2008 Volkswagen GLI Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
More power, wagon available.
We haven't heard much lately about Fahrvergnugen, that difficult-to-define Germanic character that supposedly separated Volkswagens from other moderately priced cars. That's probably because VW outsiders never did get it, as trying to sell the Volkswagen driving experience to someone who has never experienced it is like trying to describe premium-grade European chocolate to someone who hasn't tasted it and thinks the supermarket brand is just fine.
So if you haven't driven a modern Volkswagen extensively, then you're going to have to trust us on this: The charm of these cars is that they drive like 8/10ths of one of those high-dollar German sedans, while costing less than half the price.
A SportWagen model is now available, having joined the line of sedans mid-2008. The SportWagen adds flexibility without a larger footprint or any compromise in Fahrvergnugen or efficiency. Later in 2008, the 2009 Jetta TDI will appear, with the fuel economy of a hybrid and the flexibility of a wagon.
The Jetta is more potent for 2008, with 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque (compared to 150 hp and 170 lb-ft in 2007). Its 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is pleasantly robust, with a broad power curve and a raspy sound, and delivers an EPA-estimated 21/29 mpg City/Highway. The Jetta is responsive around town and comfortable on long trips. It snicks through corners and carves through curves precisely, but rides comfortably.
And just as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi offer racier editions of their luxury cruisers, Volkswagen offers the 200-hp Jetta GLI.
Inside, the Jetta is roomy and nicely finished. Here's where Volkswagen's attention to detail is particularly convincing. The driver enjoys excellent visibility and ease of operation, with logical controls and instruments. All models come with a full array of safety features. Finish quality is good, inside and out; and the trunk is larger than in many sedans costing much more. So at just under $17,000, the Jetta is a compelling buy.
The Jetta was redesigned and re-engineered from the ground up midway through 2005, and it still seems fresh. We find its styling more pleasant than exciting. But if you like the idea of a solid sedan, and are ready to try some European flavor, the Jetta is the best deal in town.
The Volkswagen Jetta comes as a four-door sedan or SportWagen. A 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine generates 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic sport mode are available.
Jetta S ($16,990) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, power locks with remote, cruise control, ASR traction control, CD player, eight-way manually adjustable front seats with lumbar support and new power recliners, split folding rear seat, manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, and 205/55HR all-season tires on 16-inch steel wheels. Jetta S comes with five-speed manual or six-speed automatic ($18,065).
Jetta SE ($19,850) adds a power tilt-and-slide sunroof; V-Tex Leatherette (imitation leather) seating surfaces; real leather-covered steering wheel and shifter; heated front seats and washer nozzles; ten-speaker stereo with MP3-capable, in-dash six-CD player and window diversity antenna; Sirius Satellite Radio; Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) with Electronic Differential Lock (EDL); a front passenger seat that folds flat for carrying long objects; bright window trim; and 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels. The SE comes with the manual or automatic ($20,925).
Jetta SEL ($22,900) adds a multi-function steering wheel, premium instrument display, premium audio, a 115-volt power outlet in the rear of the console, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The six-speed automatic is the only transmission available.
The Jetta GLI ($24,300) is motivated by a 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled inline-4 packing 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard; there's also a six-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gear) transmission that operates in manual or automatic mode ($25,375). Suspension and brakes are beefed up appropriately. Inside are eight-way adjustable sport bucket seats, a flat-bottom padded steering wheel, and lots of aluminum and bright-metal trim. Auto-leveling, high-intensity Xenon headlights are also standard, as are ESP/EDL, and 225/45 all-season or summer-performance tires (no charge either way) on 17-inch alloy rims. The Autobahn package ($3,020) adds a power sunroof, leather seats (with heat and power lumbar support in front), heated washer nozzles, and a premium audio system. Eighteen-inch wheels with 225/40R18 all-season ($750) or summer-performance ($890) tires are available.
The Wolfsburg Edition 2.0T is powered by the same engine as the GLI and the same six-speed manual ($20,875) or six-speed DSG transmission ($21,950). Seats are leatherette, and wheels are 17-inch alloys. VW says it will produce just 12,500 of these limited-edition models in just four colors: Reflex Silver, Black, Salsa Red, and Platinum Gray.
Options for Jettas not already equipped include the sunroof ($1000), heated front seats and washers ($225), 16-inch alloy wheels ($450), and ESP/EDL ($450). SEL and GLI Autobahn buyers can opt for a navigation system ($1800) that comes with either a CD changer or an iPod adapter, but not both. (Either way, MP3 capability is lost.) GLI buyers can choose the premium stereo ($325) without the rest of the Autobahn package. Optional on all Jettas are rear-seat side airbags ($350); and an iPod adapter ($199), which replaces the auxiliary input jack and which may not be available with certain other options. SportWagen options include a panoramic sunroof and a fold-flat right front seat for long loads.
Safety features that come standard include front airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags for torso protection, and curtain-style airbags for head protection front and rear. All Jettas have anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), brake assist, and traction control (ASR). Roadside assistance is included in the Jetta warranty package.
The Volkswagen Jetta is a mid-size sedan. It was completely redesigned for the 2005 model year, the GLI was added for 2006, and the SportWagen joined the lineup for 2008.
Compared to the pre-2005 Jetta, the current generation has a longer wheelbase and wider track and is the biggest Jetta ever. It's also the heaviest, tipping the scales at 3,200 pounds. That extra mass was put to good use, however, with greatly improved structural rigidity, a larger trunk and more interior room, particularly for rear seat passengers.
When looking at the Jetta, the eye is immediately drawn to its big, chrome-framed front grille. Chrome is also used in the eyebrows atop the air inlets in the front bumper and, on the SE and SEL, for the side-window surrounds.
The next most striking design element is the aggressive thrust and slope of the hood and snout. Compared to other recent nose-forward designs, the Jetta's composite headlights and various inlets and grilles are well integrated into the raked rearward flow of its form. A striking vee, created by the slant of the headlamps and sloping hood lines, is carried strongly toward the rear by the steeply raked windshield and character lines running along the flanks.
The tail is a major departure from previous Jetta styling. Larger tail light clusters, now divided between the trunk and rear fender, help widen the proportion of the car's hindquarters in relation to its height, giving it a more substantial, less boxy-looking stern. The round tail lights and brake lights have been singled out as the new Jetta's most derivative design statement. Critics claim they give this Jetta a blander, more Japanese look than previous models.
SportWagen hatches carry a small spoiler at the top of the roof and a rear wash/wipe system that clears every part of the glass you might look through. Tail lamps wrap well into the rear side panels but no lights are in the hatch so rear visibility is not compromised loading in the dark.
In addition to their 17-inch wheels, SEL models are distinguished by body-colored valences front and rear. More distinctive is the GLI, with a blacked-out honeycomb grille underlined by a red-pinstripe smile, and foglights integrated into matching honeycomb panels in the lower fascia. Lower body trim is blacked out all around, and red brake calipers show through visually massive five-spoke alloy wheels.
Volkswagen and Audi interiors are often the benchmark for other manufacturers because their designers accomplish more with less, combining expensive-looking materials with simple, attractive styling and excellent ergonomics. The result tends to be inviting cabins that are pleasant places to spend time. This holds true in the Jetta.
Even the base model's seat contours provide a high degree of support. The seats are easy to adjust with manual controls, and the adjustable steering column and height-adjustable safety belt help drivers of all sizes get comfortable. The thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel frames a gauge cluster dominated by separate, large dials for the tachometer and speedometer, well shaded from ambient light by a curved cowl. In daylight the graphics read white on black, at night changing to white on soothing swimming-pool blue with lighted red pointers. In either case, the data are easy to comprehend at a glance. Within the tachometer and speedometer are warning lights and advisories about secondary functions, including one thoughtful warning that the fuel filler door was left opened after refueling.
A large electronic message pad sits dead center, just over the water temperature and fuel gauges. In addition to more warning and diagnostic symbols, on SEL and GLI this display includes trip computer readouts. The red graphics on the pad are quite readable in the daylight but glow too brightly at night, even at the dimmest setting.
The trip computer's data are accessed by one of three levers mounted on the steering column (or with the available multi-function steering wheel buttons). Jutting to the right, this lever also operates the wiper/washer system. To the left are the levers for the turn signals/headlamp flashers and cruise control. Though easy to use, the levers feel flimsy and are one of the few interior elements that have a cheap, plasticky look. The headlight switch sits on the dash to the left of the steering wheel.
Stereo buttons, which surround the stereo's own display screen in the center stack, are in full view, a setup we prefer over hidden controls. Unfortunately, the display's graphics are not easily discernible in daylight. At night, though, the display reverts to the trademark VW blue backlighting and is easily read. The steering wheel buttons on high-line models can be used to operate a phone, mute the radio, or toggle between the various modes of the sound system.
Just below the stereo, the manual Climatic heating and air conditioning is operated via a rotary dial on the left for temperature, one in the middle for fan speed, and a third on the right for directing the air in the cabin. The more automatic Climatronic system is no longer available.
The switch for the outside mirrors and the power window switches are on the driver's door armrest, within easy reach and sight. The windows feature anti-pinch protection and one-touch up or down. As a further convenience, they can also be opened or closed, along with the sunroof, with the master key in the driver's door lock.
The center console extends between the front seats and includes a covered storage bin, two cupholders, a power outlet and climate system vents for the rear passengers. A small ceiling console, just aft of the rearview mirror, holds a pair of reading lights, the sunroof's rotary switch, interior light switches, a sunglasses bin and ambient lighting elements that softly illuminate the dash area at night. Other nice touches include sun visors that slide on rods to extend their reach over most of the side window, and well-lighted vanity mirrors.
The GLI interior is a bit dressier than the standard cabin thanks to additional touches of bright metal on the dash and center stack. The sport seat fabric is a plaid-like material that harkens back to previous interior designs from VW, and it may not be to everyone's taste. The durable-feeling leather that's now only available.
Turn the key in the Volkswagen Jetta S, SE, or SEL and you're greeted by the raspy growl of a five-cylinder engine. It's definitely an in-your-ear sound that will find favor with those who appreciate mechanical Sturm und Drang. We like it, but it might be annoying to drivers who'd rather talk on the phone.
As soon as the Jetta pulls away from the curb, there's a feel of solidness and a sense of high quality. Volkswagen invested in structural rigidity, and it paid off in ride quality and handling.
The five-cylinder engine is tuned for instant gratification, and we like it. Throttle tip-in is aggressive, especially when the automatic transmission is in Sport mode. Upshifts and downshifts then occur at higher engine speeds. The engine does not provide any braking while driving downhill, however, and we'd prefer that it did for the control it provides.
The 2.5-liter never felt underpowered in a week of testing on freeways, over mountain passes and around town, nor did it seem like it was running out of breath at high rpm. Its rasp turns a bit strident when the accelerator is fully applied, but it's more a growl of power than a whine of discontent. With increased power and torque for 2008, the factory now claims that a manual-shift Jetta can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 8.2 seconds; the automatic in 8.5. And that's with the same EPA ratings as last year: 21/29 mpg, City/Highway, for both the manual and the automatic.
We can attest that the Jetta will cruise all day long at 90 mph and, given an autobahn or race track to explore, will reach almost 130 mph at its top end. The 2.5 is a very flexible engine, and it delivers power when needed, no matter the gear. Raw speed is not what this five-cylinder does best, however.
The six-speed automatic with Tiptronic does just about everything an automatic transmission should do. In full automatic mode, the transitions between gears are quick and slip-free. Slam the gas pedal down and downshifts are crisp, and the transmission holds the chosen gear until redline before swiftly shifting up to the next gear. Switch to the manual mode by moving the shift lever into a gate to the right. Pushing the lever forward in the manual mode chooses a higher gear, while pulling back selects a lower one.
The Jetta's handling is rewarding, inspiring confidence on curving mountain roads. The Jetta carves through a corner with precision, and body lean is almost non-existent. Entering a corner too quickly is easily corrected with the excellent four-wheel disc brakes. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control while braking, while Brake Assist ensures maximum brake force during panic stops. The Jetta's high-tech traction aids provide a greater envelope of safety yet do little to diminish the driving experience.
We think this is the best-handling front-wheel-drive car Volkswagen has produced. It benefits from its multi-link rear suspension, instead of VW/Audi's traditional twist beam, along with a carefully designed MacPherson strut front suspension. The Jetta is a well-balanced car, with little or no sense that the front end is doing the work of both pulling and steering the car.
The steering is sharp. It not only adjusts to speed, providing more assist at low speeds and higher effort on the open road, but through electronic control of the steering column it automatically corrects the car's direction when such external forces as crosswinds threaten to move it off track. It's a bit disconcerting at first for the car to do something a driver expects he or she will have to do, but in short order the self-correction becomes a welcome improvement.
For slippery conditions, all but the base Jetta S come with an electronic differential lock, or EDL, that varies power to either front wheel depending on which one has more traction. Anti-slip regulation, or ASR, reduces engine power to both front wheels if slip is detected. Essentially a form.
The Volkswagen Jetta blends German-bred engineering and technology, good materials and build quality, and solid performance in a value-priced package. The base model comes well equipped, with a decent CD player and a host of safety features. Its 2.5-liter five-cylinder was bred for American tastes, with lots of low-rev torque, and makes for both a snappy runabout and a comfortable long-distance cruiser. The turbocharged GLI attains sports sedan status. Prices climb quickly, however. At the high-end, a loaded Jetta can nearly double the modest base price, and we're not sure there's twice as much value in that equation.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown reported from Southern California and Santa Fe, New Mexico, with G.R. Whale reporting from Los Angeles.
Volkswagen Jetta S ($16,990); SE ($19,760); SEL ($22,825); Wolfsburg Edition 2.0T ($20,875); GLI ($24,230).
Options As Tested
Autobahn package ($3,020) includes heated front sport seats with partial leather upholstery, power sunroof, heated washer nozzles; 7.5x18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18H summer tires ($890); rear side airbags ($350).
Volkswagen Jetta GLI with six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox automatic ($25,375).
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