You’re shopping for a new, compact, practical, sporty car, looking to spend $30-35,000. What are your options? The Volkswagen GTI is an obvious answer, an institution unto itself. The Honda Civic Si is a popular mainstay for good reason. The Subaru WRX is a contender, if you like the new styling. Hyundai’s been making waves with their Veloster N and Elantra N. There’s an argument to be made for the Mazda3, as well. You probably never thought about the 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI – but you should have.
The sedan based Jetta GLI has been around for just as long (1984), and for the large part has been just as good, if not better than its hatchback Golf GTI sibling in some cases. Despite this, the Jetta GLI has stood in the shadows of the seminal Golf for decades, often being relegated to simply being “a GTI with a trunk.” That title wasn’t really fair years ago and it’s certainly not fair now.
It’s not even really accurate now, either. As of 2022, the Golf hatchback has been discontinued in North America, cannibalized by VW’s own Taos and Tiguan crossover SUVs. The only flavors of Golf available are the GTI and R models, which are on an entirely different platform from the Jetta sedan, whose sales are healthy. Clearly, the Jetta has tapped into some relevance that allows it to remain steadfast in the onslaught of the all consuming monster that is the damned crossover. The spicy GLI model must have some unique relevance too.
It’s been specced with some pretty serious hardware to maintain that relevance, for sure. For starters, it’s powered by the ubiquitous EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four, which has motivated the majority of VW’s cars for more than ten years now. In this application, it generates 228hp and 258 lb-ft of torque – available from just 1500 rpms. It’s augmented by a generous lump of boost, which is fed by both port and direct fuel injection for adequate fuel supply, and it breathes through a water cooled manifold integrated into the block, and larger exhaust pipes.
That muscle is directed via a seven-speed DSG transmission, or in the case of our test car, a six-speed manual. From there it’s managed by an electronically controlled clutch-based limited slip differential, and it’s all suspended by adjustable shock absorbers and specially tuned springs. The brakes are lifted directly off the Golf R to adequately quell the autobahn pace the GLI is capable of.
The autobahn, or at least our autobahn is where our GLI spent a lot of time. If I may share a personal story: I found a very rare set of old AMG wheels that I’ve been seeking for quite a while, and at a great price. I’ve been down this road before – you’ve got to act quickly before someone else scoops them up, and I knew they’d be gone that day. I had to be there with cash first. The only issue: the wheels were located in Ottawa, a 900km round trip from my home in Toronto. Thankfully, I was scheduled to pick up the GLI that day.
I picked up the keys, was told “have fun!,” and immediately peeled out (accidentally; it’s punchy) towards our nation’s capital. What a neat solution to my problem and what a perfect way to get to know the GLI, and I’m happy to report it was a great drive. The driving position is typical teutonic perfection, and the heated and ventilated sport seats strike a good balance between support and comfort. The cabin is trimmed in black leather with contrasted red stitching and bright red trim on the chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and shifter to inject some sporting personality into the space.
On the road, the GLI is a pleasure to pilot, employing a plethora of engineering wizardry accessed through customizable drive modes, to be good at everything. In comfort mode, everything softens up and quiets down to be breezy and easy. VW’s excellent radar cruise control and lane keep assist make it so that you can really relax and enjoy the ride, or explore the infotainment system.
Said system comes straight from the Mark 7.5 Golf, which is a welcome reprieve from the divisive new entirely touch-based system on the newest Mark 8 platform that underpins the GTI. It’s controlled by an eight-inch touchscreen, which is crisp and responsive, and very conveniently placed for easy reach. The ten-inch digital gauge cluster works very well with the touchscreen to convey any and all information and control you could ever want.
It combines a vast array of customizability options, but does a brilliant job not inundating with too much all at once. It relies heavily on touch and swipe and pinch controls, but is executed intuitively and is for the large part immediately easy to figure out on the fly. All this touch reliance is supported by physical buttons and knobs for radio and climate controls, so you never have to hunt for essentials. The only downer is the gloss black steering wheel haptic-style “buttons,” which only work okay and start looking grimey in short order. Beyond this, it’s an extremely impressive system.
The BeatsAudio sound system sounds good enough, but its real strength lies in the ridiculous thumping bass it’s capable of, if that’s what you’re into. The Jetta is generally quiet, with low engine noise (when not in sport mode), and minimal wind noise. There’s a tiny bit more tire roar than we’d like from the Hankook Kinergy rolling stock, but otherwise there’s little in the way of intrusion. Visibility is good, head and leg room and generous in front and rear, and the trunk is gigantic.
All this coalesces into a car that’s easy to spend time in. It’s rare to come across a car that you can spend that many hours in without needing to stop and stretch. The Jetta’s 50L gas tank combines with fantastic highway fuel economy (6.3L/100km average for the jaunt to Ottawa, 8.8 average overall) means you can cover a serious amount of ground without needing to pause.
That’s not all to say the GLI is just a highway cruiser. With all the settings dialled to sport, it’s a genuinely fun driver’s car. The shocks firm up decisively, the super-quick steering weights up, and the exhaust opens up for a meaty tuner-esque thrum. The engine sharpens its response and builds boost quickly, able to provide a rush of torque on a whim. The limited slip differential goes a long way to help put that torque down and pull you through tight corners in a big hurry.
The 6 speed manual is well geared to make use of the engine’s turbo lungs, with close gear ratios to provide excellent flexibility at all times. The clutch is incredibly well gauged, and makes it easy to be fast and smooth with your shifts. The brakes are typical VW: responsive and reassuring, but just a little too jumpy initially, making it almost impossible to heel and toe smoothly. The shifter is also typical vee-dub, feeling a little artificial with light throws that are very short side to side, and a little longish fore and aft – more than good enough, and we’re thrilled it’s here at all. It’s a lot of fun when you want it to be, hitting all the right notes.
It’s such a pleasure to see that Volkswagen has listened to enthusiasts, and ticked all the boxes in making a great little sports sedan. A punchy engine with remarkably throaty exhaust, a proper manual transmission, a real limited slip differential, communicative controls, and taut suspenders. Perhaps most impressively of all, it pairs this enthusiast goodness with all the practicality of the base Jetta, with seemingly nothing in the way of compromise. It even takes the same regular gas, too.
It’s a good deal, too, ringing in at $31,895, before taxes and destination and all that. There’s not much in the way of options or packages – it’s loaded to the gills as standard, just pick your paint and add $1,400 if you want the DSG automatic. Truly, the 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI proves itself as an excellent buy for the practical enthusiast, and perhaps moreover, can finally step out of the shadow of its hatchback sibling and be more than a GTI with a trunk.