I like it. I like the new Volkswagen Jetta GLI a lot and that’s not just because it’s cheap or I got to drive it down the Tail of the Dragon and into Knoxville, Tennessee — though those two points certainly don’t hurt. I like because it performs enormously well and offers everything it has to give generously. I like it because it sounds good and it looks about right and it drives about right. But there’s still a little something missing.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Output: 238 hp, 258 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual, 7-speed DSG
Fuel Economy (MPG): 25 city, 32 highway, 28 combined
Fuel Economy (l/100kms): n/a
Starting Price (USD): $26,890 (dest. incl.)
Starting Price (CAD): $34,067 (all fees incl.)
Fully Loaded Price (USD): $30,090 (dest. incl.)
Fully Loaded Price (CAD): $36,216 (all fees incl.)
What’s missing certainly isn’t value. Starting at around $25,000 with prices only rising to about $30,000 for a fully loaded Autobahn model, the Jetta GLI is a great value. Making around 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque and sending it all through either a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed DSG (both trannies are available regardless of trim), the GLI offers exactly what you’d hope for at a price that inspires a pleased “oh that’s not bad!” The only thing you pay extra for is the luxury, of which there is plenty.
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Shell out for the top end Autobahn model and you can get ventilated front seats, a big screen for infotainment, and an even bigger screen in the instrument binnacle. I was a little surprised to find that my Autobahn model didn’t have navigation, but I suppose that doesn’t matter because it has support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The base model comes with VW’s now tiny old screen, and it’s really starting to look old, but I don’t really care because the GLI of all cars isn’t about luxury. It’s about performance. And that all comes standard.
Performance isn’t missing either. Every GLI comes with VW’s VAQ differential and multilink suspension out back instead of the non-GLI’s torsion beam, regardless of how much you paid. That means that you get all of the performance bits no matter what. All but one, anyway. If you opt for the 35th Anniversary edition Jetta (of which only 3,500 are being produced and which splits the difference price-wise between S and the Autobahn) you also get Dynamic Chassis Control. This gives you adjustable dampers that allegedly give you better road holding abilities and more comfort, but you can safely file that under the nice-to-have-but-not-entirely-necessary category. I mean, if you’re lucky enough to get one of the 35th edition GLIs then great, more power to you, but it’s not the type of thing you should feel bad about not getting.
And that’s because performance is so good generally. A fancy chassis control system is wonderful, but what you really want (and what you really get) is a great chassis with the GLI.
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It won’t come as a surprise that the MQB platform on which the GLI is based is good. Anyone who owns a Golf or a Tiguan or an Atlas or a new Jetta knows that it’s great. It’s probably the best thing VW has going for it these days. And the GLI is a great reminder of why. It grips the road tighter than a frightened toddler grips its mom and is about as agile as a toddler on a sugar rush.
Through the Tail of the Dragon’s many, many tight corners, it showed no tendency towards understeer. That’s partly down to the sticky Hankooks it had on and partly down to the neutral chassis. Yes, you can induce understeer, but it’s hard work. The result is a car that feels remarkably neutral on corner entry.
Then on corner exit, thanks to that VAQ diff, it claws into the road like a zombie clawing its way out of a grave. Included in that simile is the understanding that it’s a little unusual. You can feel the electronically controlled but ultimately mechanical differential working you around your corner, making the wheels to either side of you move at different rates. It’s a little odd but in a good way. And you also get a supernatural amount of front end grip. Grip that is well used by the power the GTI’s engine produces.
Volkswagen’s stalwart 2.0-liter four pot is in fine form here, producing an acceptable 18 more hp than the GLI it replaces and a that’s-more-like-it 58 more lb-ft of torque than the model it replaces. All of this can be felt on the road. The GLI is decidedly in a hurry, producing its torque predictably low down in the curve and because of the diff early in it, too. Jab the throttle and the car will kick you back into your seat and eat miles with satisfying ease.
On the opposite end of the speed-spectrum, the way the GLI slows down is equally impressive. With big front brakes from a Golf R, you can scrub off a surprising amount of speed while maintaining control. The pedal travel is ample, but not excessive, and it acts like a security blanket, giving you more time than you thought you had when the corner comes faster than you were expecting.
It’s good and, of course, it would be. These are familiar ingredients, this is a familiar recipe, so why shouldn’t it be familiar and delicious? That familiarity does breed a certain lack of spice, though. This doesn’t have the strange alchemy of a parts bin special. Rather, it has the familiarity of mom’s meatloaf.
I’m not wholly sure what the missing spice is, though. This, essentially, follows the exact same recipe as the Rabbit Edition GTI, but that somehow feels the slightest bit livelier. It may be down to the way the Jetta looks – appropriate, understated, but not particularly sporty. You can see that in the red accent line on the grille. It’s just orphaned there in the middle of it, like an afterthought.
And inside, too, the Jetta lacks a little verve. With the black-on-black-on-black color scheme that is perfunctory on performance cars, the GLI feels a little dull. With no tartan seats or dimpled shift knob to distract from the ruthless efficiency of the Volkswagen production process, it doesn’t make you feel special. Sure, there’s a big screen (if you pay for it) and a bunch of colors to light yourself with, but that’s all lipstick on the boring porcine interior.
Even its neutralness works against it. Whereas the GTI will let you feel like you’re getting into trouble by wiggling its bum a little off power, the GLI isn’t as eager to shake its moneymaker. The result is confidence-inspiring and impressive, like an interview suit, but it’s not flattering or mischievous, like your favorite pair of going-out jeans.
But, maybe I’m being a bum. It is very good, and very affordable, and the spec sheet is amazing. The manual transmission is as good as you remember and the DSG is good, too. The wheels look nice (to my eye, anyway) and the car looks good (enough), and it does everything right. It doesn’t feel special, but it does feel right.