Volkswagen has been up to a lot lately. Putting aside all that’s been in the news lately, there are several new models from the Volkswagen Group that a lot of people are getting excited for. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the new Golf R for review, and was able to quickly conclude that it is one of the best sports cars you can get under $50,000 right now. The new Golf lineup has received critical acclaim across the board, right from the base model to the R (encompassing a gulf of over $20,000, no pun intended). A few years ago, VW made the decision to split the Golf and Jetta lineup – no longer is the Golf just a Jetta hatchback (more or less). I last tested a then-new 2014 Jetta, and came away relatively indifferent.
The Jetta was a car that was changed significantly to cover a more affordable price point, and VW achieved that removing features and content that people came to expect from the “premium” make. The entry-level price came down, and sales exploded. However, being a little overzealous with the option list quickly brings the price up, almost back to what they were, when the Jetta (in its Mk6 generation) occupied a more premium price point. Small updates in 2015 and 2016 re-introduced some content that was removed, and these updates are most apparent at the bottom-end of the Jetta lineup.
The Jetta GLI stands as a separate model on VW Canada’s website, as it receives a lot of unique hardware that sets it apart from lesser Jettas. The GLI nameplate itself dates back to the mid-80s, almost as far back as the more-popular GTI nameplate. Back then, the GLI basically meant you got a four-door GTI, in a sedan body. Nowadays, with the Jetta and Golf separated from one another, the differences between the GTI and GLI add up. I was sent over the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, painted in a shade of Tornado Red, and equipped with the Autobahn package.
The Jetta GLI really isn’t just a standard Jetta with more horsepower. Rather, it gets the best available hardware that can fit from the VW parts bin. Starting with the exterior, the GLI comes with much racier colours, compared to the subdued hues of grey, white, and black that one typically finds on the standard Jetta. There aren’t any big wings or oversized fender flares here – the clean design of the Jetta largely carries over. Compared to the GTI, the GLI is a little more subdued. To me, the hot hatchback design of the GTI speaks to performance a little bit more.
What’s unique to the GLI are the tinted taillights (which also look great at night, I may add), unique 18-inch “Mallory” aluminum wheels (only on the Autobahn package), and a new front bumper and grille, the latter of which features a red accent, like the GTI does. Looking at the GLI from the side, the front fender sees a red GLI badge added, and the brake calipers are painted in the same shade of red. The Autobahn package specifically adds steering-sensitive adaptive high-intensity discharge headlights with LED daytime-running lights.
Inside, the GLI Autobahn features the best interior you can get in a Jetta these days. Some of the hard plastics of the standard Jetta are replaced with more premium-feeling materials. The heated leather seats feature more aggressive bolstering, and the steering wheel becomes a flat-bottom affair, with a thick rim and aggressive sport grips. The driver’s seat is power adjustable with the Autobahn package, but the passenger is still left to their own devices with manual adjustments. Once you push the engine start button (mounted at the bottom of the centre stack), the engine roars to life (some of the sound comes through the speakers, like the Golf R), and the 6.33-inch screen in the centre wakes up, and gives you the option for connecting your phone, for either Android Auto or Apple Carplay integration.
VW, like Honda, is making a strong push to equip all their cars in 2016 with both Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Most of VW’s current are updated to include these two technologies, save for the Touareg at the moment. It transforms what was a somewhat dated interface, into a modern and familiar way to interact with your music and navigation. Google Maps really is the obvious choice, with its refined interface and live traffic information (if your smartphone data plan allows for it). In my case, the Google Now “homepage” kept me up to date in terms of current weather, estimated time to recently-searched destinations, and even read out the contents of fast-moving group chats. I’m excited to see the consistency carry over from automaker to automaker – as someone who sits in a different car almost every week, taking that initial infotainment learning curve away really is an underrated thing.
Just because the Jetta GLI features a conventional three-box sedan body, doesn’t mean it isn’t practical like the GTI is. Front-seat accommodations are above average for the class, but what really stood out is the space in the second row, as well as the size of the trunk. Rear-seat legroom is well beyond average – two people sitting in the back shouldn’t be complaining, and the trunk can swallow up a lot of luggage, including several larger checked bags. It’s no hatchback, but the excellent packaging of this Mk7 Jetta chassis is quite impressive, considering its external footprint.
The hardware under the hood is what makes the GLI special. It borrows the 2.0L turbocharged, direct-injected (VW calls it TSI, for Turbo Stratified Injection), and intercooled gasoline four-cylinder engine from the GTI. Like the GTI, you can opt to row your own gears, with a slick-shifting six-speed manual, or VW’s excellent six-speed DSG automatic dual-clutch transmission. The engine is good for 210hp at 5300rpm, and 207lb-ft of torque from 1700-5000rpm.
The DSG is nicely programmed to make use of the flat torque curve, often utilizing the low-rpm turbo boost to build speed, rather than downshifting unnecessarily. It’s interesting to see the tachometer dance around, but VW’s DSG has been around for a while now. While it’s not bad by any means, Acura’s newer implementation integrates a torque converter into the casing, which smooths out the low-speed creep significantly. People are accustomed to taking their foot off the brake pedal and have the car slowly creep forward. VW’s DSG has to slip the clutch in order to get you moving.
The 207lb-ft of torque is easily enough to overwhelm the front tires if you’ve got the traction control in Sport mode, but VW doesn’t really let you turn all the nannies off entirely – you’ll need the Golf R for that. The GLI also includes XDS, short for Cross Differential System. It makes use of the brakes to slightly slow the inside wheel in sharp turns, which has the effect of reducing understeer and increasing grip. It’s not a “real” mechanical limited slip differential in the most correct sense, but it’s a step in the right direction. In terms of steering, the feedback through the wheel isn’t the greatest, like on many other VW family products, but the steering ratio is more than quick enough for sporty driving. Underneath, the GLI gets different suspension hardware, that’s not only stiffer and lowered, but features the multi-link rear suspension geometry that early sixth-generation base-model Jettas never got. Ride quality, as expected, takes a hit, but I wouldn’t consider it too punishing for your average city commute.
VW got into the forced-induction four-cylinder game early, as a way to increase performance and improve fuel efficiency at the same time. If you can train yourself to stay out of the turbo boost, you should be able to return some respectable fuel efficiency numbers. VW Canada rates the Jetta GLI, with the DSG automatic transmission, at 9.8L/100km in the city, and 7.0L/100km on the highway. I ended my week somewhere in the middle, with an indicated average of 8.4L/100km. The fuel tank will accept 55L of fuel. Premium fuel is recommended, but you can get away with regular if you really wanted to. For what it’s worth, the 210hp rating is achieved using premium fuel.
The Jetta GLI starts at $29,395, with the standard six-speed manual transmission. Opting for the Autobahn package will cost you $5,400, and it gets you that power driver’s seat, bi-xenon HID headlights, blind spot detection, improved infotainment, an upgraded Fender audio speaker setup, and leather seating surfaces. Adding the six-speed DSG automatic transmission is a $1,400 option, regardless of the trim level you choose. This brings the as-tested price of this fully-loaded GLI Autobahn with DSG to $36,195, before taxes and additional dealer fees.
Looking at this pricing, the Jetta GLI sits right in the thick of the sporty compact sedan segment. The most obvious competitor in my eyes is the Subaru WRX. It’s easily the faster and more dynamic choice between the two, but it makes absolutely no claims to being more refined. The interior is not as nicely furnished, nor does it get the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. How much does all-wheel drive matter to you? One other competitor, seemingly out of left field, would be the Buick Verano Turbo. It’s about the same size, and features turbocharged power, fed through the front wheels. The last one that comes to mind is the Acura ILX (review here), but after the 2016 refresh, a manual transmission option is no longer available.
Perhaps the strongest competitor to the Jetta GLI comes from within the VW family. It’s no secret that the Jetta and Golf are now very separate members of the lineup, and with all the advancements seen in the new MQB-platform, it’s more than worth your time to also check out the GTI. Unless you’ve got some sort of allergy to hatchbacks, you can get a five-door GTI, select between the two transmissions, and be treated to a better interior and chassis, overall. Both the GTI and GLI can get fairly pricey if you get it with all the options, but if you can exercise some restraint, you can get into either one at a fairly reasonable price. Just like the GTI, I like the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI for its blend of sporty, yet decently comfortable performance, subtle aesthetic upgrades, and general competence in all areas.