If you've got a family but want a sporty sedan, the GLI is close to perfection.
If you love the idea of a small, sporty car but prefer the more mature, adult lines of a sedan, Volkswagen has offered a sporty version of the Jetta known as the GLI (Grand Luxury Injection) since 1984. For 2019, VW has brought back the GLI nameplate to celebrate its 35th anniversary with the badge now affixed to the latest seventh generation Jetta.
Unlike previous iterations of the GLI, this new one claims to be as close to the Golf GTI hatchback as it has ever been. It's basically a GTI with a trunk. The seventh generation GLI shares the same platform, engine, and transmissions as the GTI and it even borrows its brakes from the Golf R. So with such a tantalizing recipe, can the new GLI throw a little spice into the sporty compact sedan category? VW flew us out to Tennessee so we could find out on the famous Tail of the Dragon.
We released a rather loud yawn when VW revealed the seventh generation Jetta. It isn't ugly by any stretch but it is a bit mundane. We knew once the GLI model arrived, the conservative body lines could be reworked. VW has gone to town equipping with Jetta GLI with more aggressive bodywork including new front and rear bumpers, 18-inch wheels, a black honeycomb grille, rear spoiler, and dual chrome exhaust.
We particularly love the signature red stripe on the grille and red badges on the fenders, which stand out more when the GLI is painted in a color besides Tornado Red. GLI S and Autobahn trims look virtually identical on the exterior but 35th Anniversary models are distinguished with grey wheels with a red lip and 'GLI 35' flitzers (those red badges on the side).
All GLI models borrow the 2.0-liter turbocharged EA888 TSI engine ripped straight out of the Golf GTI. It produces an identical 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque as the GTI going out to the front wheels through a standard six-speed manual or optional seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission. No matter which transmission you select, the EPA says you will get 25/32/28 mpg city/highway/combined. Since the EPA figures are pretty much identical to the Golf GTI, we expect the 0-60 mph times to be similar as well (VW didn't quote official figures).
With an added launch control feature, we expect the DSG to be quicker in the real world. If you plan to tune your GLI, we recommend the DSG because the stock clutch on the manual doesn't handle additional power very well and will need to be upgraded.
The GLI borrows heavily from its Jetta siblings with a clean cabin that has been dressed with a bit of flare from the GTI. Some items like the steering wheel, gauges, and shifter look like GTI parts but unfortunately, the seats come straight from a Jetta SEL. VW has added a unique stripe pattern on the cloth and red stitching on the leather but in terms of bolstering, these are nowhere near as good as the chairs in the GTI. Something that became immediately apparent when tackling the tight bends of the Tail of the Dragon.
VW told us the GTI seats have a different seat railing and simply would not fit in the Jetta due to the lower roofline. On the tight roads, we really missed the added bolstering found in the GTI. The cloth seats also lack the GTI's plaid design as VW says it wanted the GLI's interior to stand apart.
As with the seats, the rest of the interior feels like it falls just short of the GTI's excellent cabin. Material quality is great in some spots, such as the dashboard, but some materials felt cheaper than the surfaces in the GTI. VW execs told us that GLI customers are more sensitive to pricing, so sacrifices had to be made on the interior.
The base 6.5-inch touchscreen looks minuscule by 2019 standards although it does feature Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as standard. Likewise, the gauge cluster information display in the lower trims is monochrome and feels extremely out-of-date plus VW's Digital Cockpit doesn't have the ability to display a map since the GLI doesn't have built-in navigation. Even though some of the GLI's materials don't feel as nice as a GTI, the key touch points such as the steering wheel and shifter are wrapped in high-quality leather.
Based on measurements alone, the Jetta GLI isn't as practical as a Golf GTI. The GLI offers 14.1-cubic feet of trunk space compared to 17.4 cubic feet in the hatch of the GTI. Still, the GLI's trunk feels deceptively large and the seats fold down to allow for extra cargo loading. Unlike older GLI models, this new one relies on cheap hinges instead of more modern hydraulic struts, so you won't be able to pile up junk in the trunk without crushing it.
The tradeoff over a GTI's trunk space comes in the form of rear seat space where the GLI's 37.5-inches of legroom trumps the GTI's 35.6-inches. Since the GLI has a longer wheelbase than the GTI, it is the more effective people hauler at the expense of cargo volume.
Let's get down to brass tacks, the real reason why you buy a Jetta GLI - the way it drives. This is an area the GLI has fallen behind its more successful hatchback sibling. For the seventh generation, VW seems to have put the GLI is a good position to finally get the formula right with the same chassis as the GTI, identical power, a VAQ limited-slip differential, multi-link rear suspension, and 13.4-inch diameter brake rotors from the Golf R.
As soon as you get underway, you realize how fun the GLI can be. All of the controls are light and precise, just like the GTI. Putting the car into its Sport Mode tightens up the steering, throttle, and the suspension on DCC-equipped models. Sport Mode also triggers a fake engine sound in the cabin. You may not like the idea of this but VW has pulled it off successfully. We also enjoyed driving the GLI in Comfort Mode, which lightens up the steering effort and softens up the suspension.
We enjoyed chucking the car around the tight turns of the Tail of the Dragon, especially with the added chassis control provided by the DCC adaptive dampening system. Thanks to its longer wheelbase, the GLI feels more composed over rough pavement than the GTI, so as a daily driver we actually prefer the Jetta to the Golf. The DSG is the smoothest and quickest dual-clutch in the segment and the manual boasts a light clutch and easy-to-master shifter with a slick throw.
The Tail of the Dragon features some extremely narrow turns with vomit-inducing undulations, often requiring a downshift to second gear. On this type of road, we greatly prefer the DSG, which gives you the freedom to focus on your braking and turn-in angle. With the manual, we constantly found ourselves overthinking the perfect heel-toe downshift as we entered apex after apex. If you are a manual enthusiast and love the added challenge, go ahead and opt for the manual. There's probably not much we can do to convince you to get the DSG but it is superb.
The Jetta GLI is offered in three trim levels, each of which can be had with the manual or DSG. Because VW was so determined to stay at a certain price point, the GLI includes some important features as standard but lacks others we wish were optional.
All GLI models include push-button start, dual-zone automatic climate control, blind spot monitoring, heated seats, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Forward Collision Warning, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The base S trim starts at $25,995 for the manual or $26,795 for the DSG. The 35th Anniversary starts at $26,995 for the manual or $27,795 for the DGS and comes with unique badging and the DCC adaptive damping system.
Finally, the Autobahn trim starts at $29,195 for the manual or $29,995 for the DSG, adding in features such as Volkswagen Digital Cockpit display, Beats audio system, ventilated leather seats, a larger eight-inch touchscreen, and a panoramic moonroof. Unfortunately, adaptive cruise control and built-in navigation aren't available on any trim level. The GTI does offer these features but at a significant premium of around $6,000 for an Autobahn trim.
There are cheaper alternatives in the sporty compact sedan segment, including the Honda Civic Si, Kia Forte GT, Hyundai Elantra Sport, and Nissan Sentra Nismo, though all lack the GLI's power and refinement. Only the Subaru WRX manages to best the GLI on power, though it is more expensive, has a stiffer ride, and doesn't include nearly as many standard features. The GLI's pricing and power output put it on a tier of its own.
After driving both transmission types as well as the standard and DCC suspension cars, it's hard to choose a clear winner. If you like to drive aggressively on the track or a back road, we suggest the 35th Anniversary trim since the DCC adaptive dampers do a great job firming up the ride in Sport mode. For those who like to have an abundance of features, the Autobahn is one of the only cars in the compact segment to offer features like ventilated seats and digital gauges. It would be a close call but the rarity of the 35th Anniversary might sway us because VW is only building 3,500 of them.
As for the manual vs DSG debate, we loved them both but would highly suggest the DSG if you plan to tune it or take it to the track. On the narrow twists of the Tail of the Dragon, we felt hampered by the manual and instead preferred the easy speed found with the DSG. This is one of those rare instances where we leave the transmission decision up to you because both are fabulous and you can't lose with either.
For years we have been hoping VW would make the Jetta GLI as good as the Golf GTI. It has come close on a few occasions but the GLI always felt like a half-hearted attempt to make a GTI more appealing to sedan-loving Americans. This seventh generation model is the closest thing to a "GTI with a trunk" that we've ever seen but it still feels somewhat hampered by its attention to price. The seats, interior materials, and head-scratching lack of features make the GLI feel like it just missed out on being a true GTI clone. In terms of sales, the GLI's affordable price will likely work in its favor.
In all of the crucial ways, the GLI still drives like a GTI, which we believe is still the best hot hatch around. For this reason, the GLI's minor foibles don't detract too much away from the overall experience. We believe this new GLI will help keep the sporty sedan segment alive in the US and we highly recommend it as a Must Buy.