Jetta performs with much GLI – er, Glee
Ah, much better. Volkswagen’s Jetta hasn’t lost its edge; the edge has just been redefined and rearranged, and is found on the high performance variant. The standard Jetta is a lovely, smooth German-engineered family sedan with a nameplate built on a reputation for fun. The GLI rekindles that fire we thought had been put out as a result of VW’s desire to move the Jetta up in class. The GLI look stiffens up a very smooth, soft exterior with a large grille and a red rim that looks like it was branded on. Sporty wheels further hint at performance intent, while painted floating calipers are attention getting but a bit silly.
Inside, very supportive sports seats with some interesting looking headrest are the perfect additive to the spacious cockpit. The lack of electronic seat adjustment was puzzling, though good from a weight savings perspective. The doors feel very solid when closed, and the contact points are smooth but stiff. This feels like suiting up in performance gear.
The steering wheel has a very interesting shape, providing a variety of different grip positions which are very reassuring. The steering performance is good, adding feel and not making any of the funny noises our Jetta test ride did.
The pedal spacing is slightly better than the Passat, but still very far right and tight. The throttle feel is lively. The 2.0L turbo four we loved in the A3 is just as pleasing in this application. The engine is alive at 2000 rpm; it surges at 3k. As the turbo winds up, the Jetta pushes so smoothly and quickly forward you will almost forget about the back seats. Tackling hills is no problem. Quickly reaching post freeway speeds is no problem.
The operation is enlivening with the noises heard; turbo whine is present, but there’s more than just that. There seems a fair amount of intake noise as well. It’s noisier than the A3, perhaps due to a different air inlet setup.
Struts up front and a multilink rear with coil springs and monotube dampers handle the suspending duties, and they are tuned for sport. The ride far surpasses the standard Jetta for its confidence-inspiring feel. There is no floatiness. The increase in damping rate communicates road feel better, while still being soft enough to take the edge off any rough surface, and cutting out lots of transition time on turn-in. With light, electro-mechanically assisted steering, direction changes are easy and snappy, if not darty. When you really start to push, a medium amount of understeer will come into play. The Jetta responds lightly to throttle lift-off, except under very heavy cornering load where you can get the tail to pop out just a bit. Anti-Slip Regulation steps in to prevent wheelspin and the Electronic Stabilization Program prevents the tail end from coming out enough to let you come even close to losing control. This makes the Jetta something confident enough to toss into a corner and play with without fear of backing it off the road at speed. Of course, you’d really have to be playing hard to do that with a front wheel drive car anyway, but with the more responsive chassis setup of this GLI, its behavior is certainly snappier than that of an economy sedan.
The transmission of the power to the front drive wheels is handled by some miracle of engineering, but so few people will ever realize this or, even knowing the name of that bulkhead below, fully appreciate its doings. Audi’s DSG, or direct shift gearbox, is a marvelous dual-clutch transmission which transitions into one gear as it slides out of the gear it was in. Theoretically, you can almost instantaneously be engaged fully in two gears at once. It almost eradicates the notion of having to change gears. This is maybe less amazing to some than a CVT, which does actually completely eradicate a gear change. But continuously variable transmissions are not yet robust enough to handle high-torque engines. In the meantime this DSG may have the potential to erase the traditional one-gear-at-a-time automatic transmission, and lag times due to transitions would be gone as well.
In operation, the magic happening below is hardly noticed. To the operator, the transmission is just your typical automatic transmission – this one is tuned for sport with its quick, crisp shifts. Yet, it’s really, really quick in those shifts. When you wrap your hands around 9 and 3 o’clock on the steering wheel, where the grip diameter is at a narrow point between two bulging knuckles of leather on either side, your finger tips will find plastic tabs with a single vertical groove: shifting paddles. Tap these babies one at a time and you will find a miracle of automatic shifting speed. That’s a manual automatic. You play with any other such system and you will be frustrated by delays and mostly leave it in fully automatic mode so the computer at least doesn’t slow the shifting down to think about your inputs. The Jetta GLI’s DSG just shifts. Quick. Wow. AND this car actually holds the gear you selected, through throttle depression and lift, through acceleration and deceleration – marvelous! This really fulfills the promise of those paddle shifters. This doesn’t replace the race car for the street operation of BMW’s SMG or Ferrari’s F1-style paddle shifting, but this is a remarkable feature for a $24,000 car (plus $900 for the DSG).
Now when you hit a curvy section of road, there is another full step of engagement. The DSG allows you to control the gear selection fully and quickly, thus eliminating distracting and frustrating pauses in the driving experience. It smoothes out a type of “bump” in the road; you just drive. Steer, straighten out, throttle down, speed up, input up shift, very slight pause followed by quick yet respectably smooth gear transition, and on up again through the rpm range, the turbo shoving air down intake ports to feed the hungry 2.0 liter straight-four, 207 pound-feet of peak torque pushing you quickly forward up to the next turn where you stab the brakes – a bit soft in pedal feel but strong enough to get the job done on this lighter (3352 pounds with the DSG) sedan, tap down twice on the left paddle and get downshifts without hesitation, off the brake and roll on steering. And then you can hit those long, sweeping, variable-radius bends, correct steering, play with the throttle to affect attitude (within the limits of the ASR) and never lose your gear. Beautiful. That’s DSG. It’s kinda like Darn Good Stuff, driving with DSG. Except, for the letters to be arranged right, it would have to be Darn, Stuff Good! That’s poor English. Maybe the grammar works in German. Also for consideration, the Jetta was built in Mexico, and Spanish grammar does tend to rearrange words in the opposite order that English puts them in. So I guess maybe that’s what DSG really means. "Darn, Stuff Good!" driving. Indeed.
Happily, the driving experience needs no translation – the athletic qualities of this machine are universally understood. On that note, here’s your catchy closing line: The 2006 Jetta GLI: Drive GLI-fully. Enjoy Darn, Stuff Good!
To see the Jetta in action, click the following links: