2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI first drive review: Long live the sport sedan

The Jetta GLI sedan often lives in the shadow of Volkswagen's lovely Golf GTI hatchback. But in fact, there are plenty of reasons to love this turbocharged sport sedan. This new 2019 model makes that more apparent than ever.

The 2019 GLI is offered in S and Autobahn trims, and a special 35th Anniversary Edition slots in between those two. The midrange model commemorates 35 years since the first Jetta GLI launched in 1984, and adds red-accented wheels, a black roof, black mirror caps, a black decklid spoiler and special badging. The 35th Anniversary Edition is also the only Jetta GLI that comes with Volkswagen's Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive damping system -- more on that in a minute.

The new GLI has more aggressive front bumpers with larger air intakes when compared to its more staid Jetta brother.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Under the GLI's hood, you'll find the same 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-four engine as the GTI, putting out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but buyers can opt for a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic instead. Regardless of transmission, Volkswagen says the Jetta GLI is estimated to return 25 miles per gallon in the city, 32 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined.

For GLI duty, the already handsome Jetta sedan gets a muscular updo. The front fascia has a bit more presence, what with its honeycomb grille and larger air intakes. Out back, the GLI gets dual exhaust outlets nestled in a new diffuser.

The GLI can rip up the Dragon with the best of them.

Volkswagen

The GLI gets MacPherson strut and multilink rear suspension geometry, as well as stiffer springs and a 0.6-inch lower ride height than regular Jettas. Behind its 18-inch wheels you'll find upgraded brakes -- 13.4-inch front discs (borrowed from the Golf R hatchback) and 11.8-inch rear discs, all of which are painted red because, you know, that's sporty.

All GLIs come with Normal, Sport, Eco and Custom driving modes, the latter of which allows you to choose individual settings for the steering and throttle. The Jetta GLI also gets Volkswagen's trick VAQ torque-vectoring front differential, along with the company's XDS electronic diff lock, both of which help prevent understeer and improve traction. The 35th Anniversary Edition has another trick up its sleeve by way of Dynamic Chassis Control, which fits adaptive dampers at all four corners. The DCC tech also allows 35th Anniversary Models to add a fifth Comfort setting to the drive-mode roster.

Dragon-approved

These performance upgrades are welcome on my test route, the infamous stretch of US Route 129 near the Tennessee/North Carolina border known as the Tail of the Dragon. Its 318 curves are notorious for their decreasing radii and steep drop-offs, but show off the GLI's great on-road poise.

In a 35th Anniversary Edition tester with the drive mode set to Sport, the GLI is an engaging steer. The steering itself is direct, but lacks feedback; a variable-ratio setup at least makes the car quick to change direction. The dual-clutch transmission is mostly fine when left to its own accord, though it isn't so eager to downshift under braking. Thankfully, a quick flap of the steering wheel-mounted paddle overrides any inherent gearbox laziness. The bigger brakes offer solid stopping power without being grabby.

It's easy to get into a really nice rhythm with the Jetta GLI. Brake, downshift, turn, unwind, throttle. Rinse and repeat. The GLI is nicely composed through the Dragon's myriad turns.

On a less-curvaceous stretch of road, I hop into a manual-transmission GLI. The clutch is light but is easy to get used to, with a take-up point right in the middle of the pedal's travel. The pedals themselves are spaced a bit far apart for me to heel-toe shift, but overall, the manual transmission offers a much more engaging setup. Volkswagen agrees. The six-speed stick may have been dropped from the last-generation Jetta GLI lineup, but Volkswagen product manager Daniel Shapiro assures me, "The manual is back and it's here to stay." Glory, glory hallelujah.

Bland interior with great tech

The GLI's interior doesn't feel more or less special than any other Jetta, 10-color ambient lighting system or no. I wish the GLI got some kind of special treatment like the GTI's iconic plaid seats, but no. Still, the cabin is plenty spacious with lots of room for front and rear passengers, and a generous 14.1 cubic feet of trunk space. It's no cargo-swallowing hatchback like on the GTI, but that's still plenty of room.

One of the Jetta GLI's biggest benefits over the GTI is its available tech, including Volkswagen's superb Digital Cockpit. This excellent tech is only available on the range-topping Autobahn trim, however, as is an 8-inch touchscreen running VW's MIB II infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Lower-spec GLIs make do with a 6.5-inch touchscreen running a less-robust version of this system. The GLI Autobahn offers two USB ports for front seat passengers, while lower models only get one. Womp womp.

Three-pedal glory.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

More tech comes courtesy of forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, all of which are standard. Sadly, if you want adaptive cruise control on this Jetta, you're out of luck.

An affordable alternative

The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI starts at $25,995, not including $895 for destination. That gets you a base S model with a manual transmission. A loaded Autobahn model with the dual-clutch automatic tops out around $30,000. That's about $6,000 less than a GTI Autobahn, and gets you Digital Cockpit. However, the GTI offers adaptive cruise, plus a little more functionality.

Ultimately, we still prefer the Golf GTI to the Jetta GLI, at least after this brief initial test. But we're happy Volkswagen is committed to building this sporty sedan -- not everyone wants a hatchback, after all. With great driving dynamics and excellent infotainment tech, the 2019 Jetta GLI makes a stronger case for itself than ever before.

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