The 2006 Volkswagen Jetta sedan is the embodiment of compact practicality - affordable, reliable and sufficiently miserly in the fuel-consumption department.
With the GLI version, there's a bonus: performance.
Make that performance in a small package. The tested Jetta GLI sedan had a modest, 2-liter in-line 4 under the hood. But with a turbocharger boosting the exertions of the dual-overhead-cam engine, 200 horses are at your command, along with 207 foot-pounds of torque coming in as early as 1,800 revolutions per minute.
Trouble was, it took me awhile to fully appreciate the power boost.
The first several times I hit the accelerator at a light change or the end of the freeway entrance ramp, things seemed pretty normal. But nothing spectacular.
But about the fourth time off the blocks, I left a pretty good sports car behind. Five minutes later, I saw a very good sports car getting smaller at a rapid rate in my rearview mirror.
Confused, I took the front-drive GLI out for some early morning sprints on a deserted back road. Sure enough, zero to 60 mph was reached in an eye-blink less than 7 seconds - just as advertised.
Kudos to VW engineers. Never have so many horses done so much and felt like so few. Winston Churchill did not say that, but he might have at the wheel of this GLI.
Its engine combines with a six-speed Tiptronic transmission, 18-inch performance tires and a superbly tuned suspension to dish up power in consistent, smooth style.
Don't get me wrong; smashing the gas will push you into the seat in the GLI. But it's not that herky-jerky slap in the face you get from other small engines with a turbocharger bolted on.
No slipping and sliding, either. The GLI steering wheel felt firm and true as the car climbed the power ladder. Once revs evened out, handling was easy and nimble. The GLI was outstanding on a slalom course.
The GLI's exterior is not super sporty but pleasant enough. The boldest touches are a big-as-a-suitcase front grille and brake calipers painted red. Those brakes, by the way, will stop you on a dime.
Standard interior amenities were plentiful, including a six-CD changer, power/heated exterior mirrors, lumbar supports in the front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Even high-intensity xenon headlights with a washer system were standard.
A long list of standard safety features - including side-curtain head air bags front and rear - also was impressive.
Volkswagen is particularly proud of Jetta's performance in crash tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. VW engineers targeted side-impact crash integrity when building the current-generation Jetta. As a result, it was the first to "ace" the institute's side-impact crash tests.
The tested GLI had so much going for it that I wondered: This is a compact?!
A glance at the bottom line on the sticker might have prompted the same exclamation - a lofty $29,230. OK, the tester was dressed up with numerous goodies (a power sunroof among them), but even a starting price of $23,790 might give some pause in this segment.
It's best to think of the Jetta GLI as a premium compact, which it is. But it also shares characteristics of a midlevel compact - tight rear-seat quarters among them. Two adults can be comfortable. Add a third to the rear-seat mix and serious flesh-pressing is the likely result.
It's important to remember that the GLI is the most expensive of seven trim levels offered for the 2006 model year.
If you want basic Jetta transportation, it can be had starting as low as $17,900. That will get you a small sedan with a 2.5-liter in-line 5 engine rated at 150 horsepower. That might not get your blood boiling, but the basic Jetta is a nicely equipped entry level sedan.
No wonder Jetta is Volkswagen's most popular model in the United States, accounting for 40 percent of VW brand sales.
So, it boils down to choices.
The basic Jetta will get you where you want to go. The Jetta GLI will get you there quicker, and with an accompanying adrenaline rush. Check your priorities, and do the financial math if you go Jetta-shopping.
For the sport-minded, the GLI will be a tempting, turbocharged package.
VOLKSWAGEN JETTA GLI AT A GLANCE Make/model: 2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, front drive, compact, performance sedan. Base price: $23,790 (as tested, $29,230). Engine: 2-liter, turbocharged in-line 4 with 200 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 207 foot-pounds of torque starting at 1,800 rpm. EPA fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon city; 31 mpg highway. Transmission: Six-speed Tiptronic automatic with overdrive. Steering: Power-assisted electromechanical. Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel discs with anti-lock, electronic brake force distribution and other braking-enhancement features. Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; independent, multi-link on rear (anti-roll bars front and rear). Fuel tank: 14.5 gallons. Cargo volume: 16 cubic feet. Passenger volume: 91 cubic feet. Curb weight: 3,352 pounds. Ground clearance: 5.4 inches. Track: 60.6 inches on front; 59.8 inches on rear. Height: 57.4 inches. Length: 179.3 inches. Wheelbase: 101.5 inches. Width: 70.1 inches. Tires: P225/45R18 performance radials. Final assembly point: Puebla, Mexico.
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