2012 VW Jetta GLI Autobahn Review

New GLI delivers same fun in a more livable package

2012 VW Jetta GLI Autobahn Review

Designed with the American market in mind Volkswagen’s new Jetta was intended to significantly grow their sales volume on this side of the pond. Media critiques aside, the changes were popular, and the Jetta’s sales soared, due mostly to the larger dimensions and lower price points.


1. Starting at $23,495 the well-equipped GLI Autobahn with the DSG transmission costs $26,895.

2. A 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder makes 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

3. Other highlights include 18-inch wheels, red brake calipers, a half-inch lowered suspension, plus a unique front bumper and grille.

For 2012, however, Volkswagen has re-introduced the Jetta GLI, and this model will surely delight the faithful in nearly every way. 

We spent a week with the GLI Autobahn model and were hard pressed to find much not to like. Volkswagen didn’t just drop a more powerful motor under the hood, they bagged the base suspension in favor of a highly sophisticated and capable multi link independent rear suspension – just like the old car, or the current ones sold in Europe.

With three transverse and one longitudinal link per wheel it enables the longitudinal and transverse dynamics to be precisely configured almost independently of each other. The result is a more agile, responsive and precise handling package. Blasting around your favorite set of twisties results in a flat cornering, and a well planted feel, albeit with some understeer in the tightest corners. The low profile 18-inch Dunlop SP Sport all season tires offer good grip, but the GLI is deserving of some better summer rubber.

2012 Jetta GLI cabin

At the same time, with such a capable suspension and low profile tires, it’s surprising how well the GLI soaks up potholes, bumps and broken pavement. The ride quality is comfortable on all road surfaces, and highway cruising is near luxury car smooth.  Amazing what a fully independent suspension can do, isn’t it?

As for the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it puts out 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. That’s plenty of power to make this Jetta a blast to drive. Torque is available from just under 2000 rpm and the turbo will continue to pull right up to (and past) the redline, so you can stay in the power band all day and have lots of zip available with just some light pressure in the accelerator pedal.

All this, and the engine is still capable of achieving 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway numbers. Of course, those numbers are achievable only when driving the Jetta GLI as a family sedan. When driving it as a sport sedan, your mileage will slip a few miles per gallon, and premium fuel is recommended. 



The transmission in the Jetta is Volkswagen’s outstanding DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, (a manual is available) with a Sport mode, and paddle shifters. As in the larger Passat, this transmission shifts instantaneously when in the manumatic or Sport mode. And while the maximum shift point is the 6000 rpm redline when in regular Drive mode, you’ll get an extra 500 rpm if you keep the shift lever in the Sport mode.

We did, however, experience an unsettling grinding vibration from the drivetrain at low speed take offs up until around 15 mph. It doesn’t happen in Sport mode, only in the Drive mode, when the transmission short sifts from first to second to boost fuel mileage.  While not immune to issues of harshness and jerkiness, we haven’t experienced a VW DSG that was this unsettling before.

The brakes on the GLI, with red painted calipers, are plenty strong, but are also a bit too grabby, especially at low speeds, where coming to a stop from about 25 mph can be jerky and abrupt. The speed sensitive electric power steering feels a bit numb, but steering effort builds progressively and smoothly.

2012 Jetta GLI red

The GLI’s cabin is a handsome affair, and in typical German fashion, well laid out and with easy to use controls. And like all Volkswagens, they are very well lit up at night.  The V-Tex leatherette sport seats on the GLI are nicely bolstered both on the seat bottom and seat back, yet they offer enough room for all day comfort, rather then so many sport seats that feel too narrow and confining. Plus, they’re heated with a 3-position switch. The black seats, both front and rear, have rich looking red double stitching that matches the red stitching on the thick leather covered, flat bottom, sport steering wheel, which tilts and telescopes. Unfortunately, the cruise control is still inconveniently located on the left turn signal stalk, rather than on the steering wheel.

The center stack is dominated by a large screen that shows all the Fender Premium, Bluetooth compatible, satellite radio sound system, and HVAC controls and settings. One must pony up about $2,400 to add the NAV system to the screen and it is packaged with a keyless entry and push button start feature.

2012 Jetta GLI interior

Soft touch materials are used on the dashboard, center console and door armrests. The moon roof lightens the cabin, and has the Volkswagen dial with pre-set stages for the roof openings. A toggle switch would be better. And the mesh diffuser keeps the wind blast out of the cabin, but creates far too much noise.

The rear part of the cabin benefits from the extra inches added to the Americanized Jetta. The seats are comfortable for two good size adults, with excellent head and leg room.  A center armrest folds down to allow for a ski pass through, and the 60/40 split bench seats fold down to increase cargo capacity from the already cavernous trunk, with seatback releases conveniently located in that trunk. A family of four will be quite comfortable taking a long car trip, with plenty of luggage space for all their gear. 

Despite some aerodynamic changes and those large 18-inch wheels, exterior styling is derivative and won’t stand out in a crowd. Compared to standard Jetta models, however, it does get a new horizontal lined grill with the GLI badge, those red brake calipers, dual chrome exhaust tips, chrome window trim, and a new front air dam with vertical fog lights. The GLI also sits about a half inch lower than the other models, and with the larger wheels, and subtle side skirts, it’s handsomely aggressive.

The base trim GLI starts at $23,495, and is quite nicely equipped. Move up to the Autobahn and it starts at $25,545, with the NAV package starting at $26,445. All the trim levels offer excellent content and value for the money. 



2012 Jetta GLI red highway

The Jetta GLI is a dual-purpose machine that works well on both accounts. A quick, agile and athletic sport sedan for those times when the spouse and kids aren’t around, it now does a better job than ever at also being a sensibly sized, all purpose family sedan.