Germany's least-expensive sport sedan turns in a winner's performance with an asterisk or two.
First cars are important. Whether pristine, new and gleaming, or tired, old and steaming, they're among most people's first tastes of adulthood and freedom. Those memories -- both positive and negative -- stick with us forever. By the time I got my first set of keys in high school, I was already a big car enthusiast. My first car, a European-spec 1986 Volkswagen Jetta GLI with around 100,000 miles of, let's call it "seasoning," helped set me on trajectory that led me to my life's work in automotive journalism.
In other words, the GLI is kind of important to Yours Truly. Thus, it should come as no surprise that climbing into this 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is freighted with nostalgia and meaning for me, even if the new model has almost nothing in common with the square-rigged, high-trunked Mk2 I used to own.
That car offered fun, affordable performance in a sleek (if somewhat milquetoast) wrapper with surprising utility. One glance at this new 2019 VW GLI tells much the same story. Yes, this sixth-gen model has a different look from the Jetta it's based on, but it's subtle. There's more aggressive front and rear lower fascias, subtle side sills and a modest rear spoiler, along with unique 18-inch alloys. There's no denying it's still buttoned-up stuff.
The GLI's most noticeable styling departure is arguably its blacked-out grille, and to my eyes, it's actually the model's least successful design element. Like GLIs past and its hatchback GTI kin, there's a prominent red trim line that ties together the LED daytime running lamps, but it's the weirdly exaggerated open honeycomb treatment itself that seems a bit odd.
Speaking of its GTI brethren, this Jetta GLI inherits most of that excellent hatchback's performance goodies. As you'd expect, there's a version of VW's ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged TSI four-cylinder engine, tuned here to develop 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. For those keeping score, those are increases of 18 hp and 51 lb-ft over the outgoing GLI, and they're streets ahead of the 1.4-liter you get in today's standard Jetta, an inline four that delivers a comparatively paltry 147 hp buoyed by a decent 184 lb-ft.
My test car features a six-speed manual (yes, it's back!) with easy and accurate but long-feeling throws. A quick-shifting, seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox (like the one seen in our man Antuan Goodwin's review video and photos on this page) is also available.
Regardless of which transmission you choose, fuel economy is pegged at 25 miles per gallon city, 32 mpg highway and 28 combined -- reasonable, if unremarkable stuff.
As the aforementioned power figures suggest, however, performance from this engine is gutsy, thanks to particularly strong low-end torque. While the clutch uptake could be slightly more progressive to aid in quick, smooth launches, the GLI's driveline otherwise has no trouble getting its power to the ground. Get used to the leftmost pedal's action and you'll be rewarded with a 0-to-60 mile-per-hour time of around 6 seconds. Sadly, you won't be rewarded with an interesting accompanying soundtrack.
Even when you're not in a straight line, this front-wheel driver has no trouble putting its power down. Thanks in part to the GLI's stout MQB platform, VAQ limited-slip differential with XDS electronic locking technology and grippy 18-inch 225/45-series Hankook Ventus S1 Evo 3 rubber, the GLI hooks up and goes, whether ripping away from a stoplight, slingshotting out of a hairpin or intentionally pouring on too much power on an onramp just for a moment's amusement on a morning commute.
In the latter situations, the GLI resorts to safety-first understeer -- there's little evidence of a twitchy rear end like my '86. (Like its GTI sibling, my old car would regularly lift its inner wheel like a dog at a fire hydrant under hard cornering.) It's perhaps a bit less dramatic, but the GLI receives a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension instead of the standard Jetta's cost-savings torsion beam, aiding in both friendlier and more capable handling. The fully independent setup is lifted wholesale from the GTI, right down to the springs and front sway bars, though the diameter of the rear anti-roll bar is up by a skosh to 21.7 millimeters.
The variable-ratio steering system is also up for your favorite winding road, with a quick 2.1-turns lock-to-lock and reasonably good road feel. The GLI also gets 13.4-inch vented front discs swiped from the Golf R, though the rear brakes are modest 11.8-inch solid pieces. While I didn't have a racetrack or a convenient mountain roads to fling this car around during my week with the car, suffice it to say that this car had plenty of consistent and easy to modulate stopping power.
On the upscale 35th Anniversary model, the GLI is fitted with Volkswagen's DCC adaptive dampers. While my very reasonably priced tester went without this feature, I didn't miss it. The base passive system is well sorted -- it doesn't beat you up on bumpy roads (particularly important to me, as that's the only kind of surface greater Detroit offers), yet it still handles keenly if you happen to luck upon a piece of spaghetti tarmac.
DCC-equipped GLIs also get an additional drive mode, Comfort, on top of the four settings of my S model: Normal, Sport, Eco and Custom, the latter of which allows the driver to tune the steering, throttle, differential, engine sound and climate control settings to suit their preference. You likely won't feel the need to monkey around with the settings much, and frankly, even with the exhaust note turned up, the GLI still sounds a bit too reserved for its own good.
My reasonably priced, option-free, manual-transmission S test car rides on no-charge summer tires and wears a $25,995 price tag -- $26,890 including $895 destination fee. Just like my old Mk2, that makes today's GLI the cheapest German sport sedan you can buy in America today by a country mile. In fact, adjusted for inflation, in today's dollars, my old 1986 would cost about $24,000 before options. It was also much smaller and only had 100 horsepower -- enough to hit 60 mph in about 11 seconds. And that's before taking into account all of the new Jetta's advanced safety and convenience features.
Even by VW's own (generally reasonable) pricing standards, the 2019 GLI seems like a suspiciously good deal. That's especially true when you realize that the GLI costs anywhere between $1,600 and $7,000 (!) or so less than its GTI hatchback counterpart, depending on options and trim. That's a startling cost delta, especially when you consider that despite its age, today's GTI still doesn't feel like a bad deal in and of itself.
As you'd expect, though, there are significant downsides. Most of them take place in the cabin, which can only be described as a victim of The Cheapening. Even the base GTI hatch is a delight, with its trademark plaid-insert sport seats, golf-ball shift knob and pleasingly textured plastics. By comparison, the GLI is a bit of a penalty box, with noticeably poorer hard polymer panels all around and incremental cost-cutting measures that directly impact one's comfort -- namely the substitution of the standard Jetta's comparatively flat and featureless seats. Combined with the lack of a multi-angle armrest and a tinny-sounding stereo with a smallish 6.5-inch screen, and the GLI's interior doesn't just feel much less special, it actually feels discount.
Yes, there is a larger 8-inch display screen with a 400-watt Beats audio system on the top-shelf Autobahn model, but even it isn't offered with onboard navigation. At least there's standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility across the board. The Autobahn also gets a digital gauge cluster, panoramic moonroof and powered, ventilated seats with adjustable lumbar support.
Of course, at a starting price of $29,195 (manual) and $29,995 (DSG) before options and delivery, the range-topping Autobahn is also a lot more expensive, and it still doesn't manage to shake the cost-cutting vibe that blights the base S model, owing primarily to those aforementioned nasty plastics and comparatively unbolstered chairs. In light of all this, if you're game for modifications, it might be more advisable to stick with the low-end model and hunt around online for a deal on a pair of aftermarket sport seats.
On the positive side, the Jetta GLI's cabin is roomier than ever. The new car remains classified as a compact, but it rides on a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase and spans three inches longer overall. It's slightly wider and taller, too. Plus, VW's engineers have managed all this with almost no mass penalty at all -- the 2019 weighs within a big bag of your pooch's Blue Buffalo of its old self.
With those larger dimensions, there's a lot of elbow room inside, as well as in the trunk, which offers 14.1 cubic feet of space. Plus, if you're a fan of basic, old-school '80s teutonic interiors with their strong driver-focused aesthetic and minimal switchgear distractions, you'll feel at home here, empty switchgear blanks and all. On the downside, rivals like the Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Elantra Sport simply have nicer cabins. Even the dated (but far more powerful) Subaru WRX's interior isn't that much cheaper-feeling, and it's got much sportier seats.
On the safety front, the 2019 Jetta GLI comes with standard blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, plus full LED lighting. Weirdly, adaptive cruise control is not available.
All-in, the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI really does manage to feel like a GTI at a discount, for better and for worse. It's a sport sedan that's both surprisingly practical and fun to drive, let down only by a few too many corporate suits playing hardball when it came to signing off on the car's cabin. If VW offered up a GTI-spec premium interior option package with the hatchback's infinitely better seats and premium plastics for a reasonable surcharge, the GLI would be a top-to-bottom winner. As it is, it tugs at the heartstrings of this former Mk2 GLI owner, but not enough to make me proclaim it the clear choice in its class.