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 sporting credentials to the otherwise mainstream Jetta sedan.
Whether you're looking at a new or used Jetta GLI, you'll find competent handling, a strong turbocharged engine and solid European construction at a manageable price. However, don't expect the current GLI to stand toe-to-toe with the GTI hatchback. Unlike in the past, they are no longer the same car but with different trunk designs. The GLI is bigger and its driving dynamics fall well short of both the GTI and other performance-oriented compact cars. Used car shoppers will find that previous GLI generations are more appealing.
Current Volkswagen Jetta GLI
The Volkswagen Jetta GLI is available in base, Autobahn and Edition 30 (which celebrates the Jetta GLI's 30th birthday) trim levels.
Standard equipment highlights on the base GLI include 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, Volkswagen's Car-Net telematics system and a six-speaker sound system with satellite radio and an iPod interface. Added perks of the Autobahn include 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, a power driver seat, automatic climate control, heated front seats and an upgraded audio system. The Edition 30 features unique 18-inch wheels, an upgraded sport-tuned suspension and special interior trim details. Options include a navigation system package, which also includes a rearview camera, bi-xenon headlights and keyless ignition and entry.
All GLIs use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 210 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 known as DSG is optional.
The Jetta 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, but they still fall far short of the near-luxury GTI.
In reviews, we've found the Jetta GLI to be a likable car, particularly because of its roomy interior, comfortable ride and sprightly engine. Compared to the regular Jetta, it certainly offers more excitement, but its performance, interior quality, value and mediocre observed fuel economy don't compare well to other sporty compact cars like the Ford Focus ST, Subaru WRX or VW's own GTI.
Used Volkswagen Jetta GLI Models
The current-generation Volkswagen GLI debuted for 2012. The following year GLI models equipped with DSG got launch control, while the Autobahn models equipped with the optional navigation system also got a rearview camera and bi-xenon headlights. The key difference between these cars and the current model is that the turbocharged four-cylinder engine produced 200 hp.
The previous-generation Volkswagen GLI was sold as a separate model for 2008 and '09, though it also existed as a trim level within the Jetta lineup starting in 2006. Like the current car, it was a performance version of the Jetta, but unlike the current car, it had much closer ties to the GTI, and thus didn't suffer from the same disappointing performance differences. If you like the idea of a GTI but would prefer a traditional trunk, this GLI was the alternative of choice.
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.