLI also suffers the same niggling accessory power issue I've experienced in other Volkswagens: You can play the audio system no problem with the ignition off, but if you've been listening while driving and then cut the engine the stereo shuts down, requiring you to switch the ignition back on without your foot on the brake pedal if you want to continue listening without noxious tailpipe emissions. I prefer my music to continue playing seamlessly when I shut down the engine not only to curb needless idling but also to avoid the momentary "dead air" time.

On the road, the GLI's turbocharged four-cylinder engine gives the car real personality and just the right amount of performance upgrade. With 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque on tap the GLI isn't rocket ship fast (0-100 km/h takes about 7.5 seconds), but it's definitely rewarding to drive. The engine pulls nicely throughout the rev range and, thanks to some induction noise ports, sings a growly (if slightly coarse) tune as it goes about its business.

My test car's 6-speed DSG automatic, in typical DSG tradition, tended to be a little upshift-happy in Drive mode, seeking the highest possible gear and thereby dulling the engine's performance around town. Sport mode fixes all this, but tends to overcompensate, holding revs unnecessarily high at times and banging off fairly aggressive, rev-matched downshifts as you decelerate. I liked the transmission best in manual mode, allowing me to control shifts with the small steering wheel-mounted paddles. But then I'm the type of buyer who'd likely opt for the 6-speed manual anyway.

As mentioned earlier, a bonus for DSG buyers in 2013 is the addition of launch control, which if you press the right buttons (ASR off, transmission lever in Sport mode) will let you mash the brakes, stomp on the gas to bring the revs up, and then release the brakes to provide an aggressive, tire-squealing launch the same as if you revved up the engine and dumped the clutch in a manual-equipped car.

The GLI's handling isn't quite up there with the Golf GTI, but it has sharp, almost touchy reflexes, with accurate steering and plenty of grip. The car's cornering attitude is flat and confidence inspiring, and the GLI's multilink rear suspension kept the back end solidly planted on my favourite sharply bumped off-ramp. I never gave the brakes any sort of real workout, but in everyday driving they were certainly plenty powerful, pulling the 1,432-kg GLI down from speed with authority and ease.

In practical matters like fuel consumption, the GLI gets reasonably good claimed ratings (city/highway fuel consumption is quoted at 9.8 / 6.2 L/100km with the manual and 8.8 / 6.1 with the DSG box) but my experience indicates it'll use a lot more fuel than that if you drive it like it was intended. My best indicated trip economy was 9.7 L/100 km (this was on a smooth-flowing interurban highway) although with mostly winter city driving I averaged about 14 L/100km over the course of a week, using premium fuel as recommended.

While the garden-variety Jetta is a fairly sensible but perhaps slightly dull choice as a family car (no one's likely to call you a fool for buying a competent, well-designed and well-assembled car that starts at only $16,385) the Jetta GLI retains all the sensible aspects of its tamer cousin but does away with the dull, replacing it with nice doses of performance and luxury, and even some thrills.

This makes the Jetta GLI a bit of rarity, competing with other mid-priced sporty compact sedans such as the Acura ILX Dynamic, Honda Civic Si Sedan, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Subaru Impreza WRX, and perhaps the upcoming Dodge Dart GT. In this lineup the GLI stands out thanks to its particularly well-rounded personality that combines a sophisticated, no-nonsense sense of style, a nicely balanced powertrain and excellent handling.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sport Sedan, Volkswagen, VW, 2013, Jetta GLI, $20,000 - $29,999, Compact,

Organizations: Volkswagen

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