Ever since it was released in the late 1980s, the VW Jetta GLI has always played second fiddle to the more famous Golf GTI. Several generations of GLIs have been less powerful and, judging from contemporary road tests, not as good. Well, the new VW Jetta GLI now has the same amount of horsepower as the GTI, but is it as good? My dad and I test drove it at the 2020 Washington Auto Show to find out (all impressions of steering, handling, and powertrain responsiveness are my dad’s--because I’m not old enough to drive).
On the show floor, I spent some time in both the GLI and the GTI, and the difference in interior room was dramatic. The Golf had an OK amount of space, but it was not enough to be comfortable on long trips. The Jetta had significantly more rear seat space than the Golf, which helps me to understand why it’s so much more popular among American buyers. The Jetta also has a very large trunk. (click the title to read more)
All photos from VW's US website
The interior of the Jetta is pretty good. It won’t blow you away, but it feels very well made, and the materials are quite good. The design is sort of restrained and elegant. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to the outside of the car. There’s nothing offensive about the car’s styling, but it’s pretty generic and not nearly as attractive as the Golf.
Despite being larger than the GTI, the GLI starts at about $1,600 less ($26K vs. $27,600). Not a major difference, but fairly surprising still. In the past, the tradeoff was that you got less power in the GLI, but that’s not the case anymore--the GLI gets the same 228 horsepower, 258 lb-ft of torque turbocharged 2.0 liter inline four as the GTI, and in both cars, the engine comes with either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed DSG automatic. Our test car was the top trim level, the $30K Autobahn model, and it came with the optional DSG. However, the DSG was excellent--very responsive and smooth, even in stop-and-go traffic where other dual-clutch gearboxes we’ve tried (I’m looking at you, Ford Focus and Dodge Dart) have been horribly unrefined and unresponsive. I’m sure a manual would have been more fun, but the point remains: There’s no shame in getting a GLI or GTI with a DSG--unlike, say, getting an automatic Miata.
The GLI also rode very well--as well as the (non-performance oriented) Honda Civic. Overall, it was a very comfortable car that I think the vast majority of Americans could use as a daily driver. And yet the GLI doesn’t seem to sacrifice driving fun to achieve these goals. The environment that we were driving in (downtown D.C.) was not exactly ideal for testing performance cars, so I can’t say for sure how good it was. However, the GLI seemed like a very fun car, with sharp, responsive handling and excellent body control. Also, the engine was excellent. Certainly, comparing the GLI to an ordinary compact sedan, you see exactly where your money has gone. And speaking of money, that’s the other great thing about this car--many people can easily afford it, especially if you skip the frankly unnecessary Autobahn trim, which basically only gives you leather seats, a substance that is inferior in nearly every single way to cloth, and requires you to kill animals to get it--but I digress.
The GLI has gone through phases of being extremely good and being slightly underwhelming, but this is definitely one of the good ones. It’s quick, fun to drive, practical and good value. It’s a sports sedan with none of the downsides, a GTI with more room and a lower sticker price. If you can afford to buy a dull family crossover, you can afford to buy this, and you will give up very little to do so. If you want a daily driver that is fun to drive and still very usable, it’s hard to think of a better option.
Rory Cahill is a highly sarcastic teenage car enthusiast and amateur automotive journalist, who is especially interested in 80s/90s cars, classic off-roaders, and anything weird. He owns a 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbodiesel. He is also very interested in rock music and politics, and wrote this whole bio in the third person because he is a filthy, filthy snob