KNOXVILLE, Tennessee—When I was a little kid, my dad owned an A3 Volkswagen Jetta GLI in Tornado Red, with cloth seats, a spoiler, and BBS wheels. I loved that car, and it left such a strong impression on me that I ended up getting a Jetta of my own when I turned 16, even though I knew Volkswagen tended to favor the Golf in terms of options and chassis hardware.
In 2019, the Jetta finally gets what it deserves in the form of the redesigned GLI performance variant, which no longer plays second fiddle to the Golf GTI. With the Jetta now finally on the same MQB architecture as the Golf, the GLI now gets abundant standard features that require more money on the GTI, and the powertrain is the same as in its hatchback sibling: a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine producing a stout 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers are up 18 horses and 51 lb-ft over the previous-generation car. The transmission options include a six-speed manual and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The GLI also gets the GTI’s honeycomb grille, a pair of actual exhaust tips, LED daytime-running lights, a driver-oriented center stack, and a suspension lowered by 0.6 inch compared to the regular Jetta. Patterned heated cloth seats are standard, while ventilation is available. The only-for-2019 35th Anniversary Edition and the top Autobahn trim receive standard Dynamic Chassis Control. It offers five settings—Normal, Comfort, Eco, Sport, and Custom—to adjust the powertrain and steering feel, and they offer clear, well-defined differences in character. The modes also affect the adaptive dampers that are (for now) exclusive to the 35th Anniversary car.
VW also includes a limited-slip differential and its XDS brake-based torque-vectoring as standard. The former helps manage wheelspin and improve power delivery, while the latter will brake an inside wheel to aid turn-in and mitigate understeer. Part of our drive took place on the hellaciously windy Tail of the Dragon, the perfect showcase for the aforementioned bits given its 318 corners in just 11 miles of tarmac. They worked well, dialing out push and allowing the car to sprint away from each corner exit with as much grip as possible given the occasionally damp conditions.
Most of my time in a dual-clutch-equipped Anniversary was spent in Sport mode, where the transmission programming is smart enough to let go of gears in normal driving but will hold ratios longer and anticipate shift points when you start whooping it up. The suspension is still compliant enough to be comfortable in this mode, too.
That said, the manual version—I wrung out a stick-shift S on a road loop near Lake Santeetlah—is simply more enthralling. Shift effort is light but precise, and the lever sinks into place with just the right amount of feedback. The clutch is calibrated near perfectly, with a clear engagement point, and the pedal placement and responsive throttle facilitate easy heel-and-toe downshifts. The brake system includes standard 13.4-inch vented front discs straight off the Golf R. The brake pedal is progressive and communicative, with gentle pressure delivering gentle deceleration and firmer, deeper squeezes giving big stopping power.
A passel of driver-assistance technologies is among the standard features the GLI has over the base GTI, which also include dual-zone automatic climate control and LED headlamps. Post-collision braking, forward emergency brake assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear traffic alert are all included. All GLIs also get VW App-Connect, which allows for phone projection through MirrorLink, Android Auto, or Apple CarPlay, controllable through a touchscreen that measures 6.0 inches by default or 8.0 inches if you pony up more cash.
VW priced the GLI below the GTI despite offering a comparably healthy array of standard features, and all three trims available this year can be had with the manual or the automatic for $800 more. The range starts with the $26,890 S, the one-year-only 35th Anniversary Edition runs $27,890, and the top-level Autobahn $30,090, which is a huge value compared to the $36,890 GTI Autobahn.
The new Jetta GLI perhaps isn’t quite as sporty in terms of character or styling as the GTI, but it’s better than it’s been in several generations and is a feature-packed, budget-friendly choice for enthusiasts that requires little compromise. I should let my dad know.
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Specifications
|PRICE||S, $26,890; 35th Anniversary, $27,890; Autobahn, $30,090|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 228 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, rear-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||25/32 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||185.2 x 70.8 x 56.8 in|
|0–60 MPH||6.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||N/A mph|