Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012 Volkswagen GLI

After changing Anthony's mind about the VW brand, I decided to take on the challenge of introducing a car to the mix that broke a few of our rules.

Our experience in the 2012 Passat was very good and showed us that VW is off to a good start in their quest for world dominance though well-equipped, well-executed cars. But we just couldn't get excited about Passat. If you want a manual transmission, you have to get a lower-end model, and the horsepower is lacking. The V-6 provides much more thrust, but still we didn't leave our test drive with a lingering smile.

Another of VW's offerings is the Jetta-based GLI. Jetta and Passat share the same generation of design language and are both conservatively rendered, tidy, and smart looking. The Jetta is smaller, but VW has gone to great lengths to make it big on the inside. Rear legroom is outstanding for a car of this size. We had no trouble getting comfortable in any seat in this car - even with the front seats in their most rearward position.

GLI's value proposition is great performance, appropriate equipment, and a fair price. They got it right. A GLI purchase would mean going without some of the little things we've become accustomed to (like memory power seats). But when you do the math, you have to wonder if those niceties are worth $5,000-$7,000.

Where GLI shined was in the fun-to-drive category. The car has a small, turbo 4-cylinder delivering 200 HP with a 6-speed manual transmission. On paper, it seems anemic compared to some of the other cars we've driven - but on the road, it's a whole different story. The powerplant has more than it needs to push this lightweight around. Our salesman took us on his "private route" - a mini Nürburgring of twists, hills, and tight curves in the Connecticut wilderness. He made speed and maneuvering recos that frightened us, frankly. The GLI took them in stride, powering over rises and eating the corners. On the highway, GLI hits three digits in the blink of an eye - and rewards you with a spitfire exhaust note that only makes you want more. It doesn't hurt that it returns 33 mpg - at least during normal driving.

So do the tingles in our feet represent a shift in thinking about our next car? After some preliminary gushing about the test drive, Anthony hit me with some realness: "This is the kind of car rich parents buy their kids in high school." I get that. And GLI is a bit noisy on the highway. Beyond the awesome engine note, wind noise and other aural interference could get irritating on a long trip. We ran to the Buick dealer after our GLI test drive and agreed that the Regal makes us feel like adults in a way the Jetta could never, through a refined cabin experience and better look.

I return to the numbers, however. Compared to Buick and Volvo, GLI delivers 70% of the refinement, 85% of the features, and 100% of the fun - all for more than $5,000 less. And using Geico's handy online quote feature, our insurance would actually go down slightly with GLI, rather than rising mildly with the others.

In the end, I'm all about austerity measures after the past few years. So I have to consider GLI a contender, regardless of my questions about age propriety. At these numbers we would still get everything we need - and would have lots of fun in the process. And I've never cared much about keeping up with the Joneses.

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