The new VW Jetta GLI may be more GTI than the real GTI

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

The GLI is slower than a GTI but offers all the driving fun.

The Jetta GLI has always occupied a strange niche in the Volkswagen model line. The GTI is typically the go-to affordable sports Volkswagen, and the GLI has always felt like the compromise proposition for Volkswagen buyers; it was hard to endorse choosing the relatively soft, grown-up sedan vs. the youthful, more-tightly tuned hot hatch. And with the Golf moving to a four-door-only offering four years ago, it made the Jetta even less appealing, as the outgoing GTI actually offered more cargo space than the Jetta and still kept an accessible back seat.

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A turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and a six-speed manual transmission are standard.Victoria Scott

But the MK7 GTI is no more, and now the relatively forgotten GLI has a chance to stand outside the shadow of its five-door sibling. Volkswagen has fully revamped the GTI and Golf R for the 2022 model year, but the Jetta GLI persists with the last-generation interior and drivetrain that it shared with the outgoing GTI. The GLI has been refreshed for the 2022 model year, but make no mistake, under the skin, it’s the same as it has been since its introduction in 2019.

On paper, this makes it look relatively weak compared to its newest hot-hatch sibling. The GLI still persists with the third-generation EA888 2.0L turbocharged inline four, with 228 HP and 258 ft-lbs of torque; the GTI now punches out 13 more horsepower and 15 more ft-lbs with its fourth-revision EA888. All lower trims of the GLI have been dropped, with only the fully-loaded Autobahn edition offered at an MSRP of $30,995, which makes it roughly $1,500 more than the base price of the all-new GTI on offer. The GTI has actually gained a slight amount of cargo capacity, now offering just shy of 20 cubic feet, whereas the Jetta offers just 14.1 cubic feet. Nearly everything in the spec sheets favors the newest iteration of the hot hatch over the sporty Jetta.

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The new GLI makes its limits clear through a communicative steering system and chassis tuning.Victoria Scott

When I drove the GLI, it was at a media event in Asheville, North Carolina, through some of the most fun and challenging roads East of the Mississippi. I bookended my hot-Jetta driving experience with the all-new MK8 GTI and Golf R, and as I’ve written here before, those two cars didn’t quite cut it for me. They’re both incredibly competent and quick hatches, but the newest iteration of VW’s infotainment makes the interiors feel considerably less usable, and the handling dynamics are now more buttoned-up and refined. Surely, the new MK8 GTI will be faster around a track than the outgoing MK7 generation car, but it didn’t strike me as nearly as much fun. With the Golf line, fun should be key; the first generation GTI had all of a whopping 108 horsepower and that was still plenty to define an entire generation of sports cars, because it was so damn enjoyable.

And so I was sad to report that the shift to the MK8 is the first step back in the history of the long-running VW line, and driving it made me nostalgic for the wholehearted embrace of driver amusement and driver involvement that the MK7 had mastered. And lo and behold, the GLI is right there, still persisting with its last generation interior that still has physical dials and buttons, and it finally has a chance to be appreciated in the way it’s always deserved to. The lesser numbers belie the true point of the new GLI: It is the final hurrah of the MK7 generation’s perfected formula.

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The GLI is every bit as capable as an everyday cruiser as a normal Jetta.Victoria Scott

So as soon as the GLI is evaluated off of the specification paperwork and on the streets, it shines. The new sheet metal looks sharp, and helps give the GLI some of the aggression it’s always been missing as the softer, more adult GTI sibling. The interior is mostly unchanged from the outgoing generation’s layout with the exception of the unfortunate capacitive-touch steering wheel shared across the VW line, but there are still physical controls for volume and climate control, and that’s enough to make it a pleasant place to be. Because the only trim available is now the fully-loaded Autobahn package, it has all of the finest tech and driver comforts VW currently offers, including Volkswagen’s excellent IQ.Drive driver-assistance package and a bumpin’ BeatsAudio 400-watt sound system. The seats are comfortable, the interior is quiet, and the driving position is relaxed enough that even when eating highway miles, it feels like a usable daily driver in the way a Jetta is expected to be. Whip it through some corners, though, and it truly makes its case.

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The GLI remembers that fun doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.Victoria Scott

On the two-hundred-plus tight corners of my test roads in the hills of Asheville, the GLI’s chassis felt excited in a way that the GTI no longer does. On hard braking, there’s noticeable weight transfer from front to rear that doesn’t loosen the tail but loads the front suspension in a lively, predictable manner. The Hankooks scream long before the nose gently understeers at the limit in a way that’s extremely easy to anticipate and forgiving when you do push a bit too hard. The body doesn’t suffer from excessive roll but it lets you know that it’s feeling the G’s in the same way you are; it is not a corner-terminator perfectly optimized for lap times in the same way the newest hatches are, and it’s more fun for it. The steering feel is less surgical than the MK8’s, but it makes the car more engaging in the switchbacks of North Carolina’s finest twisties. Boost comes on with just the slightest delay, and the GLI’s engine management tuning encourages revving it all the way out.

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The GLI now gets 13.4-inch brake rotors for incredible stopping power.Victoria Scott

All of these traits make it slower than the new GTI, but as a driver just looking for a fun run through some incredible roads, it made me much more captivated by the GLI. As I’d line up a corner I’d actually need to throw it down a gear, make sure I nailed my braking points, and give it as much power as I could as early as I could and let the now-standard LSD yank me out of the corner. I could do all of this on the tight roads of NC-209 because I never was unclear where the limits were, thanks to how expressive the chassis tuning is and how progressively the front end loses traction. Slamming the brakes late into a corner is more confidence-inspiring than ever, too, because the GLI now gets the massive 13.4” brake rotors that previously only the MK7 Golf R had. And for an extra dose of fun, where the MK8 gained a dose of quiet and moderation, the GLI didn’t – it barks on downshifts, and it sounds great doing it.

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Competition for the GLI is stronger now than ever before, with several great affordable performance cars hitting the market this year.Victoria Scott

Granted, it’s not all perfect. Downsides of the MK7 were few, but they’re still present: the manual transmission is unchanged along with the rest of the drivetrain, and so the six-speed I drove suffered from typical VW long throws and vague feel, and I did miss the new generation’s electronic brake booster as the day went on and I began to feel the GLI’s pedal fade. The price is admittedly a bit high for what it offers, with strong competition from the likes of Hyundai’s Elantra N and Honda’s 11th generation Civic Si inbound, both likely to start slightly cheaper.

But at its core, the new GLI nails Volkswagen’s ethos for affordable sports cars with such deftness that at the end of my day in Asheville, when we could take out any of the new Volkswagens we’d driven for more photos or driving time, I walked right past the technologically superior all-new hatchbacks and straight back to the GLI. A car can always be improved on paper, sure, but the GLI remembers that fun doesn’t show up on a stat sheet, and I love it for that.

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