Jetta Rides GLI into New Market Inroads

John Gilbert

The redesigned 2019 Jetta steps out ahead of the compact segment with it new GLI high-performing model. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The redesigned 2019 Jetta steps out ahead of the compact segment with it new GLI high-performing model. Photo credit: John Gilbert
In bright “Tornado Red,” the Jetta shrugs off its somewhat plain image for a bold  advancement in performance. Photo credit: John Gilbert
In bright “Tornado Red,” the Jetta shrugs off its somewhat plain image for a bold advancement in performance. Photo credit: John Gilbert

If you accept the Volkswagen Jetta as an outstanding value in a compact family car, with excellent gas mileage and only the lack of a hot engine holding you back from making the purchase, hesitate no longer. All you need to do is select the newly introduced GLI version of the Jetta and you have the best of both worlds. 

The Volkswagen Jetta began life as a Golf with a trunk, giving the German company a tandem of worldwide vehicles, with the Golf the small hatchback and the Jetta the same car but in 4-door fashion with a trunk.
The world market adapted pretty well to the utility of the Jetta, but it had a raging love affair with the Golf, which had grown from the Rabbit to be everyman’s — and every family’s — hardy and fuel-efficient commuter car. About a decade ago, the revelation came down that the Golf soundly outsold the Jetta in every country of the world where both were sold, except the United States, where the Jetta outsold the Golf.

I always attributed the oddity to the U.S. consumers who acted as though it was a mandate when observers suggested that American buyers are losing their desire for hatchbacks. Now, hatchbacks might make the most sense in smaller cars, but after that word got around, people seemed to quit buying Golfs, and competitor such as Civic hatchbacks. When Volkswagen built a U.S. factory in Chattanooga almost a decade ago now, it was to capitalize on that tendency, building the Jetta aimed at the U.S. market. The Golf continued to sell well everywhere, including its high-performance models, there GTI an the Type R all-wheel drive version.

Having expanded the Golf to 4-door models, it seemed like heresy when VW built the hot-rod GTI in 4-door form, but it continued to do well, to the point where 46 percent of all Golfs sold in the U.S. were either GTIs or Golf R models. Meanwhile, VW came out with an all-new Jetta, distinctive looking almost by its lack of flashiness.

Driver command is enhanced by a simple, sporty, but stylish interior, including  flat-bottom steering wheel. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Driver command is enhanced by a simple, sporty, but stylish interior, including flat-bottom steering wheel. Photo credit: John Gilbert

A few months ago, VW let it slip that the Golf would no longer be brought into the U.S., except for the GTI and R. If they were selling nearly half of all Golfs, why not?
The Jetta, meanwhile, facing the criticism about being plain, and maybe being unexciting for hot-rodders, had become an excellent car, with a solid new platform that unobtrusive body shape, and a roomy, comfortable interior to hold four or five. Plus it had that large trunk. It is an excellent family car.

It also came with a bold new engine concept, a comparatively small 1.4-liter but with a turbocharger, which gave the Jetta plenty of kick but also boosted it up to the high 30-miles-per-galloon level, with gusts to 40. The basic Jetta was a refined, and fine, way to go on a family drive.
Of course both the Jetta and Golf were over-50-mpg cars with the legendary VW turbo-diesel, which came under so much fire for its ability to fool the EPA regulators on emission testing. That looked like a blow that VW might not recover from, although the company battled back with those outstanding new gas engines, such as the 1.4 turbo. The Golf also started using that engine with great results, while still producing the 2.0-liter turbo for the GTI.

Those who criticized the conservative look of the new Jetta didn’t have the GLI in mind, with its low-profile wheels and tires. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Those who criticized the conservative look of the new Jetta didn’t have the GLI in mind, with its low-profile wheels and tires. Photo credit: John Gilbert

For 2019, VW is far from resting on its laurels. For its 35th anniversary edition, the Jetta brings back the GLI — its “hot” version that is pretty much a GTI with a trunk.
I just recently got the chance to test the Jetta GLI, and it is more than just a high-performance upgrade. It looks the high-performance part, however, in bright Tornado Red with a contrasting glossy black roof, and its glossy black grille adds to the image.
The base Jetta is one of the true bargains of the auto world, coming in with a price tag down surprisingly under $20,000. The GLI has the GTI’s 2.0-turbo, with 230 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. Compared to the 147-horse 1.4 turbo, the GLI kicks you up and into the mainstream in the fast lane.

We got up and over 30 mpg in mostly city and combined city-freeway driving, with a smooth stick shift with which to select our six speeds forward. Part of the GLI package is well-structured bucket seats with an attractive and tough fabric covering, and the flat-bottomed steering wheel tips you off that the steering and handling are tweaked up toward performance. Not that it is ever harsh, but it sets the GLI apart.

Styling touches set off the GLI grille from the hroizonta bars of the normal  Jetta. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Styling touches set off the GLI grille from the horizonta bars of the normal Jetta. Photo credit: John Gilbert

One of the more surprising upgrades of the GLI is that it looks different, in a sporty sort of way. I like the look of the basic Jetta, with its new grille that resembles the upscale Passat sedan’s front, but the GLI takes on a definite sporty appearance, with a blacked-out grille and an entirely different attitude. Several times, passersby would ask, “What is that?” when I would park and climb out. Everyone seemed surprise when I said, “Jetta,” but quickly added the GLI amendment.

It seems as though every week through mid-May, we got the dubious benefit of a snow squall or two  in order to give me a more thorough test. Sure enough, the other surprise I got was that the GLI’s 18-inch black wheels with their red-ringed stripe had shed its all-season tires for special low-profile “summer” tires — a term now spent on the warning that any slippery surface will become VERY slippery with those Hankooks. I drove carefully, and also chose my judiciously.

On dry pavement, or even wet, the tires stuck well and cornered very well no matter how aggressively I ran around any bends. The special suspension up front held the GLI in proper check, and it behaved properly when I would run the revs up high between shift points.
At $27,890, the GLI still represented a bargain, with the added punch, handling, steering and other features. The engine has direct fuel injection and the turbo, and its limited-slip has front differential lock and a cross differential system with dynamic electro-mechanical power steering with variable assist.

The 2019 Jetta GLI places itself at the top rung of compact sedans. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The 2019 Jetta GLI places itself at the top rung of compact sedans. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Anti-lock brakes with electronic full-force assist and electronic stability control, and other useful features for driving aids include a driving mode selection switch, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking aid, blind-spot monitor and rear traffic alert, and the hill-start assist is a welcome feature on the steep avenues of Duluth, Minnesota, where even without a late-spring snow it can be a challenge to start up with a 6-speed stick while climbing up to a stoplight.

Volkswagen continues to make shrewd marketing moves. For example, if I had to choose it would be difficult to decide between the base Jetta and the challenge to hit 40 mpg, and the GLI, which won’t reach 40 but will give you impressive 0-60 punch while still delivering 30 mpg. Yes, the GLI handles superbly, although the base Jetta handles surprisingly well.

The GLI showed fuel estimates of 25 city and 32 mpg highway, and we did attain that highway figure with ease on the freeway. That makes it a car you could take a family trip in with excellent economy, and still take it out for the neighborhood autocross on a weekend.