VW’s new GLI gives the baby Benz a run for its money

CASEY WILLIAMS  |  Auto Reviewer


200 horsepower, 2.5 liter Inline-4, 24/32-MPG city/hwy.
As-tested price: $23,495.


I was a weird little kid — but not for the reason you’d think. Though Camaros and Celicas were cool, I loved my grandmother’s Mercedes more. Her 190E was a great car, but the revered 190E 2.3-16, harboring a 167hp

Cosworth-developed 16-valve four-cylinder engine, was the one to get. The idea of a compact sedan that could show tail to sport coupes seemed quite rational to my teenage mind. So does the VW GLI.

While deceptively understated, the Jetta’s sleek body is as visually conservative as the 190E’s. But look closer at the 2.3-16, you’ll notice flared rocker panels, lowered front fascia and fabulous rear wing. The GLI gets about the same makeover to convert it from a commuter compact to weekend club kid.
Its sportier look includes a honeycomb grille, deep front spoiler and vertical fog lamps up front; red-painted brake calipers behind 10-spoke 17-in. alloy wheels on the side; and smoked taillamp lenses and dual chrome exhaust tips out back. Eighteen-inch Motorsport Black rim alloys are available for more contemporary styling.

Appropriate for mature Gen-Xers, cabin style takes the tone of a gentleman’s sports car. Large analog gauges, wide dash with center control stack and acres of black plastic are seriously German. Thickly-bolstered canvas sport buckets with red stitching, flat bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum pedals, leather-wrapped shift knob and silver door trim add some flash. Piano-black finish around the center controls, chrome detailing on the steering wheel and thick grabs on the steering wheel touch refinement. Clicking the Autobahn package adds a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, heated seats and Fender audio system (I’d add the package just for Fender audio — your ears deserve it).

VW is catching flak for the hard interior plastics. While the décor doesn’t feel as expensive as the previous Jetta, judging a car by the quality of its plastics doesn’t tell the entire story. This sedan is a noticeably larger family-friendly car, with cavernous rear seat space that challenges full-size sedans. The trunk, especially when expanded by flipped-down rear seats, will hold anything from bikes to strollers to hiking gear.

Beyond trim debates, what’s under the sleek hood would make the ‘Benz jealous and your boyish self wish for another cruise through the ‘80s so you could put a pesky Eclipse in its place. Stoking fire is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 200hp and 207 lb.-ft. of torque — 33hp more than the baby Benz. The standard six-speed manual transmission shifts with a light touch and works well, but drivers can also choose VW’s DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Fuel economy is rated 24/32-MPG city/hwy.

You truly won’t care about how the GLI’s exterior looks when you put the car down the road. Step on the throttle hard and you feel a rush of turbo power that sets you into your seat while the exhaust note sings to your ears. The XDS cross differential system diminishes inside wheelspin during aggressive cornering and squelches torque steer when stomped hard. A track-tuned performance suspension system, lowering ride height by 15mm, is firm, but soaks up broken pavement like a fine German touring machine should. Cuddle into the car and forget about the four doors, roomy back seat, or large trunk. It’s a hoot to drive, but won’t make you feel like an adolescent. This is an affordable performance sedan for adults who live to have fun.

The Volkswagen GLI is the perfect car for those of us raised on Japanese sport coupes, and who may wish for a Mercedes, but don’t yet have the budget. True car aficionados who grew up in the ‘80s hold the 190E 2.3-16 and Celica in high regards — we wanted both in our youth and couldn’t have either. Both cars are now gone. But, pump your kicks into a VW dealership to get a better car in one.
Prices start at a recession-friendly $23,495 ($25,545 with Autobahn package installed).

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2012.