by Deiondre van der Merwe
Ever wondered what a Golf GTI in sedan form could accomplish? The Volkswagen Jetta GLI is that fantasy come to life. The GLI has always trailed behind the flagship Golf GTI models as a consolation prize for those who wanted a hot hatchback but didn't have the budget for it, but in many ways, this isn't a bad thing. Think of it as that song you always skip but one day you listen to it and realize it's actually damn good. It's VW's answer to the Kia Forte GT and the Honda Civic Si, but is that answer good enough? Well, the unsuspecting Volkswagen borrows its 228-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo from the GTI and also offers a manual option, making it viable to keep the GLI on your shopping list. Could this be the next big thing in the USA for performance enthusiasts? Maybe. It has an admirable amount of tech and comfort to offer and it's rather practical for an entry-level performance car, so at the outset, the GLI looks like a winner.
The Jetta GLI for 2021 rolls over unchanged from 2020 aside from new safety features for the Autobahn trim that includes lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. A new infotainment system also appears on this trim in the form of the MIB3 Infotainment suite.
See trim levels and configurations:
The GLI's exterior styling is slightly lukewarm in comparison to its esteemed hatch sibling, the GTI. That being said, it's certainly not boring. The GLI's front end is home to a set of geometric C-shaped LED headlights that sit on either side of the trademark honeycomb grille. The thin red stripe across the snout denotes its performance focus along with the red GLI badging. Sharp taillights sit under a subtle spoiler and a set of two exhaust openings poke out from either side of the conservative diffuser. Both trim levels get 18-inch wheels as standard, but only the Autobahn gets a panoramic sunroof.
The Jetta GLI's dimensions make it bigger than both the Civic Si and the Kia Forte GT. Its length is where its larger size stands out the most with a measurement of 185.2 inches stretched over a 105.6-inch wheelbase. It has a width of 70.8 inches and stands 57.9 inches tall. It sits relatively low to the ground and has a 5.5-inch ground clearance. The curb weight for the entry-level trim is 3,228 pounds, which is heavier than the Civic Si, while the DSG pushes this weight up to 3,294 lbs.
The Jetta GLI is available in your choice of five colors. No-cost options include Deep Black Pearl and Pyrite Silver Metallic from the metallic palette and Pure White and Tornado Red from the solid swatches. Only Pure Gray asks a $295 premium. On the Autobahn, Pure Gray, Pure White, and Tornado Red can all be paired with black detailing, but this required the $595 Black Package for a black roof and other elements.
Not many people associate thrilling performance with a Jetta in their minds, but the GLI is here to change that. It's not a track fiend by any means, but the GLI is a determined little sedan that'll bring some excitement to your daily commute. We think of these cars as the perfect starting point for young performance enthusiasts, but they'll be just as rewarding for more experienced drivers. Those who opt for the 2.0-liter turbo to be mated to the six-speed manual transmission can expect a run from 0 to 60 mph in under six seconds, more than half a second quicker than the Civic Si.
Opting for the snappier seven-speed DSG cuts the run to 60 mph down by a few tenths. Both models have a top speed that's limited to 126 mph. While the Jetta's ability to briskly accelerate from point A to point B is impressive, Volkswagen has ensured that the GLI will remain composed in and out of the corners. This is thanks to the limited-slip differential in the front that controls outputs to each wheel, managing traction expertly.
An undeniable bragging point that the GLI has is its engine. The top-tier Jetta borrows its motor from the Golf GTI, giving it a distinct advantage over its competitors. The cult-classic 2.0-liter turbo has been a favorite among gearheads for many years, so it's a welcome power plant for the GLI. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger pushes out 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. These are impressive power outputs in general for a vehicle at this price point, but it stands out even more when you put it next to its rivals from Honda and Kia. The Civic Si manages 205 hp and 192 lb-ft and is solely available in manual guise. The Forte GT's 1.6-liter turbo produces 201 hp and 197 lb-ft.
You'll get the choice between a six-speed manual transmission or the esteemed seven-speed DSG. The former will undoubtedly appeal to purists, but it's not as snappy as we would have liked it to be. The DSG is far more eager to flit through gears, but it seems slightly sedate in comparison to the setup on the Golf GTI.
Simply put, the Jetta GLI is fun wrapped up in a really unassuming package. From the outside, it looks like a reserved sedan that's designed to get the kids to school. The thing is, it'll do that and then some. Unlike the base Jetta's less sporty torsion-beam suspension, the GLI gets a firmer multi-link version that makes it far more suitable for a twisty road. That doesn't mean that it sacrifices any comfort though, the GLI still manages to boast a compliant ride. Optionally available adaptive dampers will also improve the GLI's approach to speedy shenanigans, keeping it firmly glued down in and out of the bends.
The GLI's best selling point is that it's a double-edged sword. It makes a cheeky Sunday drive a truly entertaining exercise but will gladly oblige if all you want is a relaxed road trip with the family. Is it as thrilling as the GTI? Maybe not, but it's damn close.
The Jetta GLI is superior to its rivals in many areas, but fuel economy isn't one of them. The 2.0-liter turbo hooked up with the manual transmission returns EPA estimates of 24/33/28 mpg. The Kia Forte GT's 1.6-liter engine returned similar figures of 25/32/28 mpg, but both are vastly outshined by the Honda Civic Si's estimates. The Japanese sedan is the most frugal of them all, returning figures of 29/37/32 mpg. DSG-equipped versions of the GLI return figures of 24/35/28 mpg, similar to the manual models.
When the 13.2-gallon fuel tank is at full capacity, the Jetta will allow for around 370 miles of range.
The inside of the Jetta is similar to what you'd find on most of Volkswagen's more premium products. Unsurprisingly, the interior bears a striking resemblance to the Golf GTI. Bits of red stitching and leather-clad seats differentiate it from the regular Jetta. The infotainment setup is slightly angled toward the driver, making it easier to operate in a pinch. The overall design of the cabin stays true to Volkswagen's classic design. Clean lines and large digital surfaces contribute to the GLI's handsome interior, but some surfaces feel a little budget in quality. The VW is noticeably ahead of its rivals in terms of interior design, though the Forte GT puts up a good fight. The GLI also excels at offering a manageable amount of space for a small family.
The GLI's compact dimensions may lead you to assume that it doesn't have a whole lot of space to offer on the inside. Fortunately, the Jetta uses every inch of space wisely. It boasts a significant amount of extra space at the rear in comparison to the Golf GTI, making it the more suitable option for those who regularly have a full car. The five-seater offers plenty of space for taller adults at the rear with 37.1 inches of legroom to the front occupants' 41.1. The generously-sized center console encroaches on space in the front, and those who regularly enjoy Taco Bell will likely knock their knees against it often. The seats are not as aggressively bolstered as the GTI, but they're comfortable and supportive enough to avoid any real complaints.
Volkswagen is so self-assured in its design choices that it builds the new Jetta GLI available with just one upholstery option per model, and those who were expecting iconic GTI characteristics for the GLI's interior will be disappointed. That being said, the inside of both GLI models give a sporty feeling, even if the lower trim is slightly cut-rate in comparison to the Autobahn model. The S model comes with Titan Black cloth upholstery that's accented with red stitching. The top-tier trim welcomes leather upholstery in Titan Black that's also got some red accents. Other bits that allude to the GLI's penchant for green-light launches include a set of stainless steel pedals, a leather-clad steering wheel, and a red-stitched gearshift. DSG-equipped models get a little more tactile enhancement by virtue of paddle shifters and an aluminum shift lever.
It's true, the Jetta does have less trunk space to offer in comparison to the GTI. It also offers less cargo space than most of its rivals. In the trunk, you have 14.1 cubic feet of space to work with for luggage or gym bags. This is significantly less space than the Kia Forte GT's 15.3 cubes. It's only slightly smaller than the Civic SI's trunk that offers 14.7 cubic feet. It's not all bad, the space is manageable for the most part and the standard 60/40-split rear seats open up a good amount of space for transporting larger items.
Storage in the cabin is accommodating and you have plenty of space to store smaller items. The glove compartment is big enough to store your mistress's toiletry bag and four cupholders are standard. The door pockets are deep enough and there's a bin beneath the infotainment that will easily keep your phone out of harm's way.
The GLI delivers quite a bit of bang for your buck, providing a decent amount of comfort and convenience even at entry level. The S model gets keyless entry, push-button start, and dual-zone climate control as well as a multifunction steering wheel, an electric handbrake, and 10-color ambient lighting for the interior. Heated front seats and a six-way manually-adjustable driver's seat are both included. As for safety, the base model gets a rearview camera, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and blind-spot monitoring. Rear cross-traffic alert rounds off the list for the S trim.
Added to the Autobahn is a panoramic sunroof, ventilation for the front seats, and a six-way power-adjustable driver's seat. The front seats on this trim also add adjustable lumbar support, while wireless charging adds extra convenience. The top-level trim also adds lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.
The infotainment set-up is possibly the biggest differentiator between the two models. The base-level S comes standard with a 6.5-inch touchscreen that enables App-Connect functionality, essentially Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Bluetooth streaming is also enabled along with AM/FM radio. A six-speaker sound system is standard.
Autobahn models get a revised set-up that adds a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, an eight-inch touchscreen, and HD Radio. Wireless App-Connect makes it easier to link a smart device, and an eight-speaker, 400-watt BeatsAudio sound system improves audio quality.
The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI hasn't been recalled so far but the 2020 model was recalled once for improperly welded backrests on the front seats. If reliability is a primary concern of yours, the Jetta comes standard with a four-year or 50,000 miles. The drivetrain warranty is valid for the same time period and mileage limit, but the corrosion warranty is valid for five years or 100,000 miles. You'll enjoy roadside assistance for three years or 36,000 miles.
The NHTSA's review of the Jetta GLI resulted in a five-out-of-five star rating. Notably, its frontal crash ratings were not as high as other areas in the review. The IIHS also gave the Jetta score of "Good" in almost every category. It scored a moderate rating for its headlights though. The VW Jetta GLI's reviews in terms of safety should reassure those who are concerned about the sedan's ability to keep them out of harm's way.
The standard suite of safety features on the entry-level GLI is generous, but it's the Autobahn that comes truly loaded with driver-assist tech. The S model's traditional features include dual front and side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags for a total of six, as well as electronic stability control and rain-sensing windshield wipers. On the tech side, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and blind-spot monitoring are included. The Autobahn adds lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.
The Jetta GLI manages to shine despite the seriously tough competition it faces. Sure, it has its flaws. The trunk could be bigger and the fuel economy could be slightly better in comparison to rivals, but we're hard-pressed to find true flaws that turn us off. It comes with an asking price lower than the GTI's but offers many of the same attributes despite that.
The GLI has the most powerful motor out of all of its rivals and is notably quicker than all of them. And for that, it only asks for slightly more of your hard-earned money. It may not be the most exciting of its counterparts, but it's inarguably the most luxurious and delivers an excellent amount of standard tech and convenience items. TIt doesn't have the in-your-face styling of the Civic Si, but we take pleasure in the fact that the conservative-looking Jetta will leave the automotive equivalent of snapbacks and creatine supplements in the dust.
A large chunk of the GLI's appeal is its affordable MSRP. The price of the Jetta GLI starts at $26,345 for the manual-equipped version. The DSG-equipped S will set you back by $27,145. If you're getting the top-tier Autobahn with the manual transmission, the base price starts at $30,745 while the DSG version will increase the price to $31,545. The cost of the Jetta is exclusive of the $995 destination fee.
The VW Jetta GLI lineup consists of two configurations in the US: the S and the Autobahn. Both of them are powered by a 2.0-liter turbo that produces 228 horsepower. You'll have the choice between a six-speed manual transmission and a seven-speed DSG. Both models are exclusively available with FWD.
The S model comes standard with keyless entry, push-button start, dual-zone climate control a multifunction steering wheel, an electric handbrake, 10-color ambient lighting, heated front seats, and a six-way manually-adjustable driver's seat. The infotainment setup includes a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Bluetooth streaming is standard along with a six-speaker sound system. Standard safety features include a rearview camera, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear traffic alert.
The Autobahn adds a couple of convenience features including a panoramic sunroof, ventilation for the front seats and a six-way power-adjustable driver's seat with lumbar adjustment. Infotainment is vastly improved by the addition of a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, an eight-inch touchscreen, HD Radio, wireless charging, and an eight-speaker BeatsAudio sound system. The top spec also equips lane departure warning, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
Volkswagen doesn't offer much in the way of add-ons for the Jetta GLI. You'll have to have a look at what each of the trims offer and make a decision based on that. The only real upgrade would be the choice between a manual transmission and the DSG, the latter costs $800 to add. There are minor add-ons that make the Jetta GLI a little easier to live with including roof rails that cost $365 and a roof box for $699.
If you fancy a Jetta GLI because it's got a decent engine and a good amount of practicality to offer, the S trim is for you. It's the more affordable of the two, so those on tight budgets will likely stick with that one. If you're going to be pushing the GLI's limits and want the ultimate interior setup, the Autobahn is the winner. It vastly improves the tech offering with a digital gauge cluster and superior infotainment and adds performance bits like adaptive damping suspension that makes it the better of the two in terms of handling and comfort.
Given that they share a ton of DNA, there are some similarities between these two models from Volkswagen. Think of the Jetta as the GLI's less adventurous twin sister. The former will offer fewer standard features at a base level, but it's significantly less expensive than the GLI. The main difference between the two is that the GLI gets the 2.0-liter turbo from the Golf GTI and the regular Jetta relies on a 1.4-liter four-pot to get the job done. Additionally, the GLI gets performance multi-link rear suspension so it can handle whatever you throw it at. The interiors of the two not-so-sports cars also have their differences, with the GLI boasting red stitching and more premium materials. The better car for you will ultimately depend on whether you're shopping for. If you want an economical daily driver, get the Jetta, but if you want a performance car on a budget, G, L, and I are the three letters you need in your life.
The Civic Si is possibly the GLI's toughest rival. Both of them cost under $30k to start, but the Civic Si is cheaper at the base level than the Jetta. The Jetta has understated styling where the Civic Si has a far more aggressive appearance. In terms of interior quality, the GLI is superior, but the Si is a more spacious companion. Those who consider safety features a priority will find the Civic more attractive as it offers more driver-assist tech throughout its lineup. However, on the performance front, the GLI's 228-hp 2.0-liter is more powerful than the Civic Si's 1.5-liter unit that produces 205 horsepower, and the the Jetta will reach 60 mph quicker from a standstill. Still, the Civic is a little more fun to drive. It's a close race that'll likely come down to brand preference, so we recommend a test drive of each.
The most popular competitors of 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: