2019 Volkswagen GLI 35th Anniversary Edition Review - Stealth Speed

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
Fast Facts

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 35th Anniversary Edition Fast Facts

2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (228 horsepower @ 5,000 rpm, 258 lb-ft 1,700 rpm)
Six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
25 city / 32 highway / 28 (EPA Estimated Rating, MPG)
9.6 city, 7.3 highway, 8.5 combined. (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
Base Price
$26,995 (U.S) / $32,445 (Canada)
As Tested
$27,890 (U.S.) / $34,230 (Canada)
Prices include $895 destination charge in the United States and $1,785 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can't be directly compared.

“Schläfer” is the German word for sleeper, or so Google tells me (I spent my foreign language education on Spanish, and I can perhaps order in a restaurant using that language. Maybe). Perhaps it should just be changed to 2019 Volkswagen GLI.

Yeah, there are still sleeper cars on the market – and this delightful spin on an already reliable German econobox is one of them.

I’ve found the normal Jetta to be solid, affordable transport. But for those who want to spice up their schnitzel, so to speak, the GLI does the trick nicely. And unlike just about all of the other sporty compacts, include corporate stablemate Golf GTI, it does so without advertising what it is. Your mother-in-law won’t know this is a performance car, unless you dig deep into the throttle. Or downshift in anger to pass a slowpoke.

Volkswagen launched this car by sending journalists, including yours truly, to the famed Tail of the Dragon stretch of highway on southeast Tennessee. I wouldn’t get any drive on such a road during my week with this test unit – no such road exists near Chicago, to my knowledge – but even freeway driving and suburban slogging allowed me to tap into enough of this car’s sporty streak to satisfy.

It really is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of ride. Sedate at lower RPMs, as relaxed as the regular Jetta, as relaxed as most compact commuter cars.

All it takes is the activation of Sport mode and/or a quick foray into the upper RPM range to bring Mr. Hyde. Which you’ll likely do quite often. And you’ll be rewarded when you do, receiving swift acceleration.

[Get new and used Volkswagen Jetta GLI pricing here!]

The 2.0-liter turbo-four from the GTI (228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque in this application) is well matched to this car, as well as to the satisfying six-speed stick (you can get a seven-speed automatic if you must, but why?).

One of the GLI’s strong suits, as noted above, is its relative stealth. The more-expensive WRX is boy-racer personified. The cheaper Civic Si is high-strung around town. And so on.

Not so this car. Fellow freeway dwellers most likely won’t even pick up what you’re putting down. To anyone who isn’t a car geek or VW nerd, it looks like you’re driving just another Jetta.

Yes, the bumpers are changed to give the car a more aggressive look, and there’s a rear spoiler to go along with chrome exhaust tips, a special grille, and black 18-inch wheels. Oh, and side skirts. Still, this car blends.

Even its lowered ride height is not going to be noticed, since it’s 0.6 inches.

Most of the goodies go unseen. Adaptive damping. Electronic limited-slip. Bigger brakes. Rear multi-link independent suspension. These are what make this car special.

I wrote previously that when pushed the car exhibits understeer and some body roll, but that roll won’t likely be present unless you’re really pushing the car hard. A week of mostly more sedate driving than what I did in Tennessee proved correct. The firm steering never proves too heavy for relaxed driving, and the ride is slightly stiff but comfortable enough for a long highway slog.

Inside, you’re getting the typical VW experience of unrelieved black, with a D-shaped steering wheel being the most obvious clue towards this car’s intent.

My test unit was a 2019 model with 35th Anniversary trim. The inexorable passage of time being what it is, that trim has since disappeared, leaving you with just two choices – S and Autobahn. That’s too bad, since the 35th Anniversary edition split the difference, and you’ll have to outlay a couple more grand for the Autobahn if you want the DCC adaptive damping (and leather seats, and satellite radio), putting the best version of this car at close to $30K before factoring in any cash on the hood.

Should you find a 2019 still on lots, you’ll find it includes everything mentioned above plus 35th anniversary badges inside and out and a black roof. Other standard features – my car had no options that weren’t added at no charge – include forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, dual-zone climate control, hill-start assist, heated front seats, Bluetooth, USB, LED lights, and smartphone integration.

If you can live without XM and leather, the 35th Anniversary is a pretty good value choice.

The $30K price for the Autobahn gives me pause, although that is a lower price than what Subaru charges for a loaded WRX. Still, going forward, it’s going to be the best version of a well-rounded car that puts out some stealth speed.

Problem is, the Civic Si is a whole bunch cheaper. On the other hand, the Jetta is more refined.

Your refinement requirements, brand loyalty, and reputations for reliability will play into the mix when comparing the GLI to the competition. In a vacuum, however, it may just be the most well-rounded sport compact sedan.

[Images © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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2 of 46 comments
  • N8iveVA N8iveVA on Apr 01, 2020

    I don't like the standard grill on the Jetta, but this blacked out one really makes the front end look pretty decent. That straight on pic almost makes it look like a mini Charger.

  • Ol Shel Ol Shel on Apr 03, 2020

    It's $2300 less than the cheapest GTI. Why? And doesn't everyone prefer wagons? I'd be way more interested in a GLI wagon. Sedans seem kinda useless to me.

  • Jkross22 Nope. Too expensive, too little wear. Besides, there are so many great all seasons that are great to use that last longer, the use case for summer tires has gotten smaller.
  • Redapple2 I love my geolander by yokohama. Wild Peak are almost as good.
  • Redapple2 Why is a mexico BYD china car BAD -End of the World! But > gm < Buick Envision good (build more !) ?
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Supporting EVs is supporting Chi-nah.
  • Eliyahu Oh, a nicer looking 2025 Camry!