We’ve been talking about great European sedans lately. In fact, we came away saying the new Mazda 3 sedan might be your best entry level Euro choice – yes, it technically isn’t European, but it sure drives that way!
Well VW must have heard us, because they’ve now introduced an all new Jetta GLI, (we recently drove the regular Jetta) and it’s not only a great European sedan, it’s what the GLI should always have been – a true 4-door version of the beloved GTI hatch.
Big is More
We used to see that motto on popcorn at the movie theatres – probably a ploy to get you to max out your salt and soda intake – but it’s definitely true with new Jetta. Built on VW’s MQB platform, it supersizes itself over the previous Jetta, with a 1.3-inch longer wheelbase, and sits 0.8 inches wider. Visually, it looks even larger than the previous model.
The GLI adds plenty of visual sportiness over its other all-new siblings. The sport suspension sucks it 0.6 inches closer to the ground for a more aggressive stance. LED headlights and daytime running lights surround a black honeycomb grille with a red accent line. Exclusive 18-inch alloys frame red brake calipers, while out back LED taillights, spoiler, and rear bumper with diffuser and chrome exhaust tips finish off the looks.
Being a 35th Anniversary model, our tester got a little extra bling, with unique-design black wheels with a red stripe, black roof and mirror caps, a black rear spoiler and special badging. Our tester looked particularly evil, thanks to its Pure Gray exterior – to be honest though, the black paint on the 18-inch wheels make them look smaller to the eye than they actually are – we prefer the brighter machine-finish offered on other GLI trims. Still, it’s a handsome car no matter how you deck it out.
Less is More
In this case, less means price. Compared to the GTI, your savings vary from $1,600 to $6,000 model-to-model (more on that below), and the GLI sedan is notably more spacious than the hatch, especially in the rear seats, where full-size adults can stretch out comfortably. The trunk is also long and deep.
Not a hatchback, but plenty roomy.
And, Less is Less
That cost savings is also apparent when you get inside. It starts well, with a GTI-type steering wheel with fat leather rim and cool red stitching. The seats aren’t the sport buckets of the GTI, but they are comfortable, have a subtle pattern we love, and enjoy red stitching and 35th Anniversary tagging. Nice.
Some of the plastics definitely have a hard quality to them, but piano black trim plus subtle Diamond flag décor trim perks things up a bit. Special 35th Anniversary model floormats and kick plates also help.
You also get loads of goodies, including dual-zone climate control, keyless access with pushbutton ignition, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 6.5-inch color touchscreen, VW’s App-Connect info-tainment, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – even 10-color customizable wrap-around ambient lighting.
That said, VW really makes the upscale Autobahn trim tempting, adding power memory leather seats (heated and cooled in the front), a panoramic sunroof, 400-watt Beats Audio system and 8-inch color touchscreen.
Really pulling at our pocketbook for the Autobahn is VW’s Cool Digital Cockpit display, that first appeared on Audi models. It replaces the gauge cluster with a fully customizable hi-res display that creates virtual gauges as well as navigation, drive computer, phone safety features and more, right before your eyes. Very cool.
A GLI That Drives Like A GTI
All of this is nice, but the big finale… (drum roll, please) is that the GLI finally lives up to the performance that has been promised for so long.
It starts by sharing the familiar 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine, punching out 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, starting at just 1700 rpm. While a 6-speed manual transmission is standard, our tester had the optional 7-speed DSG dual clutch automatic, and it’s a honey, offering smooth quick shifts, and in Sport mode, lightning fast response.
With that nice fat torque band and the DSG, you’re getting 0-60 well below 6-seconds, and high-speed passing is quick and effortless. This is a fast, fast GLI! And we still averaged 28 mpg.
VW is all about bringing balanced performance to the table, and the GLI takes that powertrain and puts it into the MQB platform that is notably rigid and up to the task. All GLI’s feature an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential that helps put the power down in straights and turns. All GLI’s also feature Driving Mode Selection, including Normal, Sport, Eco, and Custom, that adjust steering, throttle, and shift response – even piping in a more sporting exhaust sound in Sport mode, appropriately.
Being a 35th Anniversary Edition, our tester also had the driver-controllable DCC adjustable suspension, so you also get a chassis that adapts to the above mention drive modes, and even adds a “Comfort” mode for extra supple cruising.
We found Normal mode to be an excellent balance of everyday comfort and sporty response. The Sport mode exhaust is fun, but gets a little boomy after a short period of time. We used it mostly when attacking an on-ramp, or wanting a little afterburner-assisted merging.
The steering is also noticeably precise, with that nice light touch that VW’s always have. This is an easy car to drive fast.
Thankfully VW ups that ante with excellent brakes – the same ones that come in the GTI and the all-wheel drive Golf R, with massive 13.4-inch front rotors hauling you down from speed easily, consistently and with no noticeable fade.
And if you do get in over your head, the 2019 Jetta GLI offers a comprehensive suite of driver-assistance technology. Standard features include: Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking (Front Assist); Blind Spot Monitor; and Rear Traffic Alert.
The performance is now so close between the GLI and the GTI, it really boils down to two things: Whether you want (or need) a sedan or hatchback, and how much you want to spend.
How Much Do You Want to Spend?
Here, the GLI has a few aces up its proverbial sleeve.
Getting your foot in the door of a GLI starts at $25,995 while a GTI starts at $27,595. The higher up you go, the more you save – the top of the line GLI Autobahn comes in at $29,195 while the GTI Autobahn is $35,995, that’s $6800 more for the hatch!
Our 35th Anniversary Edition started at $26,995, Pure Gray paint was $295, DSG transmission was $800, add in $895 for destination, and we rang the bell at $28,985. A comparable GTI Rabbit Edition (which does look pretty cool) totaled in at $30,890. Savings for the GLI – $1,905.
We don’t mind a little less affluence in the interior trimmings for a GLI that drives as well as a GTI and puts wads of cash in our pocket. In fact, we’re thankful – this kind of performance machine starting at just under 26 large is a phenomenal bargain.
The best European performance sedan for the money is the 2019 VW Jetta GLI.
GTI-level performance, with Jetta sensibility and value.
GLI will make you smile every day you drive it.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.