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The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Shines as a GTI with a Trunk–But with a Cheaper Interior

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 4/10/2019 Tony Quiroga

a close up of a car: I love the Volkswagen GTI. I've owned three of them. Last year alone, my sister became a GTI owner and my friend Rudy bought one because he asked me for a recommendation. Unlike everyone else in my life, he actually listened. The GTI is an easy car to recommend because it never disappoints. It balances practicality, performance, refinement, and price in a way that has earned it 16 10Best Cars awards. Most of us would spend our money on one. Several of us around C/D HQ have. But there's less enthusiasm for the GTI's mechanical twin, the Jetta GLI, which returns for 2019 riding on the VW Group's ubiquitous MQB platform. There's a reason for the ambivalence. The GLI isn't as good-looking, inside or out, as the hatchback GTI. And starting with the last Jetta and continuing in the new generation, Volkswagen has pulled pennies out of the sedan's take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dish until it was left with a dollar-store version of the Golf.
I love the Volkswagen Golf GTI. I've owned three of them. Last year alone, my sister became a GTI owner, and my friend Rudy bought one after he asked me for a recommendation. Unlike everyone else in my life, he actually listened. The GTI is an easy car to recommend because it never disappoints. It balances practicality, performance, refinement, and price in a way that has earned it 16 10Best Cars awards. Most of us would spend our money on one. Several of us around C/D HQ have. But there's less enthusiasm for the GTI's mechanical twin, the Jetta GLI, which returns for 2019 riding on the VW Group's ubiquitous MQB platform. There's a reason for the ambivalence. The GLI isn't as good-looking, inside or out, as the hatchback GTI. Starting with the last Jetta and continuing in the new generation, Volkswagen has pulled pennies out of the sedan's take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dish until it was left with a dollar-store version of the Golf.

If you've ever bought sunglasses for a dollar, you know that dollar stores are great for bargains, and the 2019 Jetta GLI is a bit of one. Equipped with the same 228-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four as the GTI, the GLI starts at $26,890, or $1600 less than the Golf-based hatchback. Think of that discount as an apology for the molded-in stitching on the instrument panel, the hard and shiny door plastic, and a tacky gauge cluster that even prebankruptcy General Motors might've rejected. At least VW offers a welcome and bright 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster, but only on the top Autobahn trim level. Speaking of which, a GLI decked out in Autobahn trim begins at $30,090, or $6800 less than a similar-spec GTI. If you're shopping for a loaded example, the GLI's price advantage becomes a more serious incentive to go with the sedan. You could buy a whole dollar store's inventory with the savings. Our 35th Anniversary example came to a reasonable as-tested $28,985, with its only option being $295 for Pure Gray paint with a contrasting black roof.

a car parked on a city street: Riding on a new platform, the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI channels the driving goodness of the Volkswagen GTI hatch but falls short of parity on interior quality.© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Riding on a new platform, the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI channels the driving goodness of the Volkswagen GTI hatch but falls short of parity on interior quality.

Moves with Familiar Verve

Let's try to look past the interior and focus on the hardware, which is what GLI customers will need to do. All of the important sporty bits are here: an independent multilink rear suspension, firmer chassis tuning, a limited-slip differential, 13.4-inch front brakes from the Golf R, and a variable-ratio electrically assisted steering rack. Adaptive dampers are fitted to 35th Anniversary models. Cockpit adjustable, the electronically controlled dampers provide a calmer ride and slightly sharpened responses, but the standard setup on the base GLI works well enough to make the standard car a regret-free choice. Not surprisingly, the sum of these parts results in a very GTI driving experience.

Easily the best-looking part of the GLI's interior is the steering wheel borrowed from the GTI. As in the hatch, there's real feel behind the GLI's leather wrapping. Select the higher-effort Sport setting or leave it in Normal; the quick steering (2.1 turns lock to lock) is accurate and pleasing in either mode. On Hankook Ventus S1 Evo3 summer performance tires that VW assures us are available-the option isn't on VW's consumer website yet-grip levels on the skidpad measured a stellar 0.95 g. In fact, the body control, the rightness of the primary controls, and the acceleration are all right there with the GTI. We measured a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.6 seconds with our dual-clutch automatic test car, matching the best figure we've recorded for a GTI.

a car parked in front of a brick building: The 2019 VW Jetta GLI Channels Its Inner GTI© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver The 2019 VW Jetta GLI Channels Its Inner GTI

Right off idle, the short delay before the power hits reminds you that the turbo needs a little time to make all 18.0 psi of boost, but otherwise, the throttle snaps to attention at anything above 2000 rpm. You hurtle ahead on the wave of a 258-lb-ft plateau of torque. Piped-in intake sound is adjustable and ranges from spot on in Normal to annoyingly loud and juvenile in Sport. EPA fuel-economy estimates are identical with the standard six-speed manual and the optional DSG automatic-25 mpg city and 32 highway-but the GLI's 28-mpg-combined estimate bests the GTI's by 1 mpg. Our test car, however, achieved an impressive 36 mpg on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy route.

Both gearboxes are as excellent here as they are in the GTI. The manual transmission's efforts are light, but there's a positive action that makes shifting easy. If you flub a shift, it's on you. Missing a shift isn't possible with the (no-cost) optional DSG, although it will occasionally deny you a downshift when you're aggressively setting up for an apex. Driving a GLI like a GTI does make you notice that the seats aren't as supportive, because they aren't the same seats. Instead of the GTI's bolstered and plaid-covered beauties, the GLI gets the Jetta SEL Premium's seats. Volkswagen reps tell us this was done because sedan customers don't want the added difficultly of getting out of a deeply bolstered seat. Even the leather in the Autobahn model lacks the quality look and feel of the GTI's-a common GLI refrain.

Spacious but Shy of Greatness

According to its interior measurements, the GLI is only 1.2 cubic feet more spacious inside than the GTI. The front-seat space feels about the same as the GTI's, but stretch out in the rear seat-which has nearly two inches of additional legroom-and you'll be convinced that someone measured it wrong. On the outside, the GLI is much larger than the GTI. Overall length is nearly a foot and a half longer, and most of that added length goes to the huge trunk. Like the interior, the 14-cubic-foot trunk appears far larger than the spec sheet indicates.

a car parked on the side of a building: The 2019 VW Jetta GLI Channels Its Inner GTI© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver The 2019 VW Jetta GLI Channels Its Inner GTI

There's more car to love here than in the GTI, and for those who buy by the inch, the Jetta GLI will be an easy choice. Put up against its only sedan competition, the Honda Civic Si and the Subaru WRX, the Jetta GLI makes an even more compelling case. The Civic Si is smaller, has less power, isn't as quick, and comes only with a manual transmission. Compared with the WRX, the GLI costs less and is larger, but it lacks all-wheel drive and can't quite match the Subie's acceleration.

In addition to those three GTIs, I also owned a GLI. But my fourth-generation Jetta GLI was virtually identical to the equivalent GTI. VW wisely made the new GLI as good to drive as the GTI, and it's a superb experience. But not fitting the GTI's better interior leaves the latest GLI just short of greatness.

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