Review: 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn
If you own and enjoy a newer front-drive compact, you probably owe a measure of gratitude to Volkswagen.
For a good fifteen-year stretch starting in the late 1990s with the debut of the Mk IV Golf, VW set the benchmark for refinement and sophistication in the compact segment. There was a heavy dose of German engineering: Consider that as far back as 2008, you could spec a GTI with a turbocharged, direct-injected engine and dual-clutch transmission—kit even most luxury cars of the day had yet to obtain.
It was more than just components, though. There was was character. The interior quality of these small VWs was not just best in class but better than most cars in the class or two above. I drove a Jetta from Michigan to Boston in 2009. I remember not only being impressed but also being unimpressed by most of what I drove in the months after. Automakers everywhere took note and developed a generation of compact cars and crossovers in their image. The Honda Civic Sport Touring I recently reviewed more closely resembles a Mk VII (2015–2021) GTI in its styling, refinement, and driving character than it does any previous Civic.
The 2022 Jetta GLI in many respects benefits from the blueprint established by its great predecessors, yet it also lives in their shadow.
If you haven’t been keeping up with VW’s lineup changes, a recap: Starting in 2010, Jettas diverged from the Golf, becoming larger, less expensive, and generally more suited to the budget-conscious American compact car shopper. This was part of the automaker’s larger ambitions to sell 800,000 vehicles in the United States. That plan didn’t quite pan out, but the Jetta remains a relatively large, affordable entry point to German car ownership. The GTI is now entering its eighth generation as the only Golf in this country, leaving the refreshed Jetta as the primary compact offering. The GLI, which has long been a GTI with a trunk, is now very much a different car.
Let’s start with the size. The new GLI Autobahn comes across like a midsize sedan. This is partly a tribute to the creeping growth across the industry (have you sat in a 3 Series recently?). Yet the Jetta’s design seems intended to draw attention to its larger dimensions. The roofline is upright, traditional. Busy styling in the grille and superfluous creases on the hood add visual weight to front end. One editor saw hints of the last Ford Taurus in the squared-off rear bumper. As a result, even though the GLI has a similar footprint to the latest Civic, it looks both bigger and frumpier. Picture how you look in pleated pants, and you’re not far off.
VW product planners clearly assume bigger is always better in America and, well, they’re not wrong. This American duly appreciated being able to stick two child seats in back and still have a cavernous trunk for their stuff. It’s the “less expensive” part where VW continues to miscalculate. The hard plastics and seemingly sprayed on carpets in our test car are well behind most of the competition even at the Jetta’s $21,460 entry point; for the test car’s $32,685 sticker, they’re almost insulting. GLI-specific upgrades such as comfortable leather bucket seats and a leather-wrapped, flat-bottom wheel elevate things a bit but also serve to illuminate how cheap the rest of the cabin is. Have you ever redone the chrome on a car only to realize it calls more attention to your crappy paint? Some consolation: The Jetta hasn’t yet followed the new GTI off the touchscreen deep end. It has a screen, of course, but buttons remain for key radio and climate-control functions.
Volkswagen has also attempted to add back in costs they’ve cut from the Jetta’s mechanicals, here to much greater effect. Aside from a bigger engine than the standard Jetta—the great 2.0-liter EA888 engine in 228-hp spec—the GLI gets a multilink (versus torsion bar) rear suspension, stiffer and lower springs, and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. These are pretty significant upgrades for what amounts to a niche trim package on a model of waning importance (the Jetta, long VW’s bestseller in the United States, now trails the Taos and Tiguan). Herein lies the brilliance of the MQB components set—it allows VW to swap parts and even change dimensions at minimal cost.
Given the hardware, you’d expect the GLI to drive something like a GTI and indeed it does. The EA888 is far from the only direct-injected turbo four on the market these days, but it’s still one of the best, providing near instant torque and plenty of power throughout the rev range. The six-speed manual (a dual-clutch automatic is optional) has longer throws than you might expect for a sport sedan, but the shifter glides through the gates with minimal slop and clutch engagement feels smooth.
We tested the GLI’s mettle at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. The track has several long corners that punish a driver for jumping on the throttle early, a potential trap for a heavy, powerful front-drive car. Yet with a smooth right foot and some help from the limited-slip diff, the VW bounded onto straights with verve. The steering wheel likes similarly easy, deliberate inputs, as the 3272-pound GLI has plenty of weight to transfer. After a day of lapping, I wished for all the track-friendly stuff, like summer tires (offered when the car launched but no longer available), bigger brakes, and even stiffer springs. On the way home, navigating highway construction and potholes, I reconsidered. Even when Mitsubishi Evos and Acura Integra Type Rs sat at the top of the sport compact food chain, Volkswagen took a more relaxed approach, and for most drivers most of the time, it was the right approach. It still is.
Indeed, a lot about the Jetta GLI feels right. The problem is that the remaining players in America’s compact car market are cold-blooded killers. In particular, the Honda Civic Si and the turbo, all-wheel-drive Mazda 3 start for less money than the GLI and provide levels of refinement and style on par with stuff costing ten grand more. VW should recognize those cars—it used to build them.
2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn
Price: $32,685/$32,685 (base/as-tested)
Highs: Just-right balance between performance and comfort for a family-friendly sport compact.
Lows: Frumpy styling, downmarket interior at an upmarket price.
Summary: A fine car that falls short of the bar VW itself set.