The Volkswagen Jetta GLI has always been the oft-forgotten little brother to the slightly roomier, more-beloved Golf GTI. Though the two cars have shared the same platform, components, and engine for most of their life – not to mention both were almost equally fun to drive – enthusiasts clearly preferred the five-door (for some reason) over VW's four-door alternative.
But the defining lines grow blurrier with the arrival of the latest Jetta and its sporty GLI counterpart. The sedan is now more attractive, thanks in part to VW's latest design language, better to drive courtesy of an updated suspension and a punchier powertrain, and is an all-around improved competitor to the GTI. But it's still not perfect.
The base Jetta looks pretty bland. But the sporty GLI gets more flair in the form of a blacked-out grille with red accents, trim-specific 18-inch gunmetal gray wheels, and in the case of the 35th Anniversary model tested here, unique “35” badging throughout the exterior. This one wears a two-tone Tornado Red exterior with a black roof, as well. It's a good looking, albeit understated, car.
Unfortunately, the cabin suffers from the same blasé styling as the base Jetta. The only things that sets the GLI apart are the trim-exclusive leather steering wheel with red stitching, special 35th Anniversary embroidering on the floor mats and seats, and in this case, Titan Black cloth (aka plaid) instead of the nicer Autobahn model's standard leather.
Black plastic covers most of the dash and door panels, and our tester doesn't feature the nicer, optional 8.0-inch central touchscreen or 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster. The larger digital cockpit looks much better than the standard 6.5-inch touchscreen and analog gauges.
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The Jetta GLI's cabin doesn't look great, but it does get high marks for passenger space. Your six-foot-tall author found plenty of space from the driver's seat; legroom is better than in the Honda Civic Si, and the GLI's 38.5 inches of front headroom bests the Honda by two inches (36.5 inches), as well.
The GLI's backseat is roomy as well. Its 37.4 inches of legroom and 37.2 inches of headroom once again best the Civic. And it's quiet, too. Only a tiny bit of road noise penetrates the cabin. If there's anything to complain about, the suspension feels a touch too tight. The adaptive dampers on the range-topping Autobahn model might alleviate some of that stiffness.
The GLI’s ergonomics, much like the base Jetta, are very good. The steering position is comfortable and easy to adjust, Volkswagen positioned the pedals perfectly, and the touchscreen infotainment system even angles a bit toward the driver, making it easier to reach. The problem with this particular spec is that the seats wear a pretty basic black cloth finish, which makes them feel stiff and cheap. There is a nicer leather seating surface option, but it's only available on the range-topping Autobahn trim.
The GLI’s standard 6.5-inch touchscreen looks and feels cheap. It doesn’t have navigation, nor an adjacent digital instrument cluster, and is slightly smaller than the standard screens you get on both the Civic Si (7.0 inches) and Hyundai Elantra Sport (7.0 inches). Opt for the pricier Autobahn model if you want the bigger 8.0-inch screen and massive 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster over the traditional analog gauges.
But at least Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Bluetooth connectivity are standard with the 6.5-inch screen. The graphics are crisp and the layout on the landing page is clean and easy to use, as well. The GLI’s standard tech is inoffensive and easy to use, but not up to par with others in the class.
The 2019 GLI's turbocharged 2.0-liter (which it shares with the current GTI) is much punchier than the engine found on the previous model. With 228 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque, this GLI bests its predecessor by 20 hp and 48 lb-ft, as well as the Civic Si (205 HP) and Hyundai Elantra Sport (201 HP). Paired to the optional seven-speed dual-clutch in our tester (a six-speed manual still comes standard), the four-door feels fast in a straight line, with little-to-no torque steer. The gearbox also shifts very quickly. VW says this GLI can hit 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds with the DCT. The previous model got there in 6.1 seconds at its quickest.
The reworked suspension with a standard limited-slip diff, steering, and the addition of no-cost sticky summer tires give the GLI genuine handling chops. Even in the fastest corners, the GLI keeps body roll in check thanks to the rigid ride from the standard shocks, and the four-way adaptive suspension. Tick the “Sport” button and everything tightens up. The steering is well-weighted and responsive, and stopping power is ample.
The GLI's engine and transmission are both above average for the class. This car is very fun to drive for the most part. The only thing we wish VW offered (and for that matter, Honda and Hyundai, too) is an all-wheel-drive option. Power at all fours would put it in closer competition to the Subaru WRX.
Ripe with safety the GLI is not – though, to be fair, most cars in this segment aren't either. The only active feature is automatic emergency braking. VW limits passive equipment to rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, both of which worked well enough in our time with the car. But not even the range-topping Autobahn trim gets equipment like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, or automatic high-beams. VW keeps virtually all of its good equipment to the standard Jetta.
As the second-most powerful option of the bunch (only the 268-hp WRX is more so), the Jetta GLI with the optional DCT takes a hit in the fuel economy department. Its 25 miles per gallon city, 32 highway, and 28 combined are just below the Hyundai Elantra Sport with an automatic (26/33/29), and less than the uber-efficient Honda Civic Si with a manual (28/38/32). The Subaru WRX is the least efficient (but most powerful), returning 16 mpg city, 22 highway, and 19 combined. For the class, the GLI is pretty average. But all things considered, this V-Dub is still a relative fuel-sipper – 32 mpg highway is nothing to sneeze at given the available power.
The most affordable Jetta GLI is the base S model, which starts at $25,995. It’s not the cheapest in class (both the Civic Si and Elantra Sport cost less), but it doesn’t require much of a sacrifice for the better trim. Our mid-tier 35th Anniversary tester with more standard equipment, better styling, and the optional DCT gearbox ($800) costs a still-reasonable $28,690 after destination ($895).
Gallery: 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: Review
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 35th Anniversary Edition