"You're driving a Jeddah?" a confused friend of mine asked me when I told him I was test-driving a Jetta. Obviously my Australian accent was broader than usual that day and I had to make it perfectly clear I was not driving a car that had been named in honour of a Saudi Arabian city - although with the female driving ban in the Kingdom next door, the irony of me, a mere lady, driving a car with a such a name would have been rather amusing.
No, instead, I had been handed the keys to a Volkswagen Jetta GLI, newly released in the Middle East, although it has appeared elsewhere in the world. For my money, the best thing about this car is the engine. It's the same power unit that makes the new Volkswagen Golf GTI one of the best cars on the market at the moment. The Jetta GLI, a four-door saloon, is inevitably going to be a bit heavier than the hot hatch Golf GTI and thus the power-to-weight ratio won't be quite as sweet, but it was still a lot of fun to tool around town in.
Combine the lovely engine with the terrific gearbox - again, the same one from the Golf GTI, and you have a car that mixes practicality with fun. The gearbox has a normal automatic for stop-start traffic driving, a Sports mode which gives you a zesty injection of power, especially when overtaking, a sequential manual mode on the floor and paddle shifters for those Lewis Hamilton-wannabe moments. Unlike some cars that have paddle shifters that you could hang a man from, the VW paddles are light and delicate, almost ladylike. Gear changes are precise and having six speeds to play with makes it entertaining as well as more economical.
Aesthetically, it's rather attractive too - the aggressive-looking wheels hint at the power that it's capable of and the honeycomb grille, coloured brake callipers and pin-striping are all nice, sporty touches. The one I borrowed was a stunning, rich red. Sure, Ferrari might rule the red roost with their trademarked, unmistakable shade of rouge but this red is also very eye-catching indeed. Reds don't always work so well on cars. Indeed, the Jetta's a nicer red than its Audi stablemate and way more appealing than a shade of red that featured on 1966-1970 Ford Cortinas and was given a nickname pertaining to animal anatomy that is not suitable for a family newspaper. But enough about that. It looks great on the outside and the inside ain't half bad, either. The interior styling is conservatively sporty - I would love to see the red Jetta coupled with the dazzling red plaid interior that's an option on the Golf GTI, but the black leather seats on the Jetta were rather nice too.
A few blogs and online forums in the Middle East have slammed Jettas for being boring and, sure, previous Jettas haven't exactly stirred passions among petrolheads, but I do wonder how many of these armchair experts have actually dragged themselves away from their computers and taken the GLI for a good thrashing? The engine delivers 200 horses and maximum torque of 280 Nm, enabling it to hold its own on the motorway, but what really added to the fun factor was the car's excellent agility.
I may be a stereotypical SUV driver but, while I always miss the height when I'm testing saloon cars, I love the way a smaller car can be tossed around corners. It was sharp, easy to manoeuvre, and was a dream to park, even in Abu Dhabi's most hellish car park. It's the one opposite Abu Dhabi Mall in front of the Khalifa Building and it is guaranteed to turn the most patient and saintly driver into a gurgling, twitching pit of rage.
The combination of free parking, the complete inability of many drivers here to accurately park between white lines and the shameless inventing of spaces when there are technically none on offer, makes this car park an exercise in frustration - and a test of skill on a par with steering through a slalom without spilling the hot cup of coffee in your lap. I was reluctant to park a car that was not mine in this car park but I had no choice. It was either park there or spend the rest of my life driving around in circles.
I was able to spot a Jetta-sized space, although it required every ounce of my parking nerd skills to get in, but it slipped in nicely. Getting out again, weaving around inconsiderately parked Prados and a particularly obnoxious Chevy Blazer proved a breeze thanks to the nimble nature of the GLI - and the parking fairy was smiling on me, as nobody did the time-honoured trick of smacking into my car and then driving off.
The more I drove the Jetta, the more fun I had with it - the blogging, online forum-dwelling naysayers clearly don't know what they're talking about. Jetta is certainly a more appropriate name for this car than Jeddah as there was nothing particularly ladylike about the number of speed cameras I tickled in my travels. It wasn't at all big of me to get flashed so readily, but the Jetta GLI is definitely a clever car.