2019 VW Jetta GLI Review

You may remember the commercial for the 1984 VW GTI, which was backtracked by a modified version of the Beach Boys’ classic ’60s song, Little GTO with GTI subbing in for GTO.

Emphasis on little GTI.

But what if you’d like more? Plus, the same?

With a difference?

How about for less?

Enter the 2019 Jetta GLI.

What It Is

The Jetta is VW’s entry-level compact sedan.

The Jetta GLI is a Jetta infused with the Golf GTI hatchback’s high-performance drivetrain.

It has the same 228 horsepower turbocharged 2.0 liter engine as the GTI — and comes standard with the same six- speed manual transmission, a feature almost unfindable in anything new with four doors and a trunk.

Plus some other things.

GLI Jettas sit about half an inch lower to the ground and look more mischievous than regular Jettas. They have different front and rear clips, blacked out grilles, LED headlights and ride on wider (and taller) eighteen vs. sixteen-inch wheels.

Out back, dual rather than single exhaust.

And GLIs cost $2k less to start than GTIs: $25,595 for the base S trim with the manual six-speed transmission vs. $27,595 for the same thing in a GTI wrapper.

You can option the GLI with an available seven-speed dual clutch (DSG) automatic, and it still costs $800 less ($26,795) than the base GTI with the six-speed manual transmission.

A Honda Civic Si sedan costs less than both of them, $24,300 to start. But it’s unrelated to German luxury cars, and you can’t get one with an automatic transmission. This is probably because its tweaky turbocharged 1.5 liter engine isn’t torquey enough to work effectively with one.

No such issues with the GLI.

It’s got more power and torque.

Plus, a trunk!

What’s New

The 2019 Jetta itself is all new for 2019, and the GLI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged engine gets an 18 horsepower and 51 ft.-lbs. of torque upgrade (the 2019 GTI’s same-same engine does, too).

In addition, the formerly optional limited slip front differential is now standard, as are the $40k Golf R’s 13.4 inch front brakes and larger 11.3 inch diameter rear brakes.

Also new: A much lower price vs. the GTI and last-year’s Jetta GLI.

Which stickered for $29,545 to start without the LSD or the brake upgrades.

What’s Good

GTI performance in a larger — and more upscale — package.

GLI is a whole new car.

Price decrease for all this newness.

What’s Not So Good

GLI isn’t quite as thread-the-needle as the GTI.

GTI is still more practical because it has about four times the cargo room.

New GLI’s trunk is smaller than it was last year.

Under The Hood

Both the GLI and the GTI get an updated version of VW’s 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine. It makes 228 horsepower now, up from 210 last year, and 258 ft.-lbs. of torque—a 51 ft.-lb. bump, fully achieved at just 1,700 RPM and holding throughout most of the powerband.

The non-GLI Jetta comes with a much smaller, a lot-less-powerful 1.4 liter turbo’d engine that only makes 147 hp and 187 ft.-lbs. of torque.

This engine is also standard equipment in the Golf.

Interestingly, the Jetta GLI’s 2.0 engine is much stronger than the related 2.0 liter, 188 hp engine that comes standard in its prestige-badged (and prestige-priced) sibling, the Audi A4.

Which stickers for $37,400 to start.

Audi does offer an upgraded version of the 2.0 liter four in the A4 that makes 248 hp, 20 more than the GLI and the GTI’s 2.0 liter engine but the price rises to $42,000. That’s almost twice the price of the base trim GLI.

And you can shift gears yourself in the GLI via the standard six-speed manual transmission which isn’t available at any price in the automatic-only A4.

Or let the dual-clutch DSG automatic, same as the one that’s also optional in the GTI, shift them for you.

Either way, you’ll get the same mileage—GLI vs. GTI, which is an interesting thing given the Jetta GLI is a much bigger (and 200 pounds heavier) car.

Both cars achieve 24 city/32 highway with the six-speed manual and 25 city, 31 highway with the DSG automatic.

Also of interest, the 3,217 pound GLI is just as quick as the 3,062 pound GTI.

VW says both get to 60 in about six seconds flat.

The A4, with its optional engine, is quicker. It gets to 60 in 5.6 seconds. But with its standard 188 hp engine, the A4 is noticeably slower.

It takes 7.1 seconds to get to 60, a tepid time for an almost $40k car. Especially given what a $25k car like the GLI can do.

Especially given a 1984 GTI did the same… 35 years ago.

On The Road

It’s not just the GTI’s drivetrain and performance that makes the GLI appealing.

It’s the almost-Audi plushness.

This shouldn’t be surprising given the shared “MQB” architecture underlying the newest VWs and Audis. MQB is a German acronym that’s short for Modularer Querbaukasten, with modular being the key thing to know.

So much is being shared now in terms of the bones that there’s not that much difference anymore in terms of ride quality, comfort and quiet between the people’s car and the luxury-brand (and priced) car.

But there is a difference between people’s cars.

The GLI’s suspension tuning is a bit softer than the GTI’s; body roll is more noticeable during hard cornering, but the upside is it’s a more luxurious-feeling car when you’re not hard-cornering.

The turning circle of the longer (185.2 inches) GLI is also a little wider (36.4 inches) than the much shorter (168 inches) and shorter-wheelbased GTI, which can cut a U-turn in 35.8 feet.

And of course, the GTI can squeeze itself through holes in traffic (and into parking spots) that are too tight for the GLI.

But the GLI’s turning circle is much tighter than the Honda Civic Si’s (37.8 feet) which is kind of startling given the Civic sedan is also several inches shorter overall (182.3 inches) and has a rep for being “tight.”

But not as quite.

There’s another Jetta quality lacking in the Civic Si—torque, which there isn’t nearly as much—just 192 ft.-lbs. from the much smaller 1.5 liter four and not until 2,100 RPM.

Which explains the absence of an automatic option in the Honda.

One of the charming things about the GLI’s engine is that although it’s very much a performance engine, it isn’t a peaky engine. You can rev it to 7,000 RPM if you like. And you probably will.

But it’s rarely necessary to rev it past 4,000.

The generous (and early) torque spread not only makes it work very well with the optional DSG automatic (you lose no speed or MPGs), it forgives missed or late shifts with the manual and lets you shift less if you don’t feel like shifting more.

Very hard to lug this one.

Though it’s a little four, the 2.0 liter engine shares this attribute with big V8s, which are appealing for the same reasons, just a lot thirstier.

The four even sounds like a V8.

Not at idle—but when you’re about a third deep into the accelerator pedal’s travel. The bass tone which rises will surprise you; a pleasant low-frequency throb that few engines without eight cylinders can summon.

Somehow, this one does.

The light clutch action (and plenty of travel) in manual-equipped models is another element of both the GLI and the GTI’s perennial appeal and probably one of the chief reasons that the GTI and GLI have not only survived but thrived while other contenders like the Ford Focus ST and RS aren’t even around anymore.

Those cars were great fun for about 30 minutes, on the open road.

But their abrupt clutch take-up (in — or out — with not much in-between) and the higher/peakier power curves of their engines made it harder to drive them smoothly in heavy traffic, much less comfortably.

On longer trips, their rigid suspensions—and even more rigid seats—sometimes made you wish you’d taken another car.

The GLI is a car you’ll be glad you took home.

At The Curb

Back in ’84, hatchbacks like the GTI were the new thing. They were different than the sedans which had been the default practical car and which almost everyone had been driving.

Suddenly, hatches were hip.

Today, it seems everyone is driving a hatchback — if one is not driving a crossover SUV.

Which makes a sedan like the GLI the new thing, in a way.

Or at least, not the same thing everyone else seems to be driving.

The new Jetta GLI is also different in other ways—not just because it’s among the few new sedans you can still buy with a clutch. Or because it’s kin to Audis, which Hondas and Hyundais are not.

In looks and has the length. The Jetta continues to inch ever-closer to being a mid-sized “compact.”

It now has 37.4 inches of backseat legroom, which isn’t quite as much as in fully mid-sized cars.

But it’s not far off.

And it’s two inches more legroom than the most definitely compact-sized GTI’s got (35.6 inches).

The GTI does have much more room for cargo: 22.8 cubic feet behind its back seats and 52.7 cubic feet with the backseats folded flat. This is part of what made hatchbacks so appealing when they first began to proliferate and still accounts for the popularity today.

The GLI’s trunk holds just 14.1 cubic feet. This is the one thing you get less of this year.

Last year’s Jetta had an almost full-sized car’s trunk (15.7 cubic feet).

The new GLI offers some other things, too including things not offered in the GTI like the very Audi-esque 10.25 inch LCD all-digital (and configurable) main gauge cluster.

Also, a Beats eight-speaker audio system (with 12-channel amp and subwoofer) that’s more powerful than the Fender system that’s optional in the GTI.

There’s one more thing, too.

You can trick out the GLI with a very handsome 35th Anniversary Package, which bundles an exterior/interior appearance package (thin-line pinstripe treatment — including for the wheels), additional LED interior lighting and VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) adaptive suspension system which, like the 10.25 inch Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, you’d have never found in a Volkswagen (sedan or hatch) as recently as five years ago.

And you can get it all for less in the sedan.

A 35th Anniversary GLI stickers for $26,995 to start. To get the DCC suspension in the GTI, you have to buy the Autobahn version, and the MSRP jumps to $37,095. Insultingly, that won’t get you the Beats audio system or the 35th Anniversary touches, which aren’t available with the GTI.

You can buy a top-of-the-line GLI with the Autobahn package which gets you the Tenacious D upgraded brakes from the Golf R, plus a larger 8 inch Composition Media secondary touchscreen with glass (not plastic) facing and voice-recognition/pinch-swipe capabilities and the optional dual-clutch automatic transmission for $29,995 vs. $37,095 for the Autobahn-equipped/automated-manual GTI.

You can also order, but not pay extra for, a “summer” performance tire package. They are a no-cost upgrade.

Just be aware they are terrible tires for winter driving (swap them out in fall).

The Rest

Another interesting thing about the new GLI and new VWs, in general, is that they come with better warranty coverage than Audis: Six years and 72,000 miles vs. a comparatively skimpy four year/50,000 mile guarantee for the people’s cars’ much pricier relations.

This is for PR reasons only. VW and Audi are the same company and both sold “cheating” diesels, but VW got tar-baby’d by the scandal much more so than Audi and is offering the upped warranty coverage to take people’s minds off the scandal.

Which never should have metastasized into a scandal — but that’s another story.

The Bottom Line

You can’t fit as much in the GLI’s trunk. But you’ll drive away from the dealership with a lot more cash still in your pocket.



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