Grown-ups can have fun too. While the Golf GTI has been Volkswagen's flagship symbol of performance for decades now, it has an air of youth to it that implies brashness and naivety. The Volkswagen Jetta GLI, on the other hand, looks more grown-up because it is based on an understated compact sedan, not a hatchback. But ever since the GLI was first introduced in the USA, it has always been hampered in some way compared to its GTI sibling. For the seventh-generation model, this is no longer the case.
The hot sedan segment has heated up recently with the Honda Civic Si, Kia Forte GT, and upcoming Hyundai Elantra N-Line. But the GLI goes into battle well-prepared. Powered by the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-pot found in the GTI, the GLI sends 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels via an electronic limited-slip differential for better handling. A six-speed manual is still standard, thankfully, while a seven-speed DSG (dual-clutch) automatic is an option. The GLI may not have as much trunk and passenger volume as its Golf GTI relative on paper, but its long and large dimensions make it more practical in the real world. It is also far less expensive than the GTI and has a few unique features not found on the hatchback. Is it the best value in the hot sedan segment? Quite possibly. We spent a week in a 2020 GLI Autobahn with the manual to find out.
For the new model year, a few small but meaningful updates have been made to the VW Jetta GLI. Last year's 35th Anniversary trim level is predictably removed from the lineup, while the top Autobahn trim gains more standard features that include wireless charging and DCC, or Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive damping (which was previously only available on the 35th Anniversary). A new Black package with numerous black accents is available as an option on the Autobahn trim, too. The base S trim hasn't been neglected either, as it too now comes with the Car-Net infotainment system and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The GTI's signature red stripe running across the expanded honeycomb grille is featured here too, with LED headlights on each end of the front fascia. A sportier fascia than the one on a regular Jetta is highlighted by black accents too, while 18-inch wheels, a creased shoulder line, and subtle fender badges hint at the increased performance. At the back, LED taillights, a low diffuser, and a pair of exhaust tips in chrome help highlight the taut design. The Autobahn trim also gets a power panoramic sunroof. This is easily the most understated model in the hot sedan segment, making it perfect for buyers who want to blend in rather than stand out.
The dimensions of the Jetta GLI are suitably compact, while a lowered ride height that is 0.6 inches less lofty than on regular Jettas helps with the sporty look. The GLI's height is now 56.8 inches, while width measures 70.8 inches. The length is 185.2 inches with a wheelbase of 105.6 inches. Curb weight is reasonably light, starting at 3,225 lbs.
Both trims of the new Jetta GLI come in a choice of just five exterior colors, with only one adding an extra cost of $295 to your bill: Pure Gray. If that doesn't suit you, Deep Black Pearl adds a classy, business-like look to the sedan while Pure White is clean and simple. Pyrite Silver Metallic is an impressive color too, especially in the sun, as the design flourishes in the bodywork are best highlighted by this hue. Alternatively, the classic Tornado Red finish always goes down well.
Thankfully, Volkswagen still offers its GTI and GLI performance models with a manual gearbox, but those more interested in being quicker or more comfortable in traffic will prefer the optional seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. Although either variant produces 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the quicker-shifting DSG gets from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, whereas the manual lags slightly at just two tenths behind. Regardless of which variant you opt for, top speed is limited to the industry standard of 155 mph. For a car that costs around $30,000, these figures are great (better than its direct competitors), but the Jetta GLI is about much more than just going as fast as possible in a straight line. Thanks to a VAQ electronically controlled limited-slip differential on the front axle, the Jetta's ECU can send up to 100 percent of its output to a single wheel, maximizing your ability to go around corners quickly with as much traction as the conditions allow. This diff works almost like magic, completely eliminating the understeer typically associated with a front-wheel-drive vehicle. With the available adaptive dampers, you can stiffen things up further for more spirited driving while also remaining comfortable on long journeys.
The GLI's key selling point is its outstanding engine, which is shared with the GTI. A 2.0-liter turbo-four produces 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is considerably more than the 1.5-liter engine in the Civic Si or 1.6-liter engines in the Forte GT and Elantra N-Line. Though the engine sounds rough on startup, it eventually smooths out and is helped with some digital enhancement from the cabin speakers in Sport Mode. It still doesn't sound inspiring but the high torque figure lets the GLI overtake with ease, requiring only light throttle inputs for strong acceleration.
As standard, the GLI comes with an easy-to-row six-speed manual. The throws are a bit long for our taste, as is typical for a VW manual, but they are notchy enough to be enjoyable while the clutch is light enough to not become distracting in traffic. The seven-speed DSG is much quicker, but for some reason, it doesn't seem as sharp in this application as it does in the GTI. Buyers should opt for the DSG if they plan to tune the engine on the aftermarket, since the manual will require an expensive upgrade to the clutch. But if you plan to leave it stock, we prefer the row-it-yourself manual.
The GLI may be as unassuming as a grey suit on the outside but it accelerates like a rock star wearing sparkly spandex. VW's VAQ differential virtually eliminates understeer, helping the GLI zip around corners without fuss. Even when you plant the throttle mid-corner, a typical recipe for disaster in a FWD car, the GLI puts the power down easily and carries on its way. We took an Autobahn trim level for a test drive, meaning it included the DCC adaptive chassis control. This suspension system can soften up in the Comfort and Normal Modes and stiffen up in Sport Mode to limit body roll. The GLI provides a comfy ride over rough roads and the stiffer suspension mode is easily noticeable.
Just like the GTI, all of the GLI's inputs like the clutch, transmission, and steering are light, making the car easy to drive quickly. We could fault the GLI for being slightly more numb than its closest competitors like the Civic Si, though some drivers might prefer the lean towards softness in their daily driver. The aforementioned Sport Mode livens things up a bit with sharper throttle response, stiffer suspension, and an enhanced engine note, but the other driving modes including Eco, Comfort, and Normal all felt pretty much the same.
The Jetta GLI, despite its impressive performance, can do the whole fuel-sipping thing pretty well too. Interestingly, the manual is marginally more efficient on the freeway, with EPA gas mileage figures of 25/33/28 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. The DSG automatic is only one mpg behind on the highway cycle and matches figures for the other two. With a fuel tank measuring 13.5 gallons, the estimated range with mixed driving is around the 378-mile mark. We only managed 21.2 mpg in our week of testing with the manual, though we did drive the GLI quite spiritedly.
Simple, ergonomic, and classy, the Jetta GLI's cabin boasts subtle ambient lighting that can be switched between 10 different colors, while the elongated dash increases visual width and helps the spacious interior feel all the more so. Infotainment is taken care of via either a 6.5-inch or an eight-inch touchscreen display, and the top trim also gets a 10.3-inch Digital Cockpit display. Heated front seats are standard on both models too, with ventilation added to the Autobahn model. As always, the build quality is exemplarily solid and the various features all work perfectly.
The Jetta GLI is a five-seater, and although its trunk is technically smaller than the cargo area of the Golf, you do get massive rear legroom (37.4 inches), putting it near the top of the compact sedan segment. That said, the side bolsters that you get in the Golf GTI are conspicuously absent here, a by-product of packaging issues. Nevertheless, six-footers will be well accommodated back there or in the front, with a good amount of space for headroom. In the front, the steering wheel and seats are easy to adjust and allow for enough range of motion for you to sit low. You'll never sit as low as in something like a convertible sports car, but it's more than enough to give you that feeling. In addition, all the controls are within easy reach - something that some manufacturers tend to overlook.
If you expected the GTI's iconic tartan interior to be carried over to the GLI, you may be disappointed to find that while the S variant's interior features cloth upholstery with red contrast stitching, a two-tone Titan Black fabric is applied to the Jetta GLI's seats. In a way, this makes sense and keeps the GTI special, with that specific nameplate being the only trim level on VW products to boast tartan. Nevertheless, you still get a leather gear-lever boot and a leather-clad steering wheel. Various soft-touch plastics help lift the interior ambiance a little, too. On the Autobahn model, fabric is swapped out for monochromatic Titan Black leather, with the same sort of accent stitching reappearing along with stainless steel pedal covers. The GTI also gets suspiciously softer and more premium materials inside, a by-product of its higher price tag.
Cargo volume is measured at 14.1 cubic feet, considerably less than what the hatchback Golf GTI offers (17.4 cubic feet), but with a large, long opening and a deep trunk, you can fit four medium to large suitcases with relative ease. However, one should always be mindful of the trunk hinges, as the Jetta doesn't use shocks, so the trunk lid supports can end up squashing poorly placed items.
In the cabin, you'll find capacious door pockets, four cupholders, and generous center armrest storage. A decent glovebox is also included along with a slot in the center console for loose change and a bin under the climate controls for your phone.
As standard, the Jetta GLI comes with 10-color ambient lighting, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, push-button start, and remote entry. You also get automatic LED headlights, an electronic limited-slip differential, and rain-sensing wipers. Forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, as well as post-collision braking are included too.
On the upper Autobahn trim, ventilated front seats, a 10.3-inch configurable digital driver info display, power-adjustment for the driver's seat, and a panoramic sunroof are all included. You also get a performance monitor that can show you things like how much power the engine is producing.
The base model of the Jetta GLI is equipped with a small 6.5-inch touchscreen display hooked up to VW's Car-Net infotainment system. A USB port, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, along with Bluetooth audio streaming and SiriusXM satellite radio. On the more expensive model, the touchscreen is upgraded to an eight-inch version and a second USB port is added, this time in the back. In addition, the sound system gets overhauled with a BeatsAudio eight-speaker setup. If you go for the base version, fret not. Both work well, are easy to understand, and respond quickly. Naturally, the larger screen is better for adjusting things as you drive with crisp images, but steering wheel controls help keep your eyes where they should be. The Autobahn also gains access to VW's Digital Cockpit, which replaces the analog gauges for a 10.3-inch screen. Unfortunately, built-in navigation is not available on the GLI, so Virtual Cockpit's ability to show a full-color map is not available here, rendering it a bit silly.
No variant of the VW Jetta has been subject to any recalls for 2020, and neither the Golf GTI from which the engine is borrowed nor the faster Golf R from which the front brakes are lifted has been under scrutiny for defective parts either. J.D. Power has not supplied a reliability rating for the sedan either.
Should anything go wrong, the Jetta GLI is backed by a four-year/50,000-mile limited/powertrain warranty. In addition, two years or 20,000 miles of complimentary scheduled maintenance are included.
In review of the Jetta GLI, the NHTSA scored an overall safety rating of five stars out of five, although frontal crash tests only earned the GLI a four-star rating. Reviews of the VW Jetta GLI over at the IIHS resulted in the best possible rating of Good, but headlights let the car down slightly with a score of Marginal - one above the worst rating of Poor. Mirroring what the NHTSA found, the structure (for the small overlap front: passenger-side test) also got a rating of Acceptable rather than Good.
As standard, both variants of the Jetta GLI are equipped with a rearview camera and six airbags. These include front and side airbags for occupants in front and side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers. The usual anti-lock brakes and stability control systems feature too. Impressively, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking is standard too, as is a post-collision braking system, blind-spot monitoring, and rear traffic alert. A post-crash fuel shutoff system is supplemented by automatic unlocking of the doors and activation of the hazard lights.
Save for a few minor details like the dashboard materials and lack of bolstered seats, the Jetta GLI finally feels like it is on par with the Golf GTI. Those deficits can easily be overlooked when factoring in the Jetta GLI's price, which is thousands less than an equivalent GTI. This comes at a time when the GLI is facing its toughest competition yet in the form of the excellent Honda Civic Si and new additions from South Korea like the Kia Forte GT and Hyundai Elantra N-Line. Volkswagen has come prepared with the most powerful engine in this group, the option of a six-speed manual or dual-clutch transmission, impressive passenger and cargo space, and a reasonable price that's only moderately higher than its competitors.
The GLI doesn't feel like the sharpest driver's car in its segment but it does feel the most luxurious and comfortable and it is by far the quickest. Those who value power and performance over raw driving feel will find solace knowing that the GLI should blow the doors off the Civic, Forte, and Elantra when it meets them at a set of lights. There may be other options available but the Jetta GLI still feels like a highly compelling option if you are spending under $30,000.
In base spec, the Jetta GLI S trim is labeled with a starting price of $26,245 before a $920 destination charge. The slightly more premium Autobahn model has an MSRP of $29,945 before the same additional charge. Opting for the DSG transmission on either variant adds $800 to the final price, and a fully loaded GLI, which only adds small accessories, won't set you back more than $35,000.
The 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI comes in just two trims in the US: S and Autobahn. Both are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-pot with 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is standard and sends power to the front wheels via an electronic LSD, or you can opt for a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. 18-inch alloy wheels are standard, too.
The base S model features cloth upholstery with red accent stitching, ambient lighting, heated front seats, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with SiriusXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a USB port, and a Wi-Fi hotspot. Dual-zone climate control and push-button start are also included along with LED headlights and heated power mirrors, as well as forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking.
The Autobahn model builds on the S with leather upholstery and a larger eight-inch touchscreen. It also gets a 10.3-inch digital driver display, a BeatsAudio 10-speaker sound system, and an additional USB port. Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive damping, a panoramic sunroof, a power driver's seat, and ventilation for both front seats are added too.
What you see is what you get with the GLI range. The only real option that changes either of the configurations of the GLI considerably is the $800 dual-clutch transmission. Further than that, accessories can be added to make the car more practical. These include a THULE roof basket for $330, a tablet holder for $110, a roof box for $699, roof rails for $365, manual rear sunshades for $270, or a remote start kit (for the DSG) at $405. Self-leveling wheel center caps can also be added for $172.
The base Jetta GLI is a good car, but we'd opt for the Autobahn. With its large sunroof, up-sized touchscreen infotainment display, upgraded eight-speaker sound system, and adaptive dampers, the Autobahn adds impressive features for just over three grand more. In addition, this trim adds ventilation to the standard heated front seats and gets a gorgeous 10.3-inch Digital Cockpit digital driver display. The leather upholstery is another nice touch and helps elevate the Jetta GLI above more vanilla models with which it shares a seat design. We'd also stick with the manual, offering an engaging and fun drive with no delays on downshifts beyond your own arm speed.
We've referenced the Golf GTI throughout this review because the Jetta aims to be an almost identical vehicle with a trunk instead of a hatchback. While the hatchback has its benefits in a larger cargo area and better handling thanks to a shorter wheelbase, the increased length of the Jetta GLI means that rear legroom is considerably better. In addition, while the GTI has more supportive seats and a more appealing interior thanks to its classic layout, the GLI is almost two grand cheaper. In addition, the Jetta was redesigned more recently, and until the new GTI arrives in 2021, the GLI claims a more modern interior. Essentially, each of these vehicles has its own strengths and weaknesses and choosing between them will be tricky. If you want more space and a slightly more modern interior, the Jetta GLI is the one to go for. If you prefer wringing your car's neck and pushing the limits at every opportunity, the Golf GTI will likely suit you better.
The Honda Civic Si sedan is one of our favorite cars for its affordable base price ($25,200) and its astonishingly good handling and performance. With a 1.5-liter turbo-four, the Civic Si produces 23 hp and 66 lb-ft of torque less than the Jetta GLI. It's slower in comparison to the GLI too, with a top speed of around 137 mph versus the GLI's 155 mph. The Jetta is attractive to a wider range of buyers too, thanks to the option of a dual-clutch automatic whereas the Honda only comes with a manual gearbox. Nevertheless, the Civic Si is not to be ignored. It has a simple but attractive interior with supportive seats and boasts a willingness to be thrashed and cornering ability that the Jetta can't quite provide. If you're a serious driving enthusiast, the Honda won't let you down and will even save you money at the pumps. If you prefer a bit more luxury, the Jetta is a better all-rounder.
Check out some informative Volkswagen Jetta GLI video reviews below.