By on April 2, 2019

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen’s latest iteration of the Jetta is a well-rounded commuter car, but a tad boring. VW had an easy fix for that in mind – just implant the heart of the GTI hot hatch along with some Golf R bits. Boom, instant sports sedan.

There’s been a GLI version of the Jetta since 1984, and every previous one I’ve driven has been a fun little hoot to drive; a way to put a little spice in the otherwise sorta bland Jetta recipe. This one, though, ups the ante. Instead of a nice little sprinkle of seasoning, someone in the kitchen doused it with cayenne pepper.

What you get here is not just a Jetta that’s more fun to drive, but a proper affordable sport sedan.

(Full disclosure: Volkswagen flew me to Knoxville, Tennessee and fed me meals and booze, while also putting me up in a nice hotel. The company also turned me loose on the famed Tail of the Dragon and nearby roads.)

As noted in the disclosure, Volkswagen’s destination of choice for this product launch involved the famed Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee – all 11 miles and 318 corners of it. And not just that road, but other nearby byways that were also full of challenging corners and fun sweepers. The exact kinds of roads that compact sport sedans are supposed to be built for.

Sure, most of the Tail tourists I spotted were running powerful Mustangs and Camaros (I saw at least one ZL1), along with rented V6 versions of same, but those cars seem almost overpowered for the technical Tail. Something like the GLI or Honda Civic Si (saw a current one on the Tail) would be the sedan of choice. Or a WRX.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Volkswagen drops the GTI’s 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection engine into the GLI (which, like the standard Jetta, rides on the MQB platform), and in this application it makes 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That’s an increase of 18 and 51, respectively, over the last GLI. A six-speed stick is standard and (thank the heavens) available across all trims, while a 7-speed DSG automatic gearbox is available.

The extra power over a standard Jetta is appreciated. Passing punch is plentiful, and you can scoot from corner to corner quickly. Acceleration can be addictive, and this Jetta has a smooth yet feisty response that’s not seen in the regular car.

Larger brakes as compared to standard Jettas help contain corner entry speed. These aren’t just any brakes, either. The front brakes, borrowed from the GTI and Golf R, are vented discs measuring 13.4 inches in diameter. The rear discs measure 11.8 inches.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

The GLI uses the same electronically controlled limited-slip differential that’s available in other performance-oriented VWs, and while its mission is to prevent understeer via individual brake-force distribution, it doesn’t fully do so (although it does seem to eliminate torque steer, which is the other main goal). Understeer does occur when the GLI is pushed hard. Not surprising for a front-drive sedan, and it’s generally controllable. Yes, the car plows a little when you overcook a corner, but it’s easy to adjust the line. I never worried about shooting off into the trees.

Available DCC adaptive damping was on board to stamp out body roll, but like the electronic limited slip, it only goes so far. There is still some roll present even in DCC-equipped cars, although it wasn’t much worse without the DCC system. That said, most of the body roll and understeer I experienced was predictable, in line with expectations for a front-drive sport sedan, and mostly felt when the car was pushed extremely hard. It won’t be an issue in normal commuting or mildly spirited driving, and it wasn’t as noticeable on the slightly less challenging roads near the Tail.

I spent most of my time with the car in Sport mode, even when driving on gentler byways. The car is simply more responsive in this mode, and the already firm steering feels even a tad bit more tightly wound. The exhaust gets louder in Sport mode, thanks to artificial means. While I initially thought the sound cheesy, it grew on me. I was pretty reluctant to flip the switch back into Normal after arriving back in town.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

The GLI can be slid around a tiny bit in Sport mode, while still being catchable. It feels lively yet comfortable, and there’s not a ton of ride sacrifice. Few road surfaces in Tennessee weren’t smooth, but the GLI’s ride, even in Sport mode, was never exhausting. The rear multi-link independent suspension is unique to the GLI, and GLI models are lowered 0.6 inches and boast stiffer springs than the regular Jetta. It should be noted that all the test cars I drove had summer tires (I drove three 35th Anniversary cars and a S.)

Shifting the manual was also delightful, thanks to a smooth clutch and easy-to-find gates. The shift action could be firmer, but that’s a minor quibble. The DSG is fine as far as automatics go, and the shift paddles are easy to use to keep the engine in the best part of the rev band.

The driving experience is fun with ease. Not quite as high-strung as the Civic Si, and definitely not as high-strung as the WRX, the GLI is smooth enough that one grows to feel comfortable driving it hard in short order. Some cars aren’t easily tamed right away, but the GLI quickly feels at ease even to a driver who just hopped in. That makes it easier to tangle with a road like the Tail of the Dragon.

Not only that, but as noted above, ride quality is apparently not sacrificed. At least not on mostly well-kept Southern two-lanes.

Performance aside, you’re still driving a Jetta. That means you get a large trunk, spacious and airy cabin (headroom is up over the last GLI, but legroom shrinks a tad), a center stack that angles towards the driver, and a utilitarian interior where form follows function. You also get a D-shaped steering wheel.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Visually, the exterior is set apart from regular Jettas by bumpers that have a more “aggressive” look, black honeycomb grille, side skirts, 18-inch black alloy wheels, rear spoiler, and dual chrome exhaust. This GLI is also a bit longer and wider than the one it replaces. The wheelbase gains over an inch, the overall length is 3 inches longer, and the car is wider by a little less than an inch.

It’s still a bit plain-looking yet attractive, just like the regular Jetta, but the minor differences do spice things up, looks-wise.

Thirty-fifth anniversary models stand out with grey wheels that bear a red stripe at the outer rim and special interior badging, along with a black roof and black spoiler. All GLIs can be fitted with summer rubber instead of all-seasons, should you prefer.

There are three trim levels available: S, 35th anniversary edition, and Autobahn. Available features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, LED headlights, LED taillights, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, cooled front seats, remote start, premium audio, second USB port, digital gauges, satellite radio, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, panoramic sunroof, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and post-collision braking system.

An S will set you back $25,995, while the 35th Anniversary car is priced at $26,995 and the Autobahn at $29,195. Those prices are with a clutch pedal – add $800 to any trim if you don’t like using your left foot. Destination checks in at $895.

That pricing makes the GLI a bit more dear than a Civic Si, at least if you want cooled seats, satellite radio, and the panoramic sunroof (and DCC, of course. The Civic has a standard adaptive damper system). None of those things are available on the S, and only DCC is added by the 35th anniversary trim.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Jetta GLI’s 25 mpg city/32 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (either transmission) also falls a tad short of the lighter Civic Si.

Still, the GLI S is close to an Si in price, and the Jetta is a more well-rounded car. It has more power, the interior materials are a little nicer, it rides a bit better when in commute mode, and it feels roomier, even though it only actually bests the Honda sedan in terms of headroom.

There’s a bit of a Goldilocks thing going on here among the sedans in this class – the WRX is the most brutish (and expensive), the Si is the value model that passes the most fuel pumps, and the GLI offers the best balance between sedate driving and yee-haw time while also being priced between the two.

If price doesn’t matter, it’s hard to argue against the GLI. Penny-pinchers will have to look for deals, however, unless they can settle for the relatively decontented S. Meanwhile, the WRX remains the only offering with all-wheel drive.

Consider the GLI the Goldilocks car, then. It’s amazing what some cayenne pepper can do.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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53 Comments on “2019 Jetta GLI First Drive – Jetta, Enhanced...”


  • avatar
    nels0300

    Thank you VW for offering this manual transmission, independently suspended, tastefully styled, adequately powered, affordable sedan. Thank you!

  • avatar
    stingray65

    Nice car that most buyers will walk right buy on their way to look at the Tiguan or Atlas.

  • avatar
    whynot

    Like I said when it was first announced, blacking out the grille and chrome bar does wonders to the front end look of the car.

    Glad to see that the GLI looks like it is moving towards being a sedan version of the GTI.

  • avatar
    JMII

    The GTI still looks better and is more practical. Do buyers really hate on hatchbacks so much that a sporty Jetta is needed? The Jetta has always been generic college girl car material. I never meant anyone that actually expressed any interest in one of these.

    • 0 avatar
      whynot

      Would you prefer VW just not offer a sporty Jetta? It’s not like VW is giving up the GTI to offer the GLI.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      I don’t understand this rant, and I’m always down for a rant. VW is offering another choice if you don’t want a GTI but want the engine and some entertainment while you drive. It comes with a trunk and is decent looking. So what’s the problem?

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      @JMII: A two-door liftback would look much, much better than any current “hatchback.”

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      “College girl car”? Hell, any woman who drives a GLI – or any performance car, for that matter – is a woman who’d catch my eye.

    • 0 avatar
      Whatnext

      I dunno, the GTI is much more cramped for rear legroom than the Jetta. For a family of four that can make a big difference.

      • 0 avatar
        whynot

        Also, as a Golf owner myself, the cargo benefits of the hatch versus the sedan sometimes gets overstated. Moving something big and bulky with maybe one other person? I’ll take my Golf. Going to the airport with 3 other people and all their luggage? You’ll wish you had the Jetta, as you can’t exactly fold the rear seats down when you have 3 passengers and the Jetta’s trunk is much deeper than the Golf’s “trunk”.

        • 0 avatar
          JMII

          I don’t have a problem with it… I am all for more sporty cars (I daily a C7 now). I am just wondering if there is a market for this car. My experience is anyone looking for a sporty VeeDub just gets a Golf. I just never heard anyone say “darn if the Jetta was more sporty I’d buy one!”

          • 0 avatar
            spookiness

            There is a huge segment of the population that would never drive a hatchback just because that word has a stigma associated with economy, or they just don’t like the looks. I live in a city on the east coast, where the merits of a Golf/GTI are most useful, yet Jettas seem to still outnumber Golfs by a hefty margin.

          • 0 avatar
            jalop1991

            “I am just wondering if there is a market for this car. My experience is anyone looking for a sporty VeeDub just gets a Golf. I just never heard anyone say “darn if the Jetta was more sporty I’d buy one!” ”

            I’m seriously looking at swapping my 2017 Autobahn for a GLI. I came from an ILX, and that stubby bit of trying hard to be useful but failing at it hatch area on the GTI is really cramping my day to day style. I need a covered area for security purposes, every day, and the extra size of the trunk is just what the doctor ordered.

            And I’m NOT one of those single people trying to make one car be as useful as possible in every circumstance. All that talk about how the hatchback is “bigger” or “more useful” is pure nonsense for someone like me who has other vehicles available, vehicles that are actually useful for the purpose–like a minivan.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            I’d go for this. It might very well be my next car. My wife hates hatchbacks, and I’ve grown to prefer the look of sedans.

            I really dislike the appearance of all the Civics, particularly the sporty ones, and I’d feel like I wouldn’t be acting my age in a WRX.

    • 0 avatar
      nsrla

      I sat in both the standard Jetta and the GTI (GLI wasn’t available) at the LA auto show last fall and while the GTI may have more cargo space, the GLI has more people space, especially in the back seat. If you have a kid in a car seat or have a bigger frame, the GLI’s extra legroom and bigger rear doors make it the better choice. The trunk isn’t as practical as the hatch but it still isn’t tiny. I love the GTI and leased an MkV but the practicality argument doesn’t fully hold water here.

      • 0 avatar
        Featherston

        I agree and disagree, nsrla. I did the “sit behind myself” test (I’m 5’10”) in a Golf and a Jetta and a recent auto show. I expected the Golf to seem roomier, and it did because of its great-in-the-context-of-the-2010s rear headroom. I honestly don’t remember which car had better rear legroom as I kind of stop noticing past a certain threshold. I’m inferring from your comment that the Jetta takes the win there. What was really a pleasant surprise was that the Jetta had decent rear headroom. The vast, vast majority of 2010s sedans–including some very large ones, like the Accord–have abysmal rear headroom. Huge kudos to VW for bucking the no-greenhouse trend.

        I liked them both and would probably pick the Jetta if pushed. If I’m going for a lower trim, the cost savings for the Jetta outweighs the Golf’s advantages in rear suspension (in non-GTI/GLI forms) and cargo flexibility. I prefer a hatch to a trunk, but realistically I only *need* a hatch once every 36 months or so. And a twist beam just doesn’t bug me in everyday driving.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    Uhhhhhg still no leather…but dual exhaust and GTI power…..I’m not quite over my mk6 yet…

  • avatar
    John R

    “sports sedan”

  • avatar
    jh26036

    This gen Jetta is somehow even uglier than the previous one. This car was dated the minute it was introduced. I’ll take the GTI everyday.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Anyone happen to notice that it doesn’t look too different from the latest-model Dodge Dart?

  • avatar
    pathfinderdoorhandle

    Jetta? College girl cars? Well, maybe, but my two VR6 GLXs were screamers! And the next-gen series 4s, with the 24V heads and six-speeds, were even more so.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Not my favorite styled car, no experience with this new MQB model at all….but I think in the right color it could be a solid buy.

    I mean come on, a sedan with power, handling, MANUAL TRANSMISSION ACROSS THE BOARD!!, and doesn’t look like it was designed by a 13 year old….pretty rare stuff these days. I’m glad to see it!

    RE GTI – Hatch is useful, but at least in my MKV, the depth was very shallow. Yes, folded seats you could get some good stuff in the car. But pure luggage space if you had to leave the back seats up, it really wasn’t very good. Compared to the last gen Jetta, the Jetta has way way more trunk space. I think the GTI is fine for 1-2 people and their luggage, but more than 2 and it simply isn’t enough. With that said, I still agree I’d prefer the GTI!

    I’d still love a Sportwagen or All-Track with the GTI bits, however.

    • 0 avatar
      civicjohn

      Maybe it’s the new Ford Fusion.

    • 0 avatar
      Coolcar2

      Agree. I have always loved the thought of owning a GTI but every time I test drive one I can’t bring myself to accept the limited rear legroom. I am 6’6″ and my two kids are tall as well so punishing them by squeezing them in back seems cruel. I think an All-Track or Sportwagen with the 2.0T engine would be ideal but maybe this GLI will fit the bill!?

  • avatar
    pathfinderdoorhandle

    Despite owning ten VWs, including five Jettas and three Scirrocos (and my above comments notwithstanding), I’d still choose a GTI over a GLI, the only significant VW model I’ve never owned. Although I’m still annoyed that the company never saw fit to offer the following combo in the US: Gen VII, two-door, sunroof, plaid upholstery. I understand that this combo WAS available in Canada.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “Volkswagen’s destination of choice for this product launch involved the famed Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee”

    How many tickets did you get? Did VW pay for them?

  • avatar
    Mike-NB2

    I took delivery of a black manual GLI 35 yesterday and can confirm it is a real hoot to drive. It’s quite a step away from the ’17 Lincoln MKZ 3.0L that I was driving until a couple of weeks ago. The Lincoln was insanely powerful but it lacked the fun that I really wanted. I had an R and a GTI on the shopping list but then saw the GLI revealed at the Chicago Auto Show and that was it. The search was over.

    Like the author, the first thing I did when I started the car was put it in Sport mode. Yeah, the sound is ‘enhanced’ but that doesn’t bug me. Most people wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

    The car has a deep well of torque that makes running through the gears a real delight. I haven’t owned a manual transmissioned car in six years and the clutch is so easy to modulate that I had no problem with it. I was trying to be conscious about avoiding hills for a few days but wasn’t thinking ahead and found myself on a steep one. With the hill-assist feature it was a non-event.

    In Canada we don’t have the choices you have in the US. We have one model which is equivalent to your Autobahn with leather, sunroof, digital cockpit, 8” screen, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, etc. And here, the 35 Edition adds that unique trim to that one model. But since VW Canada is making the first 1250 GLIs the 35 Edition that’s all that is available for now.

    I didn’t like the 35 Edition wheels when I first saw photos and videos from the car shows but they started to grow on me. After seeing them in person like them. In black, all the black 35 Edition trim blends in and makes the car look a little more conservative.

    I realize from reading the comments here that the current design has fans and detractors. What drew me to the GTI and R to start (apart from having owned and liked a lot of VWs) is that they are conservatively designed. The Civic Si and Subaru are too over-the-top for my tastes. The Type-R crosses into parody. But at soon-to-be 53 years old I can daily drive the GLI without raising eyebrows. I’ll just look like some goofy old man with a permanent grin on his face.

  • avatar
    skotastic

    As someone in my early 40s toying with buying something new; while I like the GTI or WRX, they just look too youthful to me, and I prefer the practicality of a trunk. This is one of the very few ‘adult’ cars that actually looks sporting to drive with a stick. I really like it.

    I couldn’t care less which car is slightly quicker or slower. I’m not racing for pinks. I just want something that’s decent looking and fun with a stick and a useful backseat for a kid.

    Back in the day, BMW really made some cars that fit this profile (understated adult 4-door sports car) and I still own an e12, but there is very little left on the market like this today.

    I really like the looks of this, and may actually check it out.

  • avatar
    theoldguard

    I like this a lot. And every time I see a late-model Civic, I like it even more.

  • avatar
    Coolcar2

    I find the current Jetta a hideously styled vehicle but for some reason with larger wheels on the GLI the styling looks much more toned down and acceptable. I know the European pedestrian crash standards have caused vehicle design to have protruding “foreheads” but I think the added styling bits on the GLI detract from that caveman forehead look. Sadly they only offer four colors on this model but at least they offer the model in the first place. I will have to check it out!

  • avatar
    tedward

    I got to drive one yesterday, I was pleased to find it obviously faster than my wife’s 2016 GTI (210hp). I never noticed a power difference with the PP GTI’s (220hp) so clearly they did more re-dyno it here. I was half expecting a soft vanilla GLI and that’s not what I found at all to my relief.

    One correction, in regards to the torque vectoring system. There are two separate ones, the XDS (brake activated) and the clutch controlled sorta-LSD. On the GTI it’s one or the other (so S and every other Golf has XDS) so it probably is here too. The Doppelwhatever torque vectoring doesn’t use brakes at all, and is what you felt mitigating torque steer. The best way to feel it (not talking about taking the perfect corner here) in action is to turn in too early on a hairpoin and get on throttle abruptly and early. Normally you’d just be provoking understeer but with heavy throttle you can clearly feel the front end bite in as the outside wheel gets all the power. It’s a slightly odd feeling for a fwd’er, and is definitely cool. It’s invisible of course unless you do this.

    I also notice it every winter going from my wife to my MIL’s GTI’s on our driveway. The XDS car is crunching brakes on throttle getting up that hill while the PP car just sort of slurs power back and forth up front (also a very strange sensation in a front driver). The PP system is leagues better when on throttle and provoking it, but I do notice a slightly better steering feel in the XDS cars when the systems aren’t being fully worked.

  • avatar
    tedward

    Also, I really don’t like the busy wheels. That seems to be the trend lately, and VW has been a big offender (the jetta as a whole is a wheel design disaster). I would probably swap them off immediately, or at the very least, vinyl or paint over the red stripe. This makes me shake my head as VW has a ton of gorgeous simple silver wheel designs that they’ve used as recently as 2015 in that size.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    Wagon version, please.

    WAGON VERSION, PLEASE!!!

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Look at it this way gentlemen.

    You could get a sedan with the engine/trans from the GTI, a trunk that’s as big or bigger (at 14 cubic ft) than many so called “midsize” cars, and a real backseat.

    I call this WIN.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I’ve had ’84, ’88, and ’90 GLIs and now have a GTI. Great cars all. This newest GLI seems like a real bargain too. But as a single guy with no kids I will take the GTI every time – my back seat is largely decorative and in FL I don’t have a big SUV to haul stuff home in – if I could have, my GTI would be a 3dr. Back in the day I was buying used and beggers couldn’t be choosers.

    But I would about sell my soul for a GLI WAGON (or my mother into slavery for a shooting brake). But no, this is America, where we don’t deserve nice things so we get the stupid Alltrack. I would even be perfectly happy for the GLI wagon to just have the same 1.8T as all the other Golf wagons, as long as it has the looks, suspension, and interior. Call it the Sportwagon GT.

  • avatar
    jdowmiller

    So is this the car to get if I want something fun but absolutely must have five seats? We have three school-age children that are also engaged in multiple extra-curriculars but my wife has a Sienna. In the off chance I have to pick all of them up, I’m relegated to driving something that fits all of them. I’ve been driving a Corolla for two years now for that very reason…and it also get 40+ mpg on my 80 mile round trip commute. It’s boring me to death. I’ve also thought about a Challenger but can imagine the little girls would have trouble with the doors in pick up line. Does the GLI truly have more rear leg room than the GTI?

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Are your daughters like my daughter and will yell: “FASTER!”

      I’m sure the turbo will be fun for them and you too.

      Go look for GLI reviews on YouTube (or non-GLI Jetta) and there will be lots of adult males sitting in back seats. That seems like a good way to judge a back seat before you even go to the dealer’s lot.


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