The GTI is a sport injected version of the otherwise mundane Golf hatchback. The Golf GTI was an instant success and has catapulted following generations into legendary status and becoming the benchmark for hot hatchbacks. In 1984, Volkswagen wanted to see if they could create similar success for the Jetta line up and launched the Jetta GLI for North America. The idea was to provide an affordable and family oriented option for enthusiasts who wanted to stick to a sedan. 2019 marks the 35th year since the first iteration, hence the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 35, a unique anniversary edition, was released to celebrate the milestone.
Just like all traditional Jettas the styling is very sedate and modest. The GLI adds more aggressively styled bumpers and red accents in the grille for a sportier look to set it apart from the rest. Subtle black side skirts and rear valences over two single tip exhaust outlets on each side are added as well; the GLI is stylish without being exuberant. The 35th anniversary edition adds black exterior styling including a rear lip spoiler, black mirror housing and roof making the GLI even bolder. The 18” Sevilla wheels comes in dark gunmetal with red ring around the edge. Special “35” red badges are added to the fender and various interior locations to make the model exclusive.
The interior of the GLI is standard Volkswagen affair, which is good news. The GLI receives the extremely good digital gauge cluster seen in Volkswagen and Audi products. The display is crisp and vibrant, but more importantly the level of customizability is way beyond this segment. You can have a full map display to various combinations of trip information and audio info. The main infotainment is also excellent, with a responsive touchscreen and easy menu layouts. Connectivity with your mobile device is enhanced with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Unfortunately, to keep the infotainment screen front and centre, Volkswagen chose to put the vents below the screen and HVAC control even further down. This makes managing your climate settings distracting as well unusual air distribution. The interior is great until you really scrutinize the materials used. Most touch points have nice leather or soft touch materials, but it is really limited to a few key contact points, while the rest has a lot of hard plastics. It is most noticeable on the door panels and center console surrounding the shifter. However the red stitching used on the seats and the beauty of the three-spoke steering makes you overlook most flaws.
Another standout feature is the ventilated front seats, not very common in this class. Another feature common to all previous Jetta is class leading interior space. Front and rear leg room is ample and the trunk space in enormous rivaling many full-sized sedans with a volume of 399L. This combination of interior features emphasizes why the GLI is such a great all around family vehicle as well.
Volkswagen’s ethos for the GLI is to be a truly all-around vehicle for the enthusiasts. The handling really takes care of the aspirational race car drivers in all of us young fathers. With the help of Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), you have two cars in one. Putting the GLI in the “Sport” setting allows it to carve through bends and corners with poise and confidence, with no excessive body roll or immediate understeer. Equipped with a limited slip differential, the driver has ample control over the front end and can really feel the front wheel grip pull through the corners. The steering is very responsive, though a bit on the lighter side but with enough weight to be direct. The GLI’s suspension tuning inspires confidence, while being sufficiently firm for the segment.
Continuing on with the fun theme, the GLI is powered by its trusty 2.0 TSI engine sending power to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The engine is tuned to 228 horsepower at 4,500RPM and 258 lb-ft. at 1,500 rpm. With so much torque down low in the rev range, the engine remains very responsive. The GLI is willing to pick up and go at all speeds; burying your foot gives you a surge of torque that pushes you into your seat. While in Sport mode, you are rewarded with a low and aggressive growl from the engine induction; a sound that is a bit artificial but still very enjoyable. A launch control mode allows drivers to put lift off with a perfect launch every single time.
The transmission shifts fast as you would expect from a DSG, but surprisingly it is the part of the equation that saps the fun out of the GLI. The gearbox is too eager to up-shift in all drive modes. Even in manual mode using the paddle shifters, the GLI refuses to relinquish full control to you. There doesn’t appear to be a mode where you can have full control to access the entire rev range without the computer shifting up way before redline. The GLI has great handling and power, but yet still leaves my enthusiast side feel a bit empty in the drama that it lacks
It appears Volkswagen had to make some sacrifice to ensure the GLI receives excellent fuel consumption ratings. In my week of mixed but mostly city driving, I was able to observe an average fuel consumption of 9.2L/100km. The car is rated at 9.3L/100km city and 7.2L/100km highway, for a combined of 8.4L/100km. I felt the consumption versus performance ratio in the GLI is excellent. For the power and acceleration you get, it’s easy to expect efficiency that’s significantly worse than what we observed.
The GLI comes fairly loaded at its starting price of $31,695. Our tester came in at $34,840 with the only two options being the DSG gearbox and Driver Assistance package. The latter package at a cost of $995 feels like something that should be standard. It includes importance safety features such as blind spot detection with rear traffic alert, lane assist, as well as forward collision warning. Adaptive cruise control is also part of the package making this package a must- have box for those who commute in heavy traffic every day, and those who value resale down the road.
In the market today, stand out competitors to the GLI would be the Honda Civic Si (reviewed here) starting at $28,590, and the Hyundai Elantra Sport at $25,449. All three options are compact sedans that aim to take care of family duties while entertaining the enthusiast behind the wheel. The Civic Si provides comparable driving dynamics and sportiness at a slightly lower price but also less equipment. The Hyundai is the always the value leader in terms of bells and whistles included. As in past years, the GLI is the only option that delivers refinement and interior appointments a notch above the Japanese and Korean entries.
The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI ontinues to carry the spirit of its predecessor. It provides an excellent package to carry a small family in comfort and refinement while satisfying your inner enthusiast with impressive performance. While you can definitely feel where compromises were made to strike the perfect balance between comfort and athleticism, the edges have been shaved to make sure the GLI is refined for daily duties. The latest edition of the iconic sport sedan does indeed carry the GLI spirit and reminds us why it has been such a great choice for 35 years.