2006 VW Jetta GLI: Zero to Hero in Six Grand

From the outside, the GLI model is distinguished by a black honeycomb grille, a gloss-black finish on the grille surround (instead of the base Jetta’s chromed monstrosity) with red piping around it, and attractive 18″ alloy rims. Inside is an upgraded gauge package, aluminum console trim, and drilled-look pedals. Otherwise, the GLI is pure ’06 Jetta, inside and out–but it somehow works much better here. Of course, the new Jetta’s interior was already its strong suit; with increased room especially in the rear, Audi-esque switchgear and controls, and top-notch materials (including the optional leather seating areas) helping to move this little sedan upmarket.


Another bonus: mileage. The EPA ratings on the new GLI are 24 mpg city and 32 highway–and for once, the bureaucrat’s numbers may be on target. We didn’t have this car long, but it seemed thriftier than many of the competing cars we’ve driven. Some of the credit here certainly goes to the FSI direct-injection system, of course, as well as the efficient German engineering. Point is, with gas hovering around three bucks a gallon, the small sports sedan segment in general–and this car in particular–should do very well with people looking for a high bang-for-buck ratio.

So, all told, we were pleasantly surprised to discover the GLI option turns the jellybean Jetta into a grin machine. (And at $28,705 with the optional $3,200 premium package, it should!) It does beg the question, though–why did VW make the bread-and-butter car such a mediocre performer? We don’t know, but the fact remains that this GLI actually comes closer to the GLI/GTI pocket-rocket ideal that the original models created 20-odd years ago–and that’s a good thing.

Knowing all that, we weren’t expecting much from the brand-spanking-new Jetta GLI we piloted last week. Sure, the motor’s specs–2.0 turbocharged liters, with 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft. of torque–seemed promising, but could that and some suspension upgrades overcome the overpowering blandness of the base model?

Turns out it does. From the moment you step inside this baby sports sedan, GLI-specific touches like the tilt/telescope three-spoke wheel let you know you’re driving something special. Turn the key, and the engine’s smoothness belies the fun to come–but only until the launch. Unlike a lot of VW turbo motors, torque feels plentiful here, and the linear power delivery from this little engine will keep you grinning all the way through the 6.7-second 0-60 run and beyond. Handling is equally impressive; this GLI loses the somewhat bloated, hefty feel that saddled earlier generations, and replaces it with balance and nimbleness. Although the strut-front and multilink-rear suspension is stiffened only slightly, and ride height is unaltered, the difference is perceptible. The driving experience is more akin to, say, an Acura TSX–where the last model was more reminiscent of perhaps an Impala SS. Transmission-wise, the six-speed manual our test car was equipped with was icing on the cake–smooth and slick–although the optional DSG (Direct-Shift Gearbox; like BMW’s SMG) is also known to give smooth, sharp shifts.


The base model 2006 Jetta–the first one Volkswagen released; the one with the 150-horsepower 2.5-liter five-cylinder–is an underwhelming machine, as far as enthusiast rides go. (Just to get that out of the way.) Which isn’t to downplay its overall niceness; like any new VW, it’s a well-made automobile that will more than satisfy your average buyers. Those of us with octane in our bloodstream, however, find the engine anemic and the suspension a little on the soft side–although it’s darn nice inside, at least. Complaints have also surfaced about the new styling direction VW has taken–they seem to have eschewed the softly linear angularity of previous models for a rounded, blob-like sameness(distinguished only by fifty dollars’ worth of chrome in the grille.)

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