The sport compact car market has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, with the Honda’s excellent Civic Si and Acura Integra, Subaru’s very aggressively priced WRX, Hyundai’s magnificent Elantra N, and the eagerly awaited GR Corolla all being brand new, VW’s Jetta GLI remains a steadfast staple in the segment. The question is, does the stalwart 2023 Volkswagen Jetta GLI stand up to its younger competition, or does it get left it in the dust?
From a value standpoint, the Volkswagen Jetta GLI is tough to beat. Its combination of performance, styling and interior quality are all high points. However, it does not take top spot on the podium in the qualities just mentioned. In terms of performance, the Jetta GLI is more powerful, and the engine feels significantly punchier when compared to the Honda Civic Si. The GLI is faster in the 0-100km/h run by nearly a full second. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces a respectable 228 horsepower, with torque figures ringing in at 258 lb-ft at a very low 1500 rpms, being able to sprint to 100km/h in 6.6 seconds.
While the numbers best Honda’s offering, the Hyundai Elantra N and Subaru WRX have jumped into the fray with more impressive figures to the tune of 286 and 271 horsepower, respectively. Even VW’s own GTI hatchback manages to coax 13 more ponies from the same engine; the GLI needs more time at the gym.
This works in the 2023 Volkswagen Jetta GLI’s favor when it comes to fuel economy figures. Fuel economy in the city is rated at 9.0 L/100km and highway at 6.5 L/100km. I achieved an impressive 7.9 L/100km during my test week. Unlike its competition, the GLI is quite happy with regular gas, which is a nice added bonus.
The GLI feels more than capable of handling twisted roads, but the winter tires on our test car didn’t allow us to push close to its limits. The GLI has been outfitted with an electronic limited slip differential and adaptive dampers as standard, along with 18 inch Phantom wheels. The GLI also benefits from a multi-link rear suspension layout, a distinct improvement over the torsion beam setup in the more pedestrian Jetta models. Driver inputs are precise and communicative, making the GLI a willing partner. Ride quality is composed and entirely German in feel. Only the biggest of potholes will rattle the GLI. Those inside are well insulated from the outside world.
Buyers can opt for a six speed manual transmission, or choose the tried and true seven-speed DSG transmission that still works fabulously, but has been outdone recently by the Elantra N’s eight-speed wet-clutch DCT. Choose the DSG and expect snappy shifts, faster acceleration times, and better fuel economy over the manual option; this is one of the very rare cases where the manual option isn’t automatically the better one.
Where Volkswagen has decided to play it safe is with the exterior design. There are a few visual highlights to differentiate the GLI from a regular Jetta. The biggest changes are the two red vents found below the front headlights and the large twin exhaust outlets out back, along with a subtle trunk lip spoiler and of course the aforementioned wheels. Lighting is handled by LEDs all around. Personally, I would have loved it if Volkswagen took a chance by coming out with something more bold and daring, as we’ve seen on the newest GTI and Golf R.
Inside, Volkswagen has the 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit Pro that looks fantastic. I love the option of having a map right behind the steering wheel, nestled neatly between the configurable gauges. This gives the GLI a more upscale look that is missing from its competitors. Black leather heated and ventilated seats with red perforation are standard here and are welcomed with open arms. From afar, the interior looks upscale and the touch points feel good, but upon closer inspection, hard plastics are found making up the majority of the dashboard, door panels, and center console.
Unlike the latest GTI and Golf R, an actual volume knob and buttons are present. This, along with the wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay made my commutes stuck in traffic a rather pleasant experience. Everything is simple to use and accessing menus was a snap. The standard 9 speaker, 400 watt Beats Audio system is good and on par with the competition.
Pricing is where the 2023 Volkswagen Jetta GLI makes a strong case for itself, matching and beating its direct competition. With the GLI priced at $35,532 with the manual and $36,932 with the DSG equipped model, it matches the Civic Si and Subaru WRX, while being significantly better equipped than either of them. It undercuts the Elantra N by several thousand dollars, but its much greater performance envelope and involved driving experience will give enthusiasts a hard choice to make. Volkswagen does offer the much pricier Golf R for those looking at one of the best performance packages available for those loyal to the brand.
With the latest batch of affordable performance sedans and hatchbacks hitting the market, the 2023 Volkswagen Jetta GLI could easily get lost in the shuffle. This would be a shame as the GLI has much to offer for those that aren’t ready to sacrifice comfort and value for the sake of impressive lap times. Not everyone needs a complicated AWD system or performance options galore to make a fun car. In this case, the GLI is a simple performance compact sedan that still manages to put a smile on your face.