The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is fun, but it leaves something to be desired

My first car was a Jetta—a Tornado Red automatic 1992 GL. I was 17, and it met my discerning prerequisite of “cute Volkswagen.” I had no idea that there even was a sportier trim, called the GLI, but the joy I got from my Jetta turned me into an all-out VW enthusiast.

Today’s VW diehards in the U.S. have two standard-bearers of performance, both based on the Golf—the GTI and the Golf R. And now that the Jetta is based on the same MQB platform, the arrival of the 2019 Jetta GLI means there’s another member of the beloved sport-compact family in the mix. This one is a bit bigger, sports a trunk, but is otherwise essentially a GTI underneath.  

My first go at the new Jetta GLI is over Deal’s Gap, a road otherwise known as the Tail of the Dragon, where VW hosted journalists for the test drive. It’s a famous stretch best known among motorcyclists and drivers of tight-handling cars like Miatas, but if the GLI is anything like the nimble GTI it’s based on, the sporty sedan should at the very least be able to keep pace at the Tail of the Dragon and escape unscathed.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI wheel detail
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI four and five door options

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI rear 3/4
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI interior

Like the GTI, the GLI uses the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 228 horsepower—a welcome improvement over the base Jetta’s 147 horses. The GLI also boasts larger front brakes borrowed from the top-tier Golf R, multilink rear suspension instead of the base Jetta twist-beam setup, and an electronic limited-slip front differential. Crucially, too, the GLI comes with a six-speed manual transmission, unlike the outgoing GLI, which offered only a dual-clutch automatic. DSG fans can still get the optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission for $800 more.

Admittedly, the volume of enthusiasts that want a sporty, yet also approachable, sport-compact sedan is a sliver of the overall market. As the Jetta’s product planner, Daniel Shapiro, points out, the GLI is meant to compete with the Honda Civic Si and the Subaru WRX. That seems fair for the GLI S, which starts at $26,890 and comes with tons of standard kit like LED headlights and taillights, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, and blind-spot monitoring. But once you cough up $30,090 for the GLI Autobahn, even with its fancy Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, leather seats, and remote start, VW’s sport sedan becomes more of a fully-loaded alternative to an entry-level Audi A3 or Mercedes A-Class.

Our test car for the Tail of the Dragon is a 35th Anniversary Edition model, which stickers for $27,690 and includes adaptive dampers on top of a litany of unique styling cues. Decked out with a contrast black roof, honeycomb grille, dual exhaust, red accent stripes, and red brake calipers, it looks purposeful and sporty, despite the fact that this is still a family-friendly sedan you’d happily use for your daily commute.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI badge
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI side profile

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI driving

The GLI is also rewarding to drive, even (mostly) abiding by the Dragon’s 30-mph speed limit. In the manual car, the clutch is super light and easy to engage, and the shifter has a gentle feel as you engage each gear. The engine has so much available torque at the ready that it was almost too easy to stuff the car into third gear and run through the Dragon’s entire 11 miles. The chassis is responsive but also forgiving, certainly more so than in the more taut GTI. Those of us who were unfamiliar with the road were warned that the motorcyclists often take the racing line—that is, swing around a blind curve and a bike might be in your lane—but on those occasions, the 13.4-inch front brake rotors helped buy us plenty of time. With a quick stab of your foot the car slows down briskly and predictably, with a firm feel that comes through the brake pedal.

The chassis’ somewhat softer behavior compared to the GTI may leave enthusiasts somewhat wanting, but it gives the GLI a more approachable feel of its own that might be appropriate for the larger, more spacious Jetta. Still, this car feels somewhat half-hearted for a sports car, lacking fun personality elements like the GTI’s signature plaid seats and golf ball shift knob.

Should the GLI be every bit as good as the GTI? I think so. It used to be, even though it has never been lavished with the same kind of attention the GTI has enjoyed. For me, it doesn’t elicit the teenage thrill I remember from my first Jetta, but then again, I’m not a teenager anymore. That said, the GLI is awfully close to being as good as its hot-hatch sibling. If you for some reason need a trunk, look no further.

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