You may get the idea, from reading this blog, that I am sponsored by Volkswagen. Let me assure you, as much as I would love that, it is not the case. One of the reasons I like that brand, is basically because my first car was a Volkswagen. But that is not the only reason. Not only do good people often drive Volkswagens, but also, the company comes along with some of the most uncommon cars you can imagine. It is Volkswagen after all that brought out the Phaeton, the ultimate unknown luxury car, designed to go against the likes of Bentleys and S-Classes. But before that, they also wanted to go for more accessible targets, such as the BMW 3-Series. They had the car for that segment, the Passat, but for some unknown reason, they wanted the entire range covered, so the mild-mannered Jetta (or Bora in Europe) found itself pitched against one of the most classic cars ever as well.
To do this, Volkswagen needed a six-cylinder engine to provide power and comfort. They had that, in the form of the Verkürzt Reihenmotor Sechs, or VR6 for short. Contrarily to what the name would suggest, the VR6 is not a complete V6 engine, but in fact a straight six with a slight angle of 15 degrees between the cylinders, a straight V6 if you will. The same concept was used in the past in the Lancia Fulvia and its V4 engine. The benefit of this configuration is that it is very compact, meaning you can put a 6 cylinder engine in a Golf. The same idea was further developed for the W range of engines higher up the scale, culminating with the W16 found in the Bugatti Veyron. This VR6 engine first appeared in the third generation Golf, under its eponymous label. It was also the engine that powered the Mk4 Golf R32, albeit in a 3.2 litre form. In the Jetta, this VR6 engine, in a 2.8 litre variant, developed 200bhp, with 264Nm of torque. Does not look like much today, but back in 2003, that was more than enough! In 2003, the VR6 in the Mk4 Jetta was slightly modified compared to previous years, with 24 valves instead of 12, which provided the car with a boost of 25bhp and a more rev-happy character. 2003 also saw the appearance of the GLI range, replacing the GLS.
The particular Jetta VR6 I got to drive was the GLI version. When it was new (and from 2003 onwards), the Mk4 Jetta had two VR6 variants, GLI and GLX, to go against the BMW 3-Series. GLX was the luxury version, available only in automatic, and leather trim, whereas GLI was the more performance-oriented version, with a basic functional interior and available only in manual (how times change!). If you enjoy driving, this was the version for you.
People like to criticize Volkswagens for the blandness of their design. But they are not always bland; you just have to pay attention. Take the Jetta GLI, for example. I like to think that when they were designing it back in the 90s, the Volkswagen engineers had the perfect sleeper car in mind. When you look at it, the GLI looks like any other Jetta. To be frank, it is not the most exciting of designs, but it does age well. Look a little closer however and you will notice the subtle details, such as the racing exhaust, those beautiful 17 inch wheels, and those semi-bucket seats, with a decent amount of bolstering. Get inside, and you will notice that the speedometer that goes up to 260km/h, and the 6,500rpm rev-limiter. The devil really is in the detail in this car. If you opened the bonnet, and gave the engine a quick glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a measly 1.8 litre four cylinder engine given the big plastic cover. Only once you turn the key, do you realize that you are not in an ordinary Jetta.
The sound coming from that sports exhaust is that of a great six-cylinder. To the ear, it is very similar to the legendary BMW straight-six, and only slightly falls in comparison to the legendary Alfa Romeo Arese V6. As you go higher in the revs, the sound just gets sweeter until it becomes a controlled howl. When you start driving the car, you do not get the sensation that you are driving a Golf-derived product. The steering is perfectly weighted, the gearbox is precise and changes gear in short shifts and overall the ride is firm, but comfortable enough. At normal speeds, the suspension absorbs bumps nicely, a good change from the usual “sports suspension”. That VR6 engine is one of the smoothest I have ever driven. Foot down in 5th gear at 2,000rpm, and the car just goes, no questions asked.
This is thanks to the ample torque the engine produces. On the highway, the car just munches the kilometers with ease and is an overtaking machine. I used to think that my old Golf was a cross-country tourer, but this is just in another league. The cabin is all function over form, very Germanic and useful. It is also well equipped, having heated seats, all electric windows, a sunroof and air-conditioning. However, this car being assembled in Mexico, I could not help but feel that with time, it would not hold together as well as its German twin brother. To put that in context, the car I drove may be only 10 years old (with 189,000 kilometres), but the windscreen was leaking and on that day, the handbrake would not work….
As a highway machine, the Jetta GLI is perfect, however, when you start to push the car on the twisty bits, you realize that performance driving is not exactly what it was meant to do.
In the corners the car tends to roll quite a bit, and the front axle does not feel as precise at speed (even if the car I drove had an aftermarket anti-roll bar fitted in the front). There is a big tendency to understeer a lot, due in part to the big engine up front, and overall, you just get the feeling that this is one heavy car (at 1.4 tons, it is). The downside of being a great cross-country tourer I guess. This is one of the reasons why the Jetta VR6 could not compete against the legendary BMW 3-Series. You see, when you push the BMW, it reacts positively, obeying the driver and not feeling lost at all. In the Jetta, you keep getting the impression that this is not what it is meant to do. Part of this, to me, is due to the fact that it is a front-wheel drive car (the Jetta VR6 in North America was a purely front-wheel drive, as opposed to the European Bora V6 4motion, which was four-wheel drive), compared to the proper rear-wheel drive in the BMW. The other reason the Jetta fell short, back in the day was, well, it’s a Jetta, and the BMW is, well, a 3-Series…
Overall, the Jetta GLI VR6 is a great car. Comfortable, quick enough, beautiful engine and reliable. It is also the perfect sleeper car, as it looks just like a Jetta, but has the numbers to rival a 3-Series. However, don’t expect to have that much fun if you take it out on the track…. The reason I would consider buying this car though is that engine. You have to drive a VW VR6 at least once in your life!
A big thank you to Hubert for the chance to drive this legendary machine!
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