Pros: Engine, seats, room (for a compact), premium look and feel
Cons: Ugly styling, odd instrument panel, confusing instruments, feels large, not very fun to drive
Last April when I drove and reviewed the new 2005.5 Jetta 2.5, I found luxury-class amenities coupled with tepid performance. Given the new Jetta's 3300 pounds of road-hugging weight, 150 horsepower just weren't getting the job done. This fall VW's 200-horsepower direct-injected 2.0-liter turbo four joins the line-up in luxurious 2.0T and enthusiast-oriented GLI forms.
You know which one I drove. During this test drive, a number of comparisons were at the top of my mind. Would I find the new car as entertaining as the 2003 GLI? How would it compare with the also new, closely related Audi A3? And would it be worth the extra cost compared to the current enthusiast favorite in the compact segment, the Mazda3?
For reasons that continue to escape my comprehension, VW decided to abandon the previous generation Jetta's unique round contours in favor of a design that borrows heavily from Toyota's Corolla. My eyes have always found the latest Corolla a slab-sided awkwardly proportioned lump, and if anything they find the new Jetta even less appealing. The GLI thankfully tosses the regular car's overabundance of nose chrome, but its BBS-style alloys look out of place on such a tall, boxy shape. Judging from photos the option 18s will better. But this will never be a car whose styling inspires lust.
Just about any alternative is better looking, especially the Mazda3 and new Civic (though the latter sadly does not include a sport sedan). I also find the Audi A3's design considerably more appealing.
Update: I have now seen the upcoming Golf GTI, and though cursed with the same front end as the Jetta it is a much more attractive car. The trunk just isn't working.
Inside the GLI looks and feels upscale, especially in black leather. The A3 should be so nicely appointed. But as with the exterior the styling is blocky and generally artless. The center stack in particular could flow better. The new Jetta-based Passat has a much more aesthetically pleasing instrument panel.
As with the 2.5, the GLI's driving position is marred by a short wall that runs across the cabin at the base of the windshield. Did VW put any effort into minimizing the height of the cowl? Though raising the seat reduces the intrusiveness of this little wall into one's vision, I'd rather it weren't there at all. The tall, blocky dash is also an issue here. I much prefer the view forward in just about anything else, including the related A3 and Passat.
Otherwise, the driving position is good. The great-feeling oval steering wheel both tilts and telescopes. The driver's seat has only one height adjustment; I'd like a second to also be able to adjust the tilt of the seat cushion. On the positive side of the ledger, both front seats have four-way power lumbar and the driver is provided with a large, well-positioned deadpedal.
Then there are the front seats themselves. Supplied by Recaro, they are both comfortable and very supportive in hard turns. Every driver-oriented car should have such well-bolstered seats.
The back seat is just like the one in the 2.5. Much roomier than that in the previous generation Jetta, it now ranks among the best in the segment. In some ways it is even better than that in the Passat. Positioned higher off the floor than the back seat in the larger VW sedan, it provides better thigh support and a clearer view over the front seats. In too many cars these days rear passengers can see little around ever-larger front seat headrests.
The trunk is quite large, and the rear seats fold. A pass through is included behind the rear armrest for skis, two-by-fours, and such.
On the Road
I've now sampled VW's new 2.0-liter turbo in four cars, the A3, A4, Jetta, and Passat. It performs very well in all of them. I've never driven a turbo with less lag. In sharp contrast to the high-revving naturally aspirated fours in the Japanese competition, plenty of grunt is available right away, even at fairly low engine speeds. At idle the engine is nearly silent, and at highway speeds it is easy to forget to shift into top gear. Or even out of fourth.
About the only thing I can say against this engine is that it doesn't sound like anything special. In this area the VR6 in the 2003 was decidedly superior.
The shifter is better than the floppy, vague unit in past VWs, but is still no better than average. Easily livable, but nothing special. A clutchless manual DSG transmission is optional. If my wife outright banned cars with clutches (she can't drive them), this is the transmission I'd want based on my test drive of an Audi TT with one.
I did have a problem with the tach. It was readable enough. To a fault perhaps. Problem is, half the time I thought I was looking at the speedometer. Like the tach in the new Passat, that in the new Jetta is numbered in tens: 10, 20, 30, and so forth. Tachs are usually numbered in ones. There's a reason for that: speedometer's are numbered in tens. Numbering both primary instruments the same way is a recipe for speeding tickets.
Handling is a mixed bag. The new GLI certainly corners with less lean and more balance than the 2003. But it's not as fun to drive. The steering is fairly quick, but could stand to be quicker still, and feedback is lacking despite less assist than in the regular Jetta. In general, the new GLI lacks the 2003's frisky nature. Partly because of the driving position, but also because it has truly grown, the 2006 simply feels like a larger, more relaxed, less involving car.
The A3 with sport package is more entertaining, in part because you sit lower inside a lower car behind a less imposing instrument panel. The considerably less expensive Mazda3 is considerably more fun to drive, courtesy of quicker, tighter responses and more feedback all around. The Mazda's better driving position and flatter cornering also don't hurt. Shame it doesn't have seats like the Jetta's.
Even the previous Jetta was among the smoother-riding cars in the segment. The new one rides better still aside from a slight jiggle on road surfaces that appear smooth to the naked eye. At highway speeds wind and engine noise are low, but road noise can intrude.
VW Jetta GLI Price Comparisons and Pricing
Jetta GLI vs. Audi A3, both with leather and sunroof: The VW is about $2,200 less expensive. Adjusting for remaining feature differences widens to gap to about $2,600.
Jetta GLI vs. Mazda3 Grand Touring, similarly equipped: The Mazda is $6,500 less expensive. Adjusting for features cuts this advantage to $4,900.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the Jetta:
The new GLI has a great engine, great seats, and the feel of a premium car. But it's not very fun to drive, and the styling is just plain ugly. Interesting ugly I could live with, even love. But this is boring ugly.
Personally, I'd much rather have the Audi A3 for a little more money or a Mazda3 for a lot less. The Audi's seats aren't as good, but they're still good and they come in a better looking, more entertaining, more practical package. The Mazda3 doesn't look or feel as upscale as the German cars, its seats don't provide as much lateral support, and its engine has a much weaker low end, but its a more engaging car to drive.
If I wanted a Toyota, I'd get it from Toyota. VW needs to remember the reasons many people choose to put up with the hassle of owning a German car.
A Note on VW Jetta GLI Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Jetta rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in VW Jetta reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the Jetta--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
TrueDelta has begun collecting data on the 2005.5-2006 Jetta and Golf. If you own one of these, your participation would be especially helpful.
Unless my research finds otherwise, I'd be wary of buying a Jetta. My sister recently traded a 2002 because she could no longer deal with its frequent trips to the shop. Took a real bath on it, too. Most trips were for minor niggles, like a turn signal clicker that came on at random times and fuses that kept blowing. But most recently the check engine light kept coming on despite repeated--and costly--service visits. She never did find a dealer who seemed to know how to fix the car. Based on the boards I've visited, her experience was not unusual for a VW owner.
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Audi A3 review
Toyota Corolla XRS review
2003 VW Jetta GLI VR6 review