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:
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 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. It 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.
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: