At the risk of revealing my age, I remember when Volkswagen Jetta was a little compact car favored by college students and hipsters, and called a Rabbit with a trunk. Jetta is all grown up now, becoming more of a mainstream sedan, though retaining a bit of its quirky quality.
For 2019, Jetta celebrates its 35th anniversary with a total redesign, becoming 3 inches longer and adding performance to the sixth-generation sports model, GLI. VW is now referring to Jetta GLI as a Golf GTI with a trunk, which is fairly accurate since the new Jetta shares the sturdy MQB platform that underlies Golf, and the GLI contains key GTI performance ingredients, such as the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 that produces 228 horsepower, up from 200.
Also on board GLI are the powerful disc brakes with bright-red calipers from the hyper Golf R, with 13.4-inch vented discs up front. Rear suspension is multilink for improved handling, which is also sharpened by variable ratio power steering and a limited-slip differential that includes XDS+ technology to vary power to each front wheel under cornering loads.
The GLI sports suspension lowers the car 0.6 inch and features driving-mode selection with normal, sport, eco and custom settings – normal for regular driving, sport that stiffens the suspension and quickens responses from the throttle and optional automatic transmission, eco for fuel-efficiency, and custom mode in which a driver can pick and choose combinations of handling and response.
As expected, Jetta GLI is a sharp performer that provides much of the balance and agility of the Golf GTI, although blunted slightly because of additional size and weight. GLI earns its label of sports sedan, presenting a driving enthusiast who requires four doors and a usable rear seat with a viable alternative to the sprightly GTI.
GLI is also one of the few sedans still offering a manual transmission, a 6-speed, although the test sedan came with the optional 7-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic with Tiptronic and paddle shifters. While I would have vastly preferred the 6-speed manual, I quickly became aware not only that the DSG automatic is an excellent unit but that the engine flexibility adapted well to the precision shifting.
The 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo-4 felt quite strong, the added horsepower and 258-pound-feet of maximum torque – up 51 pound-feet from the previous model – evident in the car’s power delivery and feisty acceleration, accompanied by a throaty exhaust note.
Fuel mileage is good, at an EPA-rated 25 city and 32 highway with either manual or automatic.
The GLI can run on regular gas, VW says, although the horsepower and torque figures were determined using premium, according to the technical-specification sheet. Some experimentation would be in order, then, to decide whether the higher-octane blend is worth the extra bucks.
Jetta initially drives with a laid-back feel, pretty much like any regular midsize sedan, that is until you push it some and make it come alive. In sport mode, a winding road becomes a playground, the GLI able to rush through curves with composed ease, the GTI brakes allowing a driver to go way deep into those curves before applying the pressure. Very good performance overall that compares well against pricier Europeans.
But when you need it to be a relaxed family conveyance, Jetta GLI is right there with a ride that is comfortable and refined, and an interior that is straightforward and accommodating. A solid combination of fun and responsibility.
Jetta’s body styling looks sleeker than previously, those extra 3 inches seeming to add flair to the design. The VW has a clean look, with extra ridges and contours that make it appear up-to-date without going too over the top, as with some of today’s extremely geometric designs.
The test car was painted in a neutral Pure Gray shade, which might have looked plain if not for the red GLI emblems, calibers and accent line across the grille, which help the car stand out from the crowd. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels with low-profile performance tires complete the look.
The interior of the base GLI S test car was fairly sporty without being too flashy. Although, this is where Jetta reveals its economy-car roots; those accustomed to luxury interiors might find it disappointingly ordinary. There are two higher-level GLS trims, the 35th Anniversary Edition and the loaded-up Autobahn model.
The attractive dashboard is accented on the Jetta sport model with a red character line that reflects the exterior accents. Dashboard controls and the console are oriented toward the driver, which gives the Jetta a cockpit feel.
As befitting its younger demographic target audience, Jetta is loaded with connectivity as well as such features as interior ambient lighting in your choice of 10 different colors. Jetta also includes a full suite of safety and crash-avoidance technology.
Jetta GLI acquits itself well both as a sophisticated everyday car and an edgy performance machine. And the pricing is reasonable; the GLI S that I drove was well-equipped with a bottom line of $27,985. Manual-shift models are a few hundred cheaper.
Sure, sedans are getting wiped out across the board as consumers opt for practical SUVs and crossovers. But GLI offers the kind of style and performance that underscores the sheer enjoyment of driving a dialed-in automobile that has you looking forward to the next curve in the road.
2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 2.0T S
Vehicle type: five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $26,795 Price as tested: $27,985
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, 228 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 258 pound-feet of torque at 1,700 rpm Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic
Wheelbase: 105.6 inches Overall length/width: 185.2 inches / 70.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,274 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 25 city / 32 highway / 28 combined
Assembled in: Puebla, Mexico