by Conor Twomey

In Europe, the VW Golf has been a best seller since its inception, but successive generations of the VW Jetta (also known as the Vento and Bora) have failed to generate much interest. In the U.S. the Jetta is the jewel in the VW crown, accounting for 40 percent of the company's entire sales and encapsulating its philosophy of German engineering meets affordable Euro-chic, although by the time the new car arrived earlier this year sales of the Golf-with-a-trunk had slowed to a trickle as procrastinated product cycles drove buyers elsewhere. Never has the tagline "Drivers Wanted" been more appropriate.

VW needs to stir up some interest in the new Jetta and what better than a sporty version to plaster across newspapers, billboards, TV ads, enthusiast magazines, and automotive Web sites. VW's North American division fought hard to bring the GLI version to market and even employed some underhanded trickery to get it approved by the high-ups in VW. Remember that GLI show car they wheeled out at the L.A. show last year? The first Wolfsburg knew about it was the same moment you and I did. We're glad that the mavericks at VW North America went to the trouble, though, because I reckon the GLI's an absolute cracker.

Of course, the basic Jetta package is pretty good to begin with. For a start, it's a reasonably handsome and well-proportioned car, if a little dour in its detailing. The interior is spacious and comfortable and the quality of the plastics and construction wouldn't look out of place in a BMW or a Mercedes. With double four-star ratings for front and side impact the Jetta's got impeccable safety credentials also, so really all that was needed to bring it GLI specification was a little suspension work, a few go-faster add-ons to liven up the looks, and some decent performance.

Tighter and tougher

Thankfully, the volks at Volkswagen Europe had already taken care of all that when they launched the Golf GTI at the start of the year. All VW N.A. had to do was install the same 197-hp, 2.0-liter FSI turbo-charged engine with its six-speed manual (or six-speed DSG) and the GTI's stiffer springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, suspension bushes, and sportier steering rack. The suspension was then softened ever so slightly to deal with the extra weight slung out the back (as well as America's intolerance for over-firm suspensions) and bigger 312-mm front and 288-mm rear brakes were added.

The whole lot was then wrapped up in an attractive, if understated, styling kit with a new front bumper (de-chromed, honeycombed, and red-pinstriped, no less), subtle side skirts, a beefier rear bumper and some sexy 17-inch alloy wheels. The 18-inch wheels in the pictures are actually $750 option and finish the car off so well you want to break into applause. All in all the Jetta wears the GLI packaging like a crisply-tailored suit - elegant and flattering without drawing undue attention to itself.

Inside, bucket seats with cool '70s-style heritage trim, a very appealing flat-bottom sports steering, and neat aluminum pedals complete the sporty packaging, though there are plenty of luxury appointments too, such as front and rear center armrests; a six-CD changer; power windows, mirrors, and locks; and an eight-way-adjustable driver's seat. Options include a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, heated leather seats, VW's sequential gearbox (DSG), a DVD navigation system and satellite radio.

Going well

Of course, the whole purpose of the GLI is not just that it looks great - it also needs to go well. Even though it weighs a not unsubstantial 3352 pounds the GLI manages an impressive 0-60 mph time of just 6.7 seconds, no doubt helped by perfect gearing (it runs out of puff in second gear microseconds after passing 62 mph or 100 km/h), the blink-quick shifting of the DSG gearbox and the 207 lb-ft of torque the turbo scares up at just 1800 rpm. (In case you're interested, the manual is 44 pounds lighter and 0.3 seconds slower to 60 mph.) And this in a well appointed and refined four-door sedan, remember - not a stripped-out, bone-rattling Japanese hatchback. It even sounds good with a deep, euphonious rasp that gets sweeter and sweeter right until the moment you strangle it against the rev limiter. Top speed is limited to 130 mph though VW concedes it would get into the high 140s without the restrictor. Given how stable and composed it is at triple-digit speeds, it's clear the GLI was designed to hum along at high Autobahn speeds all day long.

It's a difficult car to launch, however, because at idle the floor-mounted throttle feels numb and unresponsive to the kind of prods that usually have engines howling. I'm sure you'd get used to it but all too often I found myself pulling out of intersections with the engine off boost, clenched with fear as the car inches across the road while the engine rubs its eyes and decides which tie to wear. Finally, with oncoming traffic looming large in the side window, 2000 rpm is reached, the engine gets its shot of caffeine and we take off. I also stalled it a few times, which, considering I'm supposed to be a professional, is pretty embarrassing.

Once underway, the GLI clips along at a snappy pace thanks to well-chosen gear ratios and a light, precise shift action that makes swapping cogs a rare pleasure. Those who opt for the DSG transmission forfeit the slick gearshift and light clutch (and rather offset pedals) but gain the delightful steering paddles and the instantaneous shifts these little switches orchestrate. Changing up or down under anything other than full throttle is almost imperceptible resulting in seamless acceleration and deceleration. There is a bit of a thump if you change up with your foot buried in the carpet and it is possible to catch the gearbox out if you're hard on the throttle and then lift and change gears at the same time, but even at its worst it's still miles better than any other sequential manual gearbox on the market. By using what is essentially two gearboxes (one with first, third, fifth, and reverse and the other with second, fourth, and sixth) and two clutches there's no flailing around hunting for gears while passengers endure whiplash-inducing lunges. You simple tweeze the paddle and the next gear is engaged virtually instantaneously. Marvelous.

Handling it all

But the best feature of the new GLI is not the way it looks nor its packaging nor even its drivetrain. It's the way it handles.Front-wheel-drive it may be but the steering is full of feedback and feel, filtering out the unwanted chatter and leaving you with a clear indication of just how well road surface and front tires are getting along. There's plenty of weight there too, so you can really sense just how hard the car is working through the corners while the suspension does an amazing job of keeping the car on its chosen path even if the asphalt has other ideas.

Switch the standard ESP off and it's still almost impossible to get the Jetta to misbehave through the twisties. Aggressive mid-corner lift-off merely tucks the front end in neatly while braking hard in the middle a corner makes the GLI hunker down and decelerate in a most matter-of-fact and drama-free way. Severe provocation in very tight corners will coax the rear end to step out, but it's not a sudden or aggressive occurrence and is easily gathered up. It's the same story if you thunder into a corner too fast and the GLI begins to understeer. A lift of the throttle gathers the whole lot up so quickly it's as if that 20 mph you shouldn't have left at the entrance to the corner simply evaporates. The GLI manages to be incredibly rapid and enormous fun over your favorite stretch of road, but at the same time it's safe and predicable at, and well beyond, the high limits of its Y-rated tires. Somehow, the GLI is benign and bonkers at the same time.

Indeed, for any enthusiast saddled? I mean, blessed with a young family, it's the ideal car. It's fast and fun when you're off gallivanting on your own; it oozes understated cool when the two of you are ritzing around downtown; it's quiet and refined when you have to drag the in-laws around and it's safe and spacious enough to pack the kids into.

At $23,950 it's very affordable, too, and can even manage 32 mpg on the highway and 24 mpg around town. The GLI takes the best elements of the GTI and blends them with the versatility and solidity of the Jetta, resulting in a car that manages to be all things to all men. In fact, there's only one reason I can see for not buying a GLI:

If the European Golf GTI is anything to go by, the Jetta GLI would look absolutely stunning in white, but for some strange reason VW doesn't offer it in the virgin hue. It not much of a reason not to buy one, I grant you, but hey - I'm contractually obliged to nitpick.

2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI:
Base price:
 $23,790 plus destination
Engine: 2.0-liter FSI turbocharged four-cylinder, 197 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or optional six-speed DSG sequential automated gearbox, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 179.3 x 70.1 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 101.5 in
Curb weight: 3308 lb (manual); 3354 lb (DSG)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 25/32 mpg

Safety equipment:
Dual front, side, and side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability control; and brake assist
Major standard equipment: Sports suspension; 17-inch alloy wheels; sport seats and steering wheel; six-CD audio system with Sirius or XM pre-wiring
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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