Jetta GLI

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2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Test Drive Review

The GTI’s spiritual sibling has everything but the hatch—and more—for less.

7.8 /10
Overall Score

The Jetta GLI is a near-mechanical twin to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The big difference between the two models is the Jetta GLI is a sedan, while the GTI is a five-door hatchback. The Jetta’s wheelbase is 2 inches longer than the GTI’s (105.6 inches vs. 103.6 inches), and the Jetta is about 100 pounds heavier at 3,228 pounds to 3,294 pounds (depending on equipment). Yet the Jetta has a personality all its own—including options and features unavailable on the GTI—and may appeal to a different buyer. This is more than sedan versus hatchback—it may be cool versus hot.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

The Jetta GLI was first introduced as a 1984 model, a year after the Golf GTI hit showrooms in the United States (as the Rabbit GTI). Back then, the Jetta and the Golf were very similar, riding on the same platform with identical mechanicals and very similar styling, almost like sedan and hatchback versions of the same car. While the two vehicles have diverged somewhat over the generations, they still share a platform—the Volkswagen MQB architecture—and have a lot of mechanical similarities.

The GLI is based on the standard Jetta sedan, which features four doors and a “coupe-like” roofline, much sleeker than the traditional notchback profile of the original 1984 model. This sleek styling helps contribute to a slippery 0.29 coefficient of drag (cd). The GLI uses a sport suspension that lowers the vehicle by 0.6 inches versus the standard Jetta. A lower front spoiler and big air intake at the front, along with lower side skirts enhance the look. All of the exterior lighting is LED, distinctive and expressive. The Jetta’s grille is filled with a honeycomb pattern, like the GTI’s. A small tail spoiler, a finned diffusor, and chrome exhaust tips finish off the rear. 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels fill the wells, and standard red-painted Golf R front brakes peek out through the spokes.

Tasteful red badges on the front grille and rear trunk lid identify the Jetta GLI as one to watch, and a red line through the grille ties it with the GTI.

Inside, the GLI takes the Jetta interior and turns it up a notch. Soft-touch materials abound, and sporty details have been appended to the standard features. The steering wheel, shifter, armrest, and floormats have red stitching, as do the heated comfort sport seats (cloth on S models, leather on Autobahn). The headliner is black, which looks great, and the trim is “Diamond Flag,” in VW-speak. Stainless steel covers dress the foot pedals, and the steering wheel is leather-wrapped.

Performance

7/ 10

Like the GTI, the Jetta GLI comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to produce 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque (using premium-unleaded fuel). All Jetta GLI models are front-wheel drive (FWD) only. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and a DSG seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters is $800 extra.

Our test vehicle was equipped with the manual gearbox, which would be our choice for the most satisfying enthusiast driving experience. The clutch feel is just right—nice and light but positive—and sawing through the gears is great fun. There’s a slight fuel-economy penalty for choosing the manual, but it’s worth it. The EPA estimates the manual Jetta GLI can achieve 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined, while the DSG-equipped model is rated at 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway/28 mpg combined. The EPA estimates were measured burning regular gasoline, not premium.

The Jetta GLI is quick, but not blazingly so. It probably breaks the 6-second barrier in a 0-60-mph run and has a top speed electronically limited to 155 mph.

Where the GLI excels is in its handling characteristics. It feels very well-balanced and uses power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering that delivers great feel and a variable ratio. A tight turning radius of 36.74 feet (curb-to-curb) means parking lot maneuvers and sharp curves are easy to make, and the stiff suspension keeps the car flat and steady. Pick a good line, and the GLI carves it, without asking for mid-corner adjustments.

The Jetta has great body stiffness, too, so there’s no sense of twisting or creaking on the road. The suspension is conventional, with struts up front and independent multi-link in the rear, with anti-roll bars at both ends. The Golf R brakes, good-looking as they are, offer more than show and do a great job of hauling down the car from speed. Unlike the GTI, which uses a mechanical parking brake, the Jetta GLI upgrades to an electro-mechanical parking brake, which cuts down on potential hooliganism, but is a preferable feature as it frees up center console space.

Form and Function

8/ 10

The VW Jetta GLI’s cabin is a tidy space, with plenty of clever storage spaces. The door pockets in particular are quite roomy, with space for a big water bottle plus an iPad or compact laptop. The glove compartment is a good size, too, and there is concealed space under the center armrest, and in the center console. Map pockets in the back of the front seats and door pockets provide storage for second-row passengers. The trunk can swallow up to 14.1 cubic feet of luggage. The rear seats can fold down, allowing for long packages to intrude into the cabin.

The back seats have good legroom (37.4 inches), and comfortable outboard positions. The center seating position isn’t great but will do in a pinch for short rides (or short passengers). The front seats have exceptional travel, yielding up to 41.1 inches of legroom, which means taller drivers may find the Jetta GLI more accommodating than expected from a compact sedan.

Two cupholders up front in the center console and two in the rear, in the fold-down center armrest, work well for the American penchant for personal hydration.

The Jetta GLI’s dashboard is definitely driver-oriented, with controls angled toward the driver in cockpit fashion. The GLI uses an uncluttered layout with easy-to-find buttons, knobs, and controls. Many functions are nested in the MIB touchscreen, which offers capacitive buttons integrated into the screen. Glare is minimal. Climate controls are easy-to-use knobs, placed lower in the center console.

Tech Level

8/ 10

As mentioned above, the Jetta GLI comes with the Volkswagen MIB touchscreen infotainment system. Base S models get the MIB2 composition color unit, a 6.5-inch touchscreen. This system comes with two USB-C ports, an SD card multimedia interface, and Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming.

The Jetta GLI Autobahn model comes with the new third-generation MIB3 system. It uses an 8-inch touchscreen, and wireless App-Connect, which can connect with multiple phones. Wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink take connectivity to the next level, greatly enhancing the convenience of using smartphones and handheld devices. HD Radio and Sirius XM radio (with a three-month trial) are included and Beats Audio powers the sound. There are two illuminated USB-C ports. Wireless device charging is standard on Autobahn models.

Volkswagen Car-Net is a suite of three connectivity functions in a mobile app: Remote Access, Safe & Secure, and Hot Spot. The suite is provided at no charge for the first five years of ownership and allows owners to interact with their cars remotely to do things like lock and unlock, honk and flash the lights, remote stop and start, and more. The suite also offers enhanced navigation and infotainment options, like sending directions to the car and locating points of interest. WiFi hot spot function is offered by subscription to Verizon or T-Mobile, and can easily be added to the owner’s existing wireless plan with those companies.

Car-Net also tracks vehicle health and can provide access to diagnostic information about their Jetta GLI. Family Guardian features can alert the owner when the Jetta GLI is driven at excessive speed, travels outside of a pre-set boundary, or is driven after a defined curfew—which can provide great peace of mind for parents of young drivers. Roadside Call Assist connects with the touch of one button (with a wrench logo) and can bring help in a jiffy.

One of the coolest features in the Jetta GLI is standard on the Autobahn model, but not available on the S—nor on the Golf GTI. That’s the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, a thin-transistor film (TFT) screen that replaces the gauge cluster above the steering wheel with a high-definition, configurable display. The multi-function panel is very easy to read, entertaining to configure and personalize, and is the kind of tech usually only found on premium vehicles—a big bonus for the Jetta GLI.

Safety

8/ 10

The 2021 Jetta GLI received a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rated the Jetta, but not specifically the Jetta GLI, “Good” (its highest rating) overall. We believe the Jetta GLI would be rated the same.

The GLI comes with a good array of standard safety features, as expected. Three-point safety belts for all seating positions, six airbags, anti-lock brakes, anti-slip regulation, engine brake assist, electronic brake pressure distribution, hydraulic brake assist, electronic stability control, electronic differential lock, intelligent crash response system, automatic post-collision, braking system, rear-view camera, and tire pressure monitoring system are all standard.

Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert are standard driver-assistance features on both the S and Autobahn models. Autobahn models add adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and high-beam control.

We feel Jetta GLI’s nimble handling and crisp braking are also important safety features—the accidents we always survive are the ones we’re able to avoid in the first place.

Cost-Effectiveness

8/ 10

Pricing for the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI starts at $26,345 (plus $995 destination) for the base S model and $30,745 (plus $995 destination) for the loaded Autobahn model. Add $800 to either model to swap the six-speed manual transmission for a seven-speed DSG (but we wouldn’t). Both the S and Autobahn models come well-equipped, but we’d opt for the Autobahn in order to get the MIB3 system with its bigger infotainment display, the Digital Cockpit, adaptive cruise control, leather seats, sunroof, and more.

If you’re considering a Jetta GLI, you’re probably measuring it against a Golf GTI. While the hot hatch is an icon, it’s a tick more expensive, starting at $28,695, and you can’t get the Digital Cockpit. The GTI is a little sharper handling, but only a little, and it can haul a much bigger load in its cabin, so it will be a matter of utility and taste.

You can also measure the Jetta GLI against worthy compact sedan and hatchback competition, like the Subaru WRX (starting at $27,495), Hyundai Elantra N-Line (starting at $24,100), Honda Civic Type R (starting at $37,895), and others.

The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI has a lot to offer, from great looks to exciting performance, from comfort to technology. You can spend less, and you can spend more, but the GLI feels like a sweet spot that tough to beat.

Updated by Jason Fogelson

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