The GLI sets itself apart from the standard Jetta with larger air intakes, a low front spoiler and unique side skirts. The grille takes some styling cues from the GTI with its honeycomb pattern and classic red accent stripe. The GLI sits 0.6 inches lower to the ground than the standard Jetta and has a unique rear bumper and diffuser, as well as dual chrome exhaust tips. But even with these sporty touches, the GLI still slides under the radar.
The Jetta GLI is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine pushing out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque -- the same powertrain you'll find in the GTI. The GLI comes with front-wheel drive, and while you can get a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, my tester has the six-speed manual. Score.
My Autobahn trim comes complete with the DCC adaptive damping system, with modes for Normal, Sport and Eco, as well as a Custom setting. DCC allows me to dial in that Custom configuration, with individual options for the damping, steering, drivetrain, engine sound, front differential and even climate controls.
However, I don't think the Custom setting makes much of a difference. Despite trying out a bunch of different setups during my week with the car, the Normal and Sport modes work just fine. Much of my praise for the standard Sport setting is thanks to the limited-slip front differential that works with the GLI's electronic differential lock. Torque goes to the front wheel with the most grip, there's little to no understeer and wheelspin is nonexistent.
The base Jetta gets an old-school torsion-beam rear suspension, but the GLI upgrades that hardware to a multilink independent setup. Combined with the GLI's beefier roll bars and stiffer springs, this sedan is definitely ready to play. It swiftly settles after pavement undulations, coming out of an off-camber turn with nary a hair out of place. The steering is quick, direct and weighty, though it could use a bit more in the way of feedback. The 13.4-inch vented front brakes are lifted from the Golf R hatchback, paired with 11.8-inch diameter brakes in the rear. These stoppers are solid, although I wish the pedal's engagement point was just a tad higher.
The GLI is a blast on backroads, but it's fine for daily commuting, too. Standard on the GLI are advanced driver's aids such as forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. My top-level Autobahn trim goes further with lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. Yes, adaptive cruise control works with a manual transmission, although only at higher speeds. There isn't any kind of low-speed follow and once the GLI thinks it will stall, the system disengages and the driver takes over.
The Jetta GLI's fuel economy is respectable, returning an EPA-estimated rating of 24 miles per gallon in the city, 33 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined. Even after a week of decidedly aggressive driving, I'm still able to hit that 28-mpg average.
Inside, the GLI's cabin tech is simple and straightforward. The standard infotainment setup uses a tiny 6.5-inch display, but the Autobahn bumps that up to a nicer 8.0-inch screen running VW's latest MIB3 technology. This system can handle multiple Bluetooth phone pairings at once, and I love that the screen is angled towards the driver so it's easy to see and reach. MIB3's menus are laid out thoughtfully so there isn't a big learning curve, either. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard, and in addition to a wireless charging pad, there are three USB-C ports and a 12-volt outlet to keep your devices juiced.
The Autobahn trim has Volkswagen's Digital Cockpit, a 10-inch customizable gauge cluster that gives the driver all kinds of information like vehicle data, driver-assistance feature status and audio and phone access. It can also be customized with different designs, including a full-screen navigation view. It's not quite as fancy-pants as Audi's Virtual Cockpit, but it's essentially the same idea, and one of my favorite car interior features.
It's a bit of a bummer that the GLI isn't offered with any quirky interior design touches like the GTI hatchback's plaid seats. All you'll find here is black cloth or optional leather with contrasting red stitching. The Jetta at least has a 10-color LED ambient lighting system that coordinates with your selected driving mode: white for Normal, red for Sport and blue for Eco. If that doesn't suit your mood, you can choose your own colors, as well.
Like the standard Jetta, the GLI's interior materials are good but not great. Some of my colleagues lament the cheaper plastics and too-soft seats, especially since the GTI's cabin feels more premium by comparison. The sedan's trunk is fairly spacious at 14.1 cubic feet, and my 5-foot, 9-inch frame fits just fine in the rear seat -- my knees don't touch the front seatbacks and my head doesn't brush the roof.
As far as competitors go, you can still snag a Honda Civic Si, or the all-wheel-drive Mazda3 Turbo is a good option, though it's more expensive. The new Hyundai Elantra N Line has a little less power than the GLI, but it's also offered with a manual transmission and has some seriously cool design. The Subaru WRX is another alternative, but it's getting a little old, and the Jetta is a nicer all-around car.
The 2021 Jetta GLI starts at $27,340 including $995 for destination. The Autobahn is a $4,000 upcharge, and while I don't think the customizable DCC chassis makes a big difference, the cabin tech is significantly better. All in, an Autobahn with the six-speed manual like this test car costs $32,335.
Of course, the GLI's biggest competitor is the GTI sitting next to it in the VW showroom, and the Jetta undercuts its Golf equivalent by a few thousand dollars while still providing basically the same on-road thrills. The GTI's hatchback design is a lot more practical, but the GLI feels like an altogether more grown-up package -- though it's still more than willing to get a little rowdy.