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2006 Volkswagen GLI

Gotta Love It   

     The latest Jetta is a competent car but its ultra-reserved styling and serious lack of go power combine to make it an ultra serious bore to drive. It’s the automotive equivalent of watching Sen. Joseph Lieberman give a speech about the latest techniques in stem cell research. Needless to say, the enthusiasts among us aren’t knocking down VW’s doors looking for beige 5-cylinder Jettas. Volkswagen is smart enough to know this and that’s precisely why the GLI exists. It packs strong turbo power, decidedly unreserved 18” wheels, and it’s not available in beige. For the time being the GLI is the sportiest offering in the VW lineup, at least until the new GTI arrives, so we had high expectations. Did we find some substance under all that style or is the GLI little more than a cosmetic package? Keep reading.
     It’s official: our love for the FSI 2.0-liter turbo I4 has grown into full-blown lust. Yes, like most four-cylinders you have to rev to find the full 200hp, which sits north of 5,500 rpm, but it’s the 207 pound feet of torque from 1,800-4,700 rpm that really gives this motor its guts. That means there is plenty of power off the line and when you start to fall off of the torque plateau you’re just getting into the serious horsepower. That setup makes the GLI feel punchy at any speed and although it drinks premium fuel it’ll return 24mpg city and 32mpg highway when equipped with the manual, as ours was. While the 6-speed manual makes smooth shifting easy, we would ask for a more connected feel. The shifter feels rubbery and too light so some tuning that will let the driver know he’s operating a mechanical device is in order here.
     Like lesser Jettas, the GLI is front-wheel drive. But that doesn’t seem to hinder the GLI’s reflexes because turn-in is sharp and the car has that great buttoned down feel that high-performance German cars have. On long, open stretches the GLI will cruise at triple digits like its 70mph. The superbly tuned McPherson strut front suspension and four-link rear suspension with anti-roll bars at both ends are to thank for the GLI’s stellar road manners. The electromechanical steering is tuned for 3 turns lock-to-lock and it’s wonderfully weighted. It should also be noted that the GLI has the best steering wheel on the market and it’s my opinion that any car that has this wheel is automatically the best car in its class. The brakes are seriously strong and pedal feel is top notch. Our tester had the upgraded 18” wheels (225/40-18 tires) that look like a rotary phone dial in place of the standard 17” offering. Most everyone liked them and certainly all agreed they were anything but mundane.
     The special hardware carries over into the GLI’s cabin. Besides the sweet steering wheel I’ve already mentioned, Volkswagen screws in some seriously bolstered sport seats, which were leather covered in our tester. Volkswagen has a strange setup for making adjustments to the seat that include a rotating wheel for adjusting the seatback angle. It’s hard to reach and hard to turn and it takes forever to make moderate adjustments. We know there are better designs for this task, too bad VW seems to be out of the loop. At least once the adjustments are made the chairs are more than supportive enough to hold you in place. Elsewhere in the GLI you’ll find brushed aluminum trim on the dash, doors, gauges and pedals. Controls like the stereo and HVAC systems are shared with other Jettas so they’re easy to use thanks to large, well-marked buttons. The GLI also features the same cavernous trunk as other Jettas, so bringing the family along is no problem.
     Cosmetically the GLI looks like a hot rod Jetta should. It’s lowered a tad on its sport suspension, the grille is blacked out and features a red strip outline and there is black trim around the bottom of the car to visually lower it and cut down on the bulbous look the standard Jetta has. A discreet GLI badge on the trunk lid and the aforementioned highly distinctive alloy wheels round out the changes to the sportiest of Jettas. It’s a successful look that’s tastefully restrained but sporty enough to be distinctive.
     We’ve saved the best part for last, because even fully loaded, with a moonroof, satellite radio, heated seats, and dual-zone climate control our GLI sells for $27,605. That’s significantly less than the Audi A3 we tested last summer and it comes with the same engine and drives just as nice, if not sportier. You could even add the wonderful DSG transmission and still come in under the A3. It’s pretty clear to us, if you’re in the market for a fun four-door under $30k, your local Volkswagen store is a good place to start.

The Good:
Good looks, good power, good handling.
The Bad:
Difficult to adjust the driver’s seat, rubbery shifter.
The Verdict:
GLI must stand for Gotta Love It.


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