As someone who may or may not have a secret GTI tattoo, I’ve often insisted that the sporty Volkswagen Golf is the best all-around enthusiast car you can buy for less than $30,000. If you’re into that hot-hatch performance but not the hatchback body, the new Jetta GLI looks to mimic the GTI’s soulful, affordable ways. That includes the optional manual transmission that VW nixed for the last Jetta GLI, making this a genuine clutch performer. Is this Jetta really a “GTI with a trunk,” as VW first pitched it as during the GLI’s 1984 debut? Let’s find out.
The Good: Like the best VWs, the Jetta will make owners feel like they’re getting away with something, thanks to a base price that’s about $1,600 less than a GTI. The VW Group’s front-drive MQB architecture, 2.0-liter turbo four and optional dual-clutch automated gearbox are all slick enough to serve duty in vastly more-expensive Audis, including the A3, Q3 and TT. This GLI is sassier looking than the somewhat proletarian Jetta, yet it’s still stealthy; When the kids are getting rousted in their Satan-red Honda Civic Si coupes or Subaru WRX sedans, cops will assume a Jetta GLI is headed to a chamber of commerce luncheon.
Who It’s For: Fresh-out-of-college types who are older (and arguably wiser) than their years. Enthusiasts and tech nerds who appreciate German design and engineering. Anyone who puts a premium on driving dynamics, and wants nothing to do with an SUV.
Watch Out For: The GLI does a fine job of quelling torque steer, but this powerful front-drive sedan — at least the stick-shift model I tested — is vexingly hard to launch smoothly from a standing start. Dropping the clutch from as little as 1,800 rpm produced nasty, jarring axle hop that stunted forward progress. Pro tip: Stick with a patient, rolling start, and the VW’s robust torque will get you back in the race.
Alternatives: The brilliant Honda Civic Si, which can be had as either a sedan or a coupe. There’s also the Subaru WRX, though that AWD model will set you back roughly $2,000 more than the Jetta. And while the Mazda3 no longer offers a genuine Mazdaspeed performance version, it’s still an entertaining and premium small car, albeit underpowered versus the VW.
Review: The current Jetta has good bones and good genes, but it took the GLI treatment to really coax out its inherent appeal. Sporty gains include 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, larger front air inlets, chunkier bumpers, side skirts, a rear spoiler and dual chrome exhaust outlets. The signature red accent stripe of a GTI bisects a black honeycomb grille, literally underlining the performance intent.
But it’s what’s under the VW’s creased hood that counts: The 2.0-liter turbo four makes 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet, 18 horses and 51 pound-feet more than the previous GLI. VW claims the manual GLI sedan weighs just 31 pounds more than its hot hatch cousin, and just 18 more pounds in DSG trim. So with that paddle-shifted gearbox, you’re looking at a brisk 0-60 mph run in about six seconds flat with the dual-clutch gearbox, or a couple ticks more with the old-school stick. That’s almost a second quicker than a Civic Si, and nose-to-nose with a Subaru WRX. This is one quick Jetta.
The GLI makes another good case on value, including several standard features that cost extra on the hatchback: LED headlights, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control and blind-spot and forward collision monitors with automated emergency braking. VW’s latest capacitive infotainment touchscreens, available in 6.5- or 8.0-inch sizes, allow smartphone-style pinches and swipes. Other niceties include a thick-grip leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel and stainless steel pedal caps. Only the top-dog Autobahn trim gets the upscale Volkswagen Digital Cockpit driver’s display and an adaptive suspension with selectable settings.
While the cabin is comfy and well-equipped, it doesn’t exude the almost-an-Audi vibe that makes the GTI such a standout. The sedan’s horizontal dashboard is relatively pedestrian, thanks to both its design and its plasticky trims. Front seats are civilian-issue Jetta chairs with obligatory red stitching, rather than the GTI’s luxuriously bolstered, track-worthy thrones. You can have leather seats in that Autobahn edition, but you can’t have the GTI’s knockout tartan-plaid cloth at any price.
The GLI does a better job of mimicking the hatchback’s overachieving performance. The Jetta’s suspension tuning feels a touch more complaisant, which smooths the ride but mildly dampens the hatchback’s aggressive turn-in and responses. Still, this GLI delivered the goods on some of my favorite backroads in upstate New York, setting a pace through twisties that would make any rival break a sweat to match. The electric-assisted, variable-ratio steering is overboosted for my tastes, but it imbues the Jetta with the brand’s familiar grace under fire.
An electronic limited-slip differential helps the Jetta apply its muscular torque to the pavement when it scoots out of turns. Front brakes come straight outta the mighty Golf R, including huge, 13.4-inch front rotors. Those firm-pedaled brakes ate up all the abuse I could dish out, including on long, curling descents. Pushing the handling envelope eventually summons the understeer, but that’s to be expected; this is still a front-drive Jetta, after all. Pro tip for any buyers: A simple upgrade to summer performance tires would palpably boost those limits.
For the manual version, the clutch-and-shifter combo rate as “good,” rather than the “great” of the Civic Si, thanks to factors like VW’s typically longish throw for the lever. And the manual’s gearing is very tall, so it’s best to wring out the revs to keep the Jetta from falling into the sluggish part of its powerband. But at the end of the day, I’m not complaining; these days, any sporty sedan that offers a stick registers as a delight in my book.
Verdict: Ask me whether I’d personally choose the GLI over the GTI, and the answer is a definite “no.” If you can afford one, you can likely afford the other. The GTI feels like the more-special piece: richer on the inside, a bit more focused and fun to drive, and more practical with hatchback cargo space that rivals some small SUVs. That said, some folks can’t abide a hatchback, including people who still associate the body style with Chevy Chevettes and other woe-is-me econoboxes. Sedans may be struggling in this SUV-besotted marketplace, but the idea that they’re obsolete is a crock. Sedan holdouts will be thoroughly pleased with a Jetta GLI, especially when they nail those brakes and chuck it into a fast corner.
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Specs
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque; six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission; front-wheel-drive
0-60 MPH: 5.6 seconds (automatic), 5.8 seconds (manual) (Car and Driver testing)
Top Speed: 126 mph
Roadholding: 0.98 g (C/D)
EPA Fuel Economy: 25 mpg city, 32 mpg highway
Volkswagen provided this product for review.
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