Can't afford one of those pricey German sport sedans? Don't want to deal with any hushed, envious murmurings when you show up at the office in one? Well, there's a pretty viable alternative in the form of the Volkswagen GLI, a car that brings the sporting credentials of the GTI hatchback to the otherwise mainstream Jetta sedan.
Although the GLI badge had been the top-of-the-line Jetta trim level for several years, Volkswagen spun it off as its own model for 2008. That lasted just one more year, but VW decided to bring the name back for the newest generation of the Jetta. Whether you're looking at a new or used GLI, you'll find competent handling, a strong turbocharged engine and solid European construction at a manageable price.
Current Volkswagen GLI
The current Volkswagen GLI is a new model for 2012 and is available in 2.0T or Autobahn trim levels. Both models offer better-than-basic appointments, including air-conditioning, keyless entry and full power accessories. The Autobahn adds 18-inch wheels, a sunroof and heated front seats, and can be equipped with an optional navigation system.
Both models use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual -- what VW calls DSG -- is optional.
The GLI doesn't offer the tartan cloth upholstery of the GTI, nor its optional leather. The GLI instead makes do with either black cloth or "leatherette" vinyl. The GLI does, however, use nicer-grade materials for the dash and touch points than the regular Jetta, which is frankly one of the latter car's biggest disappointments. There's also a new rear multilink suspension allowing more spirited handling, while retaining a quiet, civilized ride for everyday motoring.
Used Volkswagen GLI Models
The previous-generation Volkswagen GLI was sold as a separate model for 2008 and 2009, though it also existed as a trim level within the Jetta lineup starting in 2006. As with the current model, it was essentially the regular Jetta of the time but with the GTI's engine and suspension tuning.
Under the hood was a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produced 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. This smooth-operating engine propelled the GLI to 60 mph in about 8 seconds. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, but VW's slick six-speed DSG (direct shift gearbox) automated-clutch transmission was a very attractive choice for those who like to change their own gears as well as those who like the car to do its own thing. Despite its performance potential, the GLI returned average fuel economy in the mid-to-high 20s.
The GLI's interior featured excellent materials, nice fit and finish and a good amount of space. Standard features were generous, including high-end items like xenon headlights, 17-inch wheels and a 10-speaker stereo. Options like 18-inch wheels, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a sunroof, upgraded audio systems and available touchscreen navigation made the GLI feel more like a premium sport sedan than its humble origins suggested.
Changes were light during this GLI's two years of production. Originally, the optional navigation system lacked a hard drive, touchscreen functionality and multimedia inputs, and heated seats were optional. For 2009, heated seats and heated wiper nozzles became standard.
Though the GTI is better known in enthusiast circles than the GLI, most Americans prefer a sedan to a hatchback. Whether driven on curvy back roads or congested city streets, the GLI offered a fun and refined ride. It may not thrill or coddle like a "real" German sport sedan, but as a cheaper, unpretentious alternative, this Volkswagen GLI is a great pick.