The Jetta GLI is the performance-oriented, range-topping model in Volkswagen's compact sedan lineup. Whereas the latest version of the normal Jetta sedan was de-contented to lower its price point for the American market, the GLI (as well as the Jetta Sportwagen) feels premium inside and drives smartly thanks to an engine, suspension and interior shared with the European model.
Outside, the Jetta GLI surprisingly forgoes the GTI's front fascia with its trademark red styling. Instead, the front of the GLI is defined by two prominent horizontal lines across the top and bottom of the grille, which combined with the trapezoidal headlights help create a distinct look. Out back, the GLI has a special rear diffuser and a small lip spoiler, as well as smoked taillights.
The cabin of the GLI features sport bucket seats with red stitching and a sport flat-bottom steering wheel with red stitching, the GLI logo and aluminum accents. The overall interior styling consistently follows the sporty exterior lines of the car and includes a soft-touch dashboard and other premium interior trimming that were stripped out of lesser Jetta models for cost reasons.
The GLI is available in cloth or V-Tex Leatherette and also features alloy pedals, shifter, dash and door trim. To increase versatility, the rear bench seatback is split 60/40 and folds.
While lesser Jettas make do with a simple twist-beam rear axle for the latest generation (previously, all Jettas had a fully independent suspension), the GLI benefits a four-link independent rear suspension with an upgraded anti-roll bar. This setup helps the GLI hug the corners like a GTI with a trunk and avoid the somewhat imprecise handling of normal Jettas.
The GLI also accelerates like a GTI thanks to a powertrain taken directly from Volkswagen's sporty hatchback. Underhood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 210 horsepower (up 10 for the latest model year) and 207 lb-ft of torque that mates to either a satisfying six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic transmission. The DSG comes with steering wheel-mounted paddles for sequential-style shifting and rev-matched downshifts, and for the latest model year the transmission gains launch-control for speedy acceleration runs.
Equipped with the DSG, the GLI is rated at 24 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway, while opting for the row-your-own option will mean trading one city mpg for an extra one on the open freeway.
Trim Level Breakdown
Volkswagen makes the GLI as a base model, the mid-grade GLI Autobahn and the top-spec GLI Autobahn with Navigation.
The entry-level GLI comes equipped with A/C, power windows and locks, a Touchscreen Premium VII sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels, sport-bolstered cloth seats, cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free smartphone connectivity, an iPod input jack and a leather wrapped multi-function steering wheel with shifter paddles if the car is equipped with the DSG transmission.
The GLI Autobahn adds heated seats upholstered with V-Tex leatherette, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 400-watt Fender audio system, a sunroof and 18-inch alloy wheels.
True to its name, the GLI Autobahn with Navigation brings a navigation system in addition to keyless access with push-button start. For the latest year, the trim level gains a rearview camera and bi-xenon headlights with LED running lights.
The Jetta GLI includes several features designed to enhance driver and passenger safety including electronic stability control, tire pressure monitoring and Volkswagen's advanced Intelligent Crash Response System, which initiates automatic safety protection in some types of collisions the electrical supply to the fuel pump is shut off, the doors unlock and the hazard lights switch on.
The GLI also features driver and front passenger airbags, dual side airbags in front and dual Side Curtain Protection airbags in front and rear.
The Jetta GLI's main rivals include the Ford Focus ST and Mazda Mazdaspeed3, both of which combine potent turbo fours with hatchback versatility, as well as the Subaru WRX, which features all-wheel-drive and the choice of a sedan or five-door hatch configuration. Those looking for something outside of the mainstream can also opt for the Mitsubishi Lancer, which features a de-tuned version of the legendary Evolution's engine and a dual-clutch gearbox.