The Jetta GLI is the ultimate humble brag.
For those in the know, the GLI is clearly a joyous drive and a frisky friend.
A car that majors in FUN while never really showing much effort. But as you pull up to stoplights, it will take a car-guy/gal to appreciate that this a sweet sports car. Wrapped in mild-mannered and supremely practical four-door form.
We spent a week with the throttle floored to learn if GLI’s charm can make up for its extremely subtle design and brand worries.
Two videos and 60 photos accompany section headings of Exterior, Interior, Performance and Price.
HD Drive Review Video
The GLI visual upgrade over standard Jetta’s is classic VW. Thorough mods that mostly fly under the radar. No body panels change in the GLI makeover – and for this Jetta feels pretty ancient versus WRX or the new Civic Si.
Maybe these clean lines are part of the charm. GLI brings big 18-inch alloys and a unique front clip right off the bat. The grille is swapped for a red-lined unit backed in classic GTI honeycomb mesh.
The lower intake also takes a big performance step. It is a near full-width intake feeding the visible turbo intercooler. A black plastic chin splitter forms a sharp and low edge for this new face, and wraps up into the bumper corners to make pseudo air-foils that wrap the foglamp units. A few extra strakes of dark plastic recall the hottest GTI concepts of the last few years nicely.
The LED DRLs are amazingly premium and special, even on base Jettas. We’re disappointed that the main beams are still just reflector halogens, however. This will make the upgrade to HID units challenging for owners, as aftermarket HID bulbs are better in projector beam lighting units.
Capping off this fresh nose? GLI letters in bright chrome. Nicely prominent in their GTI font. Not near as much excitement around these GLI letters, however.
Moving into the profile view, you note how much lower GLI rides than standard Jettas. Perhaps the black plastic sill extensions really are doing their job!?
More likely is an actual suspension drop of about a quarter inch. This makes sense: GLI has unique independent rear end versus other Jettas.
A slight front fender badge wears GLI branding and more red accents. This red also colors the brake calipers and looks sharp behind the bright silver alloys. The wheels are almost as ripe for customization/tuning as the engine! More on this later.
Around back, GLI brings new Porsche-like LED brake lights, a trunk lip spoiler and dual exhaust pipes from the single muffler in back. No Jetta branding on the trunk: all GLI.
So, it is pretty subtle. But is that a good thing for some owners? GLI has a timelessness about its style that will age gracefully. Its lack of giant wings or hood scoops will keep coppers away. And its detail mods do make clear this is no 1.4T.
To our eyes, the GLI’s subtlety better be an asset: few will be doing double takes with excitement at this performance special. Check out the walkaround video below to see the exterior and interior of GLI on HD video.
HD Walkaround Video
GLI is in a nether-world of car sizing: much tighter inside than Camry or Mazda6, yet bigger than Civic or Focus sedan. There is backseat legroom and headroom, but it is pretty narrow back there. In general, Jettas all feel so high-quality that you naturally compare them with midsize sedans and not compacts. It is only when you note the skinny center armrest and some shoulder touching with two big dudes in front that you realize: this is actually a compact!?
Most will be too busy touching around the GLI’s ridiculously well-built cabin to notice. The GLI mods are pretty thorough and set the mood with a red-themed mist.
Red stitching front and rear for the black leatherette, red stitching for the ultra-soft leather on the flatbottom steering wheel. And subtle redlines across the dash to match the GLI sills and red-stitching floor mats. Fairly thorough, then!
The steering wheel and shifter are things of effortless beauty and purpose. The wheel feels sublime in hand, its silver shimmer for the three spoke outline is Audi-tastic, and the shift paddles fall right to your fingers (even if they are simple plastic.) This is all static, too.
GLI gets better on the move and as you work all the parts in harmony. The sport seats have limited travel, but the wheel has 2X most cars and lets you feel low and aggressive. The burble on startup is addictive, and the Park/Drive action in your hand feels a world above the $30k sticker of the test car. Just so immensely high quality that anyone can tell is superb.
The dark grey headliner is a nice performance touch, too.
Now onto tech and usability. The one-touch moonroof and windows feel like direct Audi part shares in a good way. The VW Car-Net system with its standard touchscreen nav also bundles CarPlay and Android Auto — so you have choices for directions off your phone or via the VW system. Phone integration is a snap and backup USB and Aux In jacks banish any VW complaints about tech obtuseness.
This VW system, mind you, does not exactly encourage you to delve into its menus and displays. It has a dark and slightly dated graphics pack when shifting between its modes. Functional if not fun, then.
Same goes for the center gauges cluster. Great to have but low-res for the info it displays. Even so, the overall cabin of GLI is a big selling point versus Civic or WRX. It is calm and insulated well past 80-mph, has stellar seat comfort and mostly-intuitive controls.
Mostly? Well, it took four VW test cars… but we now know how to use the “Kessy” keyless entry/tap-handle-to-lock! The touch point needs your entire thumb, not just the top pad. Curious engineering, but at least now we’re not standing outside the cars wondering why they won’t lock!
For the fun of the GLI, you’ll be glad the interior is as good as it is. Clearly VW spent the vast bulk of the $8k GLI upgrade budget on the powertrain.
The normal 1.4T and 1.8T making 150 and 170HP have nothing on this 210-pony 2.0T. They are in different leagues altogether. The horsepower peaks at 5300 with 1200 RPM left to run, and the torque of 207 pound-feet starts from 1700-rpm and never lets off.
In all, you feel like the car is easily making 50 more than both of those tallies. It is genuinely fast at all times, and goads you into speeds that would make any Corolla blush with shame.
About 6.3-seconds is the time to 60-mph for the DSG Tiptronic, with the manual close behind.
Much as we love stickshifts, the GLI’s DSG is a huge asset for its speed out of corners. This DSG is endlessly amazing at delivering seamless upshifts and downshifts. Few rivals can compete with a decent performance auto, either. WRX is CVT as are all auto Civics. Focus ST and RS are stick-only still. Only the Elantra GT has a turbo and double-clutch combo for about the same money as GLI.
On to the actual handling and drive feel. Jetta GLI dances around corners beautifully. The extra weight in back versus Golf but similar sport suspension means GLI feels less nosey. They both resist understeer admirably, but Golf GTI does have a cleaner launch and slightly more front-end bite. Differences between the cars are extremely minor, in honesty, and come down to bodystyle preference.
Where GLI really excels is how much more power it feels like the chassis, brakes, suspension and tires could handle. This is good: upgrading the exhaust, downpipe and ECU can have your GLI breathing fire with 300HP in an afternoon’s labor time.
Easy and extremely tempting car to really modify like mad.
We’d like VW to include vented discs in back, however, versus the solid ones that got a bit hot in our road course test (on video above).
Jetta GLI is extremely simple to buy. $28,715 gets you the six-speed manual, while our tester came in at $29815 including destination feel.
Five colors only, and no factory options. Just a few accessories available, like rubber mats and a trunk liner. Really, the car is loaded to begin with and represents terrific value.
What do enthusiasts want in their ride? A car that will be fun to drive, every day, for a decade. That is the goal. A car with depth of excellence so it’s not a silly joke in five years.
That is Jetta GLI.
And because we cannot see the future, GLI is ready for life changes. The target buyer is probably 25-44 years old and about to have some kids or start a mortgage. They need flexibility, and their rational head will prevail when shopping.
Here is a front-drive sedan that is as-fun and as-playful as the Subaru BRZ and perhaps even the MX-5. Yet the GLI goes above and beyond the sole-purpose plaything car market. And deep into the mainstream.
It sounds cheesy this life-stage analysis as a vote in GLI’s favor. But that is how real the GLI’s sporting credentials feel. You can imagine GLI instantly in your driveway.
Most importantly, know that GLI represents another way. Slightly smaller than blah midsize cars, but oh so much better. Worth it? 100-percent.
The GLI is so good, yet so modest.
Love that humble rumble.
Tom Burkart is the founder and managing editor of Car-Revs-Daily.com, an innovative and rapidly-expanding automotive news magazine.
He holds a Journalism JBA degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Tom currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina with his two amazing dogs, Drake and Tank.
Mr. Burkart is available for all questions and concerns by email Tom(at)car-revs-daily.com.