- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Responsible for 40 percent of Volkswagen’s North American sales, the Jetta is a car you want to get right when it comes time for a redesign.

And for the 2005 model year, VW did just that. Much more than a makeover, the latest-generation Jetta is bigger, more refined and better equipped than previous versions. Outgrowing key competitors such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the current Jetta impresses with its performance, safety features and plucky, fun-to-drive attitude.

For 2006, VW cranked up the heat to surface-of-the-sun temps with the new Jetta GLI. The most enthusiast-driven Jetta version yet, it features a turbocharged four-banger and a beefed-up sport suspension. What’s missing is a surgeon general’s warning label for the faint of heart.

Giving GLI the capacity to dash from a standstill to 60 mph in less than seven seconds, the 2-liter turbocharged four produces 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of peak torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the $24,405 GLI. Plunk down an extra $875 for the optional automatic and you are rewarded with the new six-speed DSG manumatic transmission.

For those who don’t speak Volkswagen, DSG stands for Direct Shift Gearbox. The clutch function is incorporated into a computer. The driver can chose shift points and manually change the gears through the shift lever or steering-wheel-mounted paddles as with traditional Tiptronic transmissions or leave the transmission in automatic mode, letting it do all the thinking and work. In either case the result is an aggressive powertrain that substantially boosts GLI’s performance credentials.

The shame quotient is held to a minimum as you dash about flogging this machine. Fuel consumption is kept in check despite the GLI’s penchant for running full bore. The Environmental Protection Agency rates its fuel economy at 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 on the highway. And that’s when equipped with the six-speed automatic. There’s actually not much difference in fuel consumption between the manual and automatic anyway.

Keeping the GLI on an even keel, even during hard maneuvering, falls to the taut, all-wheel independent suspension. Although quite firm, the suspension isn’t harsh. It still manages to absorb minor surface imperfections, yet it delivers sufficient feedback to keep the driver informed. Moving up to 18-inch wheels will require another $750. Otherwise the GLI comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and summer performance tires. Lurking behind all four wheels are antilock disc brakes with red calipers. Incorporated into the antilock system are traction control, electronic stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and hydraulic brake assist.

Inside the safety features continue with standard front side-impact air bags and air curtain air bags. Add another $350 to the bottom line and outboard rear-seat occupants also get side-impact air bag protection. Offering some whiplash protection are the active front-seat head restraints.

Stretch the tape in any direction and the new Jetta is larger than the one it replaced. The biggest increases are in overall length (7 inches) and width (nearly 2 inches), but the wheelbase and height also increased.

Cargo room swelled 20 percent to 16 cubic feet. The bigger exterior also translates into more cabin room. Even rear-seat passengers are fairly well provided for.

VW put some time and money into the cabin design. The overall feel and appearance are high quality. Tasteful styling, comfort and ease of use gang up to produce an inviting passenger environment. Bucking the German trend to overcomplicate the controls for various systems, adjusting the radio or changing the airflow from the vents in the dash to those in the floor doesn’t require consulting the owner’s manual. Controls for both the audio system and climate control are logically arranged in the center stack. Key controls for the 10-speaker audio system with MP3 are also located on the steering wheel. A six-disc in-dash CD changer is standard. Large, easy-to-read gauges keep the driver up to date on velocity and rpms.

The GLI gets special sport bucket seats with beefier side bolsters up front, providing better lateral support. The front passenger seatback folds flat. When the split rear seat is also folded flat, longer items such as skies can be transported. Drivers of nearly any dimension can find a comfortable driving position thanks to the height-adjustable driver’s seat and tilt/telescoping steering wheel. In addition to the three-spoke steering wheel with redundant audio controls, other GLI-unique styling cues include alloy pedals and trim, and special seat fabric. Power windows/door locks, cruise control, air conditioning and dual power/heated outboard mirrors are all standard.

A $3,200 option package adds satellite radio, dual-zone climate control, leather seating and a cold weather package to the mix.

A bit pricier than key competitors, the Jetta GLI still seems like a bargain because of its high content and enthusiastic performance. This may well be Volkswagen’s bread-and-butter car, but it’s anything but common.

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