VW Jetta GLI — Sports sedan on a budget

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Traditional sedans have been caught up in a massive avalanche of crossover SUV sales that threaten to all but eliminate the conventional passenger car from the North American marketplace. But take heart sedan lovers, there are still some very interesting and pleasing choices available if you look in the right places.

For those who hunger for that affordable sports sedan experience — and for under $30,000 Volkswagen has introduced a GLI version of its all-new-for-2019 compact Jetta. For those who follow Volkswagen, the GLI sedan designation — now in its 35th year — is the equivalent of the sporty Golf hatchback GTI. The GLI gets the same drivetrain and all the handling that has made the GTI one of the truly hot hatches on the market.

Forget the crossover — admittedly you lose some hauling space and all-wheel drive — and the front-driven Jetta doesn't have the storage of a hatchback. But it does come with very competitive trunk space that can be expanded by folding down the rear seatbacks. It also has comfortable room for carrying four adults or two adults and three children.

The bottom line — there's not a crossover on the market for under 30 grand that can match the performance capabilities of the Jetta GLI. And gas mileage is better than most compact SUVs measured at 25 mpg city, 32 highway and 28 combined.

The new Jetta is the sixth VW product for the U.S. market to be built on the company’s global MQB architecture, a flexible transverse-engine front-wheel-drive platform chassis that underpins vehicles from the smaller Golf to the larger Atlas SUV.

While all other Jetta’s sport a 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine making a modest 147 horsepower, the GLI elevates performance into the stratosphere with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four making 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque mated to either a slick-shifting six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. We drove the six-speed and enjoyed the fun of shifting for ourselves. But if that chore becomes tedious in daily commuter traffic, the seven-speed automatic is a gem and provides equal or even better performance.

For comparison, the Jetta GLI can complete a 0-to-60 run in a rapid 5.6 seconds and a quarter-mile run in 14.2 seconds @ 101 mph, which is faster than the Honda Civic Si, but slightly slower than the Subaru WRX. In the handling department, the solid, well-built GLI will bring a smile to your face. It offers a driving experience that will induce its owner to take many weekend excursions to his or her favorite rural winding paved road. Its confident road manners come in part from an independent multilink rear suspension, firmer chassis tuning, a limited-slip differential, and a variable-ratio electrically assisted steering rack.

Our test car — a 35th Anniversary model — was outfitted with adjustable electronically controlled dampers providing sharpened responses and a more compatible ride. The bottom line here is that you get a lot of driving enjoyment out of a practical, spacious compact sedan for a very good price.

A handsome but conservative interior displays excellent fit and finish with the build quality of a more expensive sedan, plus VW's fully digital and customizable gauge cluster called the Digital Cockpit.

We found the front seats comfortable — the same seats as found in the standard Jetta — with more knee and shoulder room than found in the outgoing Jetta. Rear-seat legroom is adequate but taller passengers might need to reach a compromise with front-seaters to gain a comfortable position. Trunk space has shrunk a bit from the previous Jetta with its 14.1- cubic-foot capacity. Interior cubby space has increased with larger door pockets and a larger console bin.

The Jetta GLI starts at $26,890 including destination charge for the base S trim level which we also drove. The mid-level 35th Anniversary trim with 6-speed manual begins at $27,890 (add $800 for the automatic transmission), and the top-line Autobahn begins at $30,090.

The S trim brings a lot of good things including 18-inch wheels, LED lighting, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and ignition, automatic wipers and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Move up to the 35th Anniversary and on the menu are 18-inch dark gray wheels, blacked-out exterior trim (very sharp looking) and the adaptive suspension.
Our 35th Anniversary test car with six-speed manual transmission came in at $27,890. There are very few options available and none were included on our test car.

Additionally Volkswagen has a new class-leading six-year, 72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper, fully transferable warranty.

Base price: $26,890; as driven, $27,890
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 228 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 258 foot-pounds @ 1,700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.6 inches
Length: 185.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,217 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 25 city, 32 highway, 28 combined
0-60: 5.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, Ford Focus ST

The Good
• Solid performance
• Spacious interior
• Excellent manual transmission

The Bad
• Very conservative interior

The Ugly
• Adaptive suspension available on only one trim