Volkswagen's taken flak for the tepid styling of the 2012 Jetta, and while it doesn't move mountains this model year, it moves the needle a bit with the deft little touches that transform the basic four-door into a GLI.
The standard-issue Jetta sedan sits fairly upright, and is good-looking in a traditional way. Versus the last Jetta's overly slick shape (which you can still see on the current SportWagen), the new sedan's facets and creases pay more of an homage to the VWs of the Seventies, and give it a more pronounced outline. That's especially true in front, where a big VW emblem sits on a thin ribbed grille, flanked by angled headlamps that are echoed in blocky taillamps. We kind of miss the pert, high-trunked rear end that made the Jetta a standout in the early 1990s. That car looked exactly like what it was--a trunked Golf--and the Jetta hasn't quite escaped anonymity since. Want proof? Look at the new Hyundai Elantra or Ford Focus to see how a makeover can transform an image.
The Jetta's interior is just as familiar, and the straightforward lines and layout can feel like a welcome respite if you've just climbed out of those other compacts. Still, it can be a penalty box, too: the cost-cutting is evident in lots of low-rent plastic, a disappointing turn away from Volkswagen's industry-benchmark interiors of the early 2000s. Some loving details are worked in among the hard black plastics and open-grained trim--big round gauges are classic VW, and the "leatherette" seats have sporty horizontal ridges, while the shifter’s capped with a stripe of metallic trim. That said it’s nearly impossible to lose your way in this cockpit, even if the pushbutton to start is down in front of the shifter, not up near a standard key slot. You can’t say that for the obtuse Honda Civic dash. With a downmarket tip, the cabin still looks like a Volkswagen, just one best seen from a few feet away.
That's not the case with the new Jetta GLI, nor with the SportWagen. The GLI is spun from the new Jetta body, and shares the base dash structure, but it wears a soft cap on the dash that gives under fingertip pressure. The texture isn't quite as high-grade as before, but it's much better than in the base Jetta. The GLI also is flecked with the details that trigger performance nerves into action: red brake calipers and a lower ride height sharpen its profile, as do optional black 18-inch wheels, and red stitching on the sport seats and the flat-bottomed steering wheel anticipate its brisk performance.
The wagon model still is based on the last-generation Jetta, and has its soft-touch dash intact, with lovely textures and switches and overall quality feel everywhere.