Reader Review: A Volkswagen GTI Vs GLI Love Story

Michael Freed
by Michael Freed
reader review a volkswagen gti vs gli love story

For car freaks – and they don’t get any freakier than the B&B – a car is more than just a transportation appliance. We end up involved with our cars. We care for them. We worry about them. Some of us even name them.

My last car, a ‘15 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro, was Mitzi – petite, German, cute, fun … and not very easy to live with. If Mitzi had been a human female, she’d have been a blast in the sack and high-maintenance and kind of clueless the rest of the time. A great mistress and a lousy partner, if you will. The “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation had been coming for a while, and when used car prices went bonkers, it felt like the right time to kiss Mitzi on the forehead and say goodbye.

That’s how I ended up on a car-search journey that took several months and ended with one of the best hard decisions a car freak can be faced with: Choosing between a VW GTI or Jetta GLI. Which one won my heart? Read on.

I was looking for a car that could be a freak when I wanted it to, without Mitzi’s practicality and maintenance issues – less of a mistress, more of a partner, if you will.

Well, if you want practicality, it’s hard to beat CUVs, so I flirted with the idea of one briefly. Looking back, I think this proves that peer pressure doesn’t end when you’re 18 – it’s like the world is whispering “everyone’s buying a crossover, and if you want to be cool, you need one.”

So, I considered two CUVs that enthusiasts have heaped praise on: A Mazda CX-30 and Mazda CX-5, both with the 2.5 turbo engine. Both felt big and ponderous, and the drivetrain was particularly disappointing – these cars both have over 300 lb-ft of torque, but it’s delivered joylessly by an old-school automatic that drained these vehicles of whatever fun-to-drive chops they might have had. If this is what an “enthusiast’s crossover” is like, I think I’ll just let someone else experience the joys of CUV ownership, thanks. I’d also suggest to Mazda that now that they have the engines to make their “here’s your way-less-expensive Audi” pitch to customers, they need to figure out why people like driving Audis so much (hint: look for the “S-tronic” label on the gearshift).

I also tried out some midsized metal – the Honda Accord Sport 2.0T, Hyundai Sonata N-Line, and Mazda 6 2.5T got spins. I also checked out the Subaru WRX, the Mazda3 2.5T, and the Hyundai Elantra N-Line. The Accord came closest to what I was looking for, but it was so damn big; the others, for various reasons, didn’t feel like a fit.

That brought me home, so to speak, to the VW GTI and Jetta GLI, which both share my old Audi’s MQB platform and a great deal of its running gear. And if you’re an enthusiast, I can’t imagine putting a Nardi-clad right foot wrong buying either one of them.

Like all automakers, VW is in the midst of a torrid CUV wet dream, ejaculating endless rows of porky Atlases, Tiguans, and Taoses (Taosii?) onto dealer lots. But they still offer the GTI (a new model is on the way), a vehicle that needs no introduction for car nuts. A couple of years ago, they dropped all the GTI’s drivetrain, steering, chassis, and suspension goodies into the milquetoast current-generation Jetta, creating the current GLI, and gave it a price tag that’s about three grand lighter (we’ll delve into why it’s cheaper in a moment).

New-car pricing may be in full Looney Tunes mode right now, but due to VW’s Tolkienesque quest to sell only things that are electric or unnecessarily lifted and clad with ugly black plastic, deals can be had on a GTI or GLI. And for what it’s worth, if you want one, I suspect you might want to buy one sooner versus later, before all you can get from VW is an EV, or yet another Karen-tested, Karen-approved crossover. And with that, my anti-CUV rant endeth.

Put the GTI and GLI side to side, and the difference is obvious: The Jetta has basically morphed into a midsize car. In fact, when the current Jetta was introduced, many B&Bers pondered whether this almost-as-big-as-a-midsize model spelled the end of the Passat in the VW lineup, and they were right. Meanwhile, the GTI offers a somewhat more cramped back seat, but its’ hatchback configuration also means you can put the back seats down and stuff almost anything smaller than a SpaceX Dragon capsule back there. Either way, when it comes to practicality, either of these cars has it all over my old Audi.

You might wonder how VW gets away with charging three grand less for a GLI, and when you climb into the driver’s seat, it becomes apparent: The plastics are harder, shinier, and more hollow-feeling, and it has the same cheap-looking gauge cluster as the base model. The rear compartment loses the GTI’s rear seat HVAC vents, and the door panels look suspiciously similar to what you’d find in the back of a police cruiser. Petrochemical austerity aside, though, there’s a nice fold-down armrest with cupholders, and plenty of room for adults to stretch out.

The biggest difference in the GLI’s cockpit is under your glutes – VW ditched the GTI’s wonderful front seats (and the ridiculously cool Clark plaid upholstery) for the same ones you’d find in an up-level Jetta, and the sport seats are nowhere on the options menu. The GLI’s seats aren’t bad by any stretch – in fact, if you’re not a low-bodyfat type, that might be a decisive factor in buying it over the GTI – but the GTI’s seats are missed in the cheaper car.

If I’m making it sound like the Jetta is a rolling hairshirt, it isn’t; it has a class-competitive interior, but it definitely suffers by comparison to the Mk 7 Golf line, which has always punched far above its weight when it came to interior quality, and still does, even in its seventh (and final) model year. Save for the HVAC controls, everything in the GTI’s cockpit looks and feels like money, and when you close your eyes and shut the doors or trunk, you get that same “German unobtainium” sound that you get over at the Audi store.

On the other hand, VW tosses in keyless “comfort” access, push-button start, and adjustable interior “ambiance” lighting as freebies on the base GLI model; you’ll have to spend well over 30 grand to get the first set of features on a GTI, and the accent lighting – assuming you’re into that – isn’t available at all. Both cars offer the usual connectivity/infotainment niceties, including Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, in-car Wi-Fi, and a suite of basic passive safety features (automated emergency braking, rain-sensing wipers, rear-assist, blind-spot monitoring, and so forth).

Both cars also offer a feature that should warm the heart of any enthusiast – user-configurable drive settings for the steering, transmission, front differential, and engine note. Opt for the automatic transmission on either model and you also get a launch-control system.

Under the sheet metal, both cars are practically identical. The starting point is the excellent EA888 2.0T motor, which anyone who complains about “2.0 China compliance engines” should try out. It’s basically a slightly-uprated version of the engine in my old A3, and I can tell you from experience that it’s got plenty of punch, suffers minimal turbo lag, has a nice engine note, and even likes to rev beyond 5,000 rpm. You can mate it to a fine-shifting six-speed manual (I’d quibble on the clutch travel, but that’s about it), or a great seven-speed dual-clutch “DSG” automatic. The VW group has put this drivetrain in a wide variety of VW and Audi cars, and it’s got the formula down pat. My only concern is the water-pump-made-of-Kleenex issue, a $1,800 repair that my A3 fell victim to at the ripe old age of 60,000 miles, but that’s why on the eighth day, God made factory warranties and 45,000-mile leases.

Both cars also have uprated – and very strong – brakes sourced from the Golf R, and an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential; step up to the Autobahn trims on either car and you get user-configurable suspension damping.

If that sounds like everything you need for a really good time behind the wheel, you’re exactly right, but if you drive both cars back-to-back, you’ll find two distinct roadgoing personalities.

Tons of digital ink has been spilled on these pages about the joys of driving a GTI, so I won’t add much more. Let’s just say that there aren’t many cars that fit the “pure driver’s car” mold at this price anymore – Mazda Miatas and the Toyobaru twins come to mind – but the GTI does, and for this kind of money, it’s the only one you can use to shuttle stuff and your family around in. It’ll practically beg you to be driven hard, and when you do, it responds like an eager little puppy – it’s quick, direct, loves to dig for the quickest way through a corner (this is where the electronically-controlled limited-slip diff really shines), and the brakes feel strong and sure.

The GTI could use a bit more steering feel, and more power would always be welcome, but this car’s “delightful to drive” rep is well-earned. On the debit side, the GTI rides a bit too stiffly to be an ideal commuter on Denver’s awful streets, and it’s also a touch loud on the highway, but it’ll certainly do as a daily driver (it’s a lot better than, say, a WRX).

The GLI offers a different take on the same basic mechanicals. Buff books have strapped testing instruments to both cars and concluded they both have the same basic performance envelope, and your backside will tell you the same story – bend the GLI into a corner, and it’s certainly eager (with a touch more understeer than the GTI), and darned quick, but while the GTI insists on going fast, the GLI merely encourages it. Take the GLI out on the highway, punch in “comfort” mode, and its personality comes into clearer focus: It’s very refined and quiet, with a far smoother, more relaxed ride.

The GLI’s bigger footprint explains some of the difference, as does the choice of tire – the GTI rides on 40-series rubber, and the GLI on 45-series.

Both of these cars are immensely gratifying to drive, and each has its’ own charms. I’ve wanted a GTI since my junior year in college, and it’s an automotive Jack Russell terrier – always ready to play, always looking to go a little quicker, and enjoying every minute of it. The GLI is a tad more relaxed, more mature, but always ready to turn it on at a moment’s notice.

There’s a moment when a car connects with me, and for me, it happened when I was piloting a GLI on I-25 (I won’t mention how fast I was going, at least not until I’m past the statute of limitations on speeding in Colorado). It was one of those perfect little automotive moments: a clear highway, a bright blue early-summer Colorado sky, Tony Bennett on the stereo, the A/C wafting softly, and the GLI’s engine humming quietly, but just loudly enough to let me know it was ready for more. I’d done a similar run up I-25 in a GTI, and while it was certainly acceptable, it was also slightly rough-edged. I also realized – much to my chagrin – that as much as the GTI’s sport seats appealed to the 21-year-old in me, my backside is 57 years old, and it was more comfortable parked in the GLI’s more accommodating seats. The GTI wants to be a racer, and the GLI wants to be an Audi … and the Audi owner in me can’t resist that. I’d wanted a GTI since forever, and I’d miss its cheeky plaid sport seats and its cute hatchback butt, but I realized its “hey, hey, hey, let’s go fast right now!!!” attitude and slightly uncouth everyday manners would get old rather quickly.

I was sold. And with that, I made the decision to buy my second Jetta – and this one would be far, far cooler than the first.

Which GLI model, though? The GLI is available in two trims – S and Autobahn – and each can be had with a 6-speed manual or 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic. We’ll revisit the transmission choice in a second and delve into trim first; the latter was by far the easiest call.

The S model has all the good stuff I’ve talked about before covered, and the Autobahn model adds configurable chassis dampening, leather seats with ventilation, an uprated Beats audio system, a very Audi-esque digital cockpit including a configurable LCD instrument panel and a larger touchscreen; and a panoramic sunroof. All this stuff comes at a pretty stiff price – about three grand – and Autobahn models are rather scarce.

Still, I’m boujee, so I was considering one when I remembered the $800 seppuku the pano roof on my A3 committed at 60,000 miles, and TTAC’s own Corey Lewis’ sad tale of woe about the endless troubles on his pano-roof equipped VW Alltrack (there’s actually talk of a class-action suit against VW and Audi over this problem). I’d have enjoyed the nicer stereo and the cooled seats, but I have learned the hard way that when it comes to VWAG product, the less stuff that can go wrong, the better. Base model, glad to meet you.

So, manual or automatic? First, off, can I get an amen that this car offers a choice? The GLI’s six-speed is a very nice piece – not as good as the one in the Civic Si, but certainly good enough, and it allows all the usual driver-engagement joys that you only get with a manual. It was also a tad cheaper, which is always nice. The experience was good enough that I wasn’t even going to try out the slushbox. But the sales guy I was working with – and if you’re here in Denver and want to buy a VW, I’d definitely recommend him, by the way – suggested I try out the automatic.

And – hate away if you will – the DSG automatic version is the one I bought. For the record, of the eight cars I’ve bought with my own money, five have been manuals, and I was fully prepared to toe the “Manuals 4Ever” line and make this my sixth.

So why did I go with the automatic? For starters, quicker is better in my book, and the DSG-equipped GLI, with its launch-controlled, eye-blink shifts that are quicker than any human being could possibly make, will outrun the manual version. And it doesn’t give much up in terms of driver engagement – in full-sport mode, you can use the excellent paddle shifters to hold revs indefinitely, and the car will charge out of corners with authority. Meanwhile, in Comfort mode, my GLI is perfectly happy in Denver’s rotten everyday traffic, and on the interstate, the seventh gear offers a serene, Audi-esque ambiance.

We like to argue on this site about why manual-equipped cars are dying a slow death, and the usual suspects are things like “too much infotainment,” or “the big bad gubmint.” But this latest car shop has brought this into clearer focus for me. There was a time when a manual was the only way to really get the most out of an enthusiast-oriented car, but that’s changed. My GLI is a performance car, and it performs better with the automatic; aside from the Mazdas I tried, I also had zero problem with the automatics in most of the other cars I “dated” (the 10-speed in the Accord Sport, in particular, is a very nice unit).

So why are manuals dying? I’m sure electronic stuff and regulations have something to do with it, but it’s become obvious to me that the real threat to the third pedal is how incredibly good the best modern automatics are. I certainly hope the choice of a manual “sticks” around (Ed. note: Haha!), even if I chose not to buy one this time around. As for the future, I suppose we’ll see what happens 39 months from now.

The big decisions made, and the papers signed, there was one last choice to make: What to name my new baby.

Farewell, Mitzi … hello, Isabella. Here’s hoping our road together is happy, fun, and ticket-free. And no bad water pumps, please.

[Images provided by the author]

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  • Goacom Goacom on Nov 03, 2021

    Brilliant! I think you could have a career as a writer! Maybe you already are one? Now regarding the car, if only they sold the Golf GTI in wagon form. I currently own a 2019 Sportwagen with the 1.4T. Great economy with 40mpg easily attainable at 70mph and 500miles to a tank. Still, it is a bit of a slug when merging on the highway.

    • FreedMike FreedMike on Nov 04, 2021

      I had a '16 Jetta with the 1.4T as well - very good engine. Leased it for three years and had zero issues. The manual was definitely the way to go with that car.

  • 3800FAN 3800FAN on Nov 03, 2021

    I took a look at the GLI when car shopping but had to pass it up because I needed something a little bigger. Im a Honda guy but I wasnt a big fan of the 2018+ accord either. It did feel big but you sit so low and slung back in it, like a camaro lol. I ended up going with the older, 2015 accord with the v6. Its fun to drive but the extra weight in the front reduces handing compared to an i4.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?
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