2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI review: Hot hatch in sedan clothing

The GLI is everything we love about the GTI in a Jetta-shaped casing.

Emme Hall / Roadshow

The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is what happens when a hot hatch grows. This sports sedan has all the trappings of its boisterous GTI sibling, packaged in a handsome, mature casing.

Like it

  • Excellent handling
  • Powerful turbo engine
  • Nice design, if a little boring

I do not like

  • Steering numb
  • Bad infotainment technology on the base upholstery

The GLI stands out from the standard Jetta with larger air intakes, a low front spoiler and unique side skirts. The grille takes some styling cues from the GTI with its honeycomb pattern and classic red stripe. The GLI is 0.6 inches lower than the standard Jetta and has a unique rear bumper and diffuser, as well as dual chrome exhaust tips. But even with these sporty touches, the GLI still slips under the radar.

The Jetta GLI is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine that pushes out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque – the same powerplant you’ll find in the GTI. The GLI comes with front-wheel drive, and while it’s possible to get a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, my tester has the six-speed manual. Point.

My Autobahn trim comes complete with the DCC adaptive damping system, with Normal, Sport and Eco modes, plus a custom setting. DCC lets me dial that custom setup, with individual options for damping, steering, transmission, engine sound, front differential, and even climate controls.

However, I don’t think custom setting makes much of a difference. Despite trying a lot of different setups during my week with the car, the Normal and Sport modes work just fine. Much of my praise for the standard Sport setting is due to the limited-slip front differential that works with the GLI’s electronic differential lock. Torque goes to the front wheel with the most grip, there is little or no understeer, and wheel slip is non-existent.

The 2.0-liter engine produces 228 hp and 258 Nm of torque.

Emme Hall / Roadshow

The base Jetta gets an old-school torsion-beam rear suspension, but the GLI upgrades that hardware to a multi-link independent configuration. Combined with the stronger roll bars and stiffer springs of the GLI, this sedan is definitely ready to play. Quickly settles down after curving undulations, exiting an off-camber curve without a single hair out of place. The steering is fast, direct and heavy, although it could use a little more in the way of feedback. The 13.4-inch ventilated front brakes are lifted from the Golf R hatchback, paired with 11.8-inch diameter brakes at the rear. These caps are solid, although I wish the pedal engagement point was just a little bit higher.

The GLI is a blast on the back roads, but also good for everyday commuting. Standard on the GLI are advanced driving aids such as front collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic warning. My top-of-the-line Autobahn setup goes further with Lane Keeping Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control. Yes, adaptive cruise control works with a manual transmission, albeit only at higher speeds. There is no slow-speed chase whatsoever and once the GLI thinks it will stop, the system disengages and the driver takes over.

The Jetta GLI’s fuel economy is respectable, returning an estimated EPA rating of 24 miles per gallon in the city, 33mpg on the highway and 28mpg combined. Even after a week of decidedly aggressive driving, I’m still able to hit that average 28mpg.

The interior is mostly beautiful, but it lacks visual appeal.

Emme Hall / Roadshow

Inside, the GLI’s cab technology is simple and straightforward. The standard infotainment setup uses a tiny 6.5-inch display, but the Autobahn pushes it up to a nicer 8.0-inch screen with VW’s latest MIB3 technology. This system can handle multiple pairing of Bluetooth phones at the same time and I like that the screen is angled towards the driver so that it is easy to see and reach. MIB3’s menus are neatly laid out, so there’s no big learning curve either. wireless Apple CarPlay is Android Auto they’re both standard, and in addition to a wireless charging pad, there are three USB-C ports and a 12-volt outlet to keep your devices up-to-date.

The Autobahn trim level has Volkswagen’s Digital Cockpit, a customizable 10-inch instrument cluster that provides the driver with all kinds of information such as vehicle data, the status of the driver assistance function and audio and telephone access. It can also be customized with different designs, including a full-screen navigation view. It’s not as stylish as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but it’s essentially the same idea and one of my favorite interior features for the car.

The GLI Autobahn has an 8-inch touchscreen.

Emme Hall / Roadshow

It’s a bit of a shame that the GLI isn’t offered with any quirky interior design touches like the checkered seats of the GTI sedan. All you’ll find here is an optional black cloth or leather with contrasting red stitching. The Jetta has at least one 10-color LED ambient lighting system that coordinates with the selected drive mode: white for Normal, red for Sport, and blue for Eco. If this doesn’t suit your mood, you can also choose your colors.

Like the standard Jetta, the GLI’s interior materials are good but not great. Some of my colleagues complain about cheaper plastics and too soft seats, especially since the cabin of the GTI feels more premium in comparison. The hatchback trunk is roomy enough at 14.1 cubic feet and my 5ft 9in chassis fits snugly in the back seat – my knees don’t touch the front seat backs and my head doesn’t touch the roof.

As for the competitors, you can still grab a Honda Civic Si, or the Mazda3 Turbo with all-wheel drive it is a good option, even if it is more expensive. The new Hyundai Elantra N Line it has a little less power than the GLI, but it is also offered with a manual transmission and has a really cool design. The Subaru WRX is another alternative, but it’s getting a little old and the Jetta is a nicer all-around car.

The GLI definitely flies under the radar.

Emme Hall / Roadshow

The 2021 Jetta GLI starts at $ 27,340, including $ 995 for the destination. The Autobahn is an extra $ 4,000, and while I don’t think the customizable DCC chassis makes a big difference, the cabin technology is significantly better. Overall, a six-speed manual highway like this test car costs $ 32,335.

Obviously, the GLI’s biggest competitor is the GTI sitting next to it in the VW showroom, and the Jetta cuts its Golf equivalent by a few thousand dollars while still providing basically the same thrills on the road. The hatchback design of the GTI is much more practical, but the GLI feels like a more grown-up package overall, although it’s still more than willing to get a little boisterous.

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