How people react to a Volkswagen Golf GTI says a lot about whether or not they actually like cars. What’s not to like? It’s more sprightly, agile and quicker than the standard Golf, yet just as practical, reliable and nearly as efficient.
It has defined the hot hatch for 40 years. Company executives will even describe it as “the soul of VW.” But like it or not, mainstream America just doesn’t do hatchbacks. So it’s a good thing the GTI donates much of its formula to the Jetta equivalent, the GLI.
Being a four-door sedan, the Jetta GLI forgoes the Golf’s hatch for a bit of elongation and a conventional trunk. The balance of goodness should be pretty equal among the sportier Jetta and Golf, especially since it’s based on the same MQB car platform as the Golf.
And here’s where the qualifiers begin. The car we tested here is the GLI S, as bargain basement as GLIs and certainly GTIs come, complete with disappointing material quality at the door panels, the dash and the gauges, the latter looking like the worst of the early 2000s VW gauges, which had more of a than feel. (The photos are of a better-equipped GLI Autobahn they sent me in DC.)
The seats are another slight disappointment. VW has always fitted extremely well-bolstered and comfortable seats in its sporty models like GTIs and GLIs. And the competition, especially Honda, have caught up. Not so here. Instead of the great, firm sport seats from the GTI, the GLI gets softer, plusher seats from the Jetta SEL model, which are certainly comfortable, but not in the same sports league.
Perhaps buyers looking for bargains are less likely to value supportive, sporty seats, but I view this as a real miscalculation. You cannot drive the GLI without sitting in the driver’s seat, so the GLI should have the best sporty VW seats in the warehouse. Apple CarPlay (and Android Auto) defuse the demerits of the poorer interior qualities. Other standard features include push-button start, keyless entry, rain-sensing wipers, LED high and low-beam headlights and a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment screen.
Long on value
But you don’t buy a Jetta because you’re a splurge monster. You buy a Jetta because you get a lot of car for a little money. This GLI S we tested with the 7-speed DSG automatic transmission stickers at $27,985, including destination and $295 for the Pure Gray paint. (Again, the one in the photos is different.) The equivalent Golf GTI with the same drivetrain runs $29,590 (though Pure Gray paint is not available). This is an odd twist for the North American region that has traditionally viewed sedans as decidedly upmarket from hatchbacks. Advantage: GLI.
Compared to the standard Jetta, the GLI sits 0.6 inch (15mm) lower to the ground with its sports suspension, which is firmer as well. There’s also an interesting distinction here between GLI and non-GLI. Aside from the firmer suspension tuning, the GLI is the sole Jetta model to use a multi-link rear suspension like the Golf. Other Jettas use a solid twist-beam axle with independent springs and dampers.
Other chassis features include a limited-slip differential, large 13.4-inch (340mm) front brakes lifted from the limited production Golf R, and variable-ratio power steering, which is also electrically assisted.
Even with the firmer tuning, the GLI rides quite soft for a sports sedan but gives up little in cornering feel or grip. Steering feel is in the upper tier among all cars with electric assist, though most of the early electric assist systems with nebulous feel have been purged from current automakers’ production. But even better than the steering feel is the flat-bottomed wheel you grip with your hands. It’s exactly the right diameter and thickness. Tossing the GLI around in the twisty bits is just about as rewarding as in the equivalent GTI, the less-grippy seats notwithstanding.
Long on power, though you might wait longer, too
The powertrain has a foible, though. Especially when transitioning from an applied brake—as when approaching a turn at an intersection—the GLI pauses deliberately before sending power to the ground. It seems to be a combination of digital molasses, going from a completely closed throttle with brake applied to opening it with a fast release of the brake, and maybe a tiny bit of turbo lag. So it all likely involves engine mapping, braking, and even steering. It is not nearly as bad as the late TDI diesel VWs with the DSG gearbox, but the GLI does not wake up rapidly to give you the response you might expect in those heavy transitions.
When it does wake up, though, the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine breathes at 18.0psi (1.24 bar) of boost, yielding 228hp (170kW) and 258lb-ft (350Nm) of torque, both very healthy figures. It also uses variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust sides, plus variable valve lift on the exhaust side.
You can also adjust the level of intake sound inside the car from normal in the Normal drive mode to dopey in Sport mode, but the basic goodness of the nearly ubiquitous 2.0L turbo inline-four cannot be denied. It’s a great engine, slightly hampered only by big transitions.
EPA fuel-economy figures of 25 city mpg and 32 highway mpg match the Golf GTI, though the combined figure of 28 betters the GTI by 1mpg. Aero differences, probably. We saw a 24mpg average on an aggressively driven tank and a high of 33mpg on one with extended highway driving. More aggressive driving also showed the DSG automatic to ignore a requested shift or two.
Though we tested a 2019 model, the 2020 version continues with one mechanical change: an adaptive damping system as standard. However, 2020 models will receive VW’s Car-Net system with which remote start, door locking, horn, and lights can be triggered remotely through a smartphone app. Parking location, fuel level, mileage, and door and window status can all be called up on the app, too, all of which can be performed via Apple Watch and Android Wear devices starting later this year. The 2020 GLIs will also get Wi-Fi capability with a subscription.
The Jetta GLI is a slightly cut-rate GTI with its sub-par interior trim, and it’s certainly not ho-hum. But to certain people, the notion of a longer, separate, traditional trunk, to say nothing of 17 inches more overall length, along with the $1,600 break on the window sticker, might just be worth it.