|Positives: Zippy, good steering, great manual transmission, very good space for a small-ish sedan, very affordable for a performance-trim German sporty sedan.|
|Negatives: Chassis isn't up to par, interior fit and finish issues, vinyl seats are hot in the summer, too much piano black trim inside, infotainment system feels outdated, small control knobs.|
|Bottom Line: Though the GLI delivers a decent amount of driving fun, the car is clearly in need of an update in terms of style, interior fit and finish and chassis refinement. It's a good thing this performance-minded sedan is still relatively affordable. You're better off in a GTI.|
The racy-esque Jetta GLI is available in both SE and SEL trim levels. What gets upgraded is the suspension, brakes, seats, styling upgrades, and some nice tech bits. The result is a car that's a bit more Jetta and a bit less Golf GTI. We drove it to see how it held up in the fun AND practicality tests.
The GLI is a fun car to drive every day. You won't set any land speed records, but it's plenty quick for most folks. The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is willing, and the manual transmission is its perfect mate. We just wish it felt as fun as the GTI. For most folks who want a fun car to drive in a sedan form could do much worse, but those who want peerless performance for the price might want to turn to the Ford Focus ST or the VW GTI, but then they'd have to settle for a hatchback and a less mature image.
Ride Quality: The GLI does pretty well in most driving conditions, and it feels composed over gaps and bumps. For a sporty car, it delivers comfort and eschews that cheap ride feeling so many sub $30K cars elicit.
Acceleration: With the great six-speed manual tranny, this thing moves quickly, but it doesn't feel as immediate as we'd like. Throttle response could use some work despite sharing the same engine as the GTI. It'll easily hit 60 mph in the low to mid sixes, and that's pretty good.
Braking: Brake pedal feel is good, and braking is progressive, but it lacks the hard bite that we expect of a sporty sedan.
Steering: Good turn in and decent feedback, but could use a bit more sharpness on turn-in.
Handling: It doesn't fell as buttoned down in turns as we'd like, but it does a respectable job of keeping body roll in check. Understeer was kept to a minimum.
Even though the Jetta GLI gets a new infotainment system for 2016, it still seems a bit antiquated to us. the 6.3-inch touchscreen has good visibility but sits a little low on the center stack for our likes. Our SE came equipped with the VW Car-Net package, which includes smartphone integration and interface, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Mirror Link. The Car-Net subscription has the ability to find the car via smartphone app, access to weather and traffic reports, fuel station prices and can get your car unlocked remotely. These features are solid, but the aesthetics and controls seem dated.
Infotainment System: The upgraded screen is a good size, though not huge (6.33 inches? Why not 7?). Resolution is good, and the screen is responsive.
Controls: The buttons that flank the screen would work better as a single row, and the audio control knobs are smaller than we'd like.
Bluetooth Pairing: No issues with pairing and re-pairing upon re-entering the vehicle for both Android and iOS.
Voice Call Quality: Clear on both sides of the call. No issues to speak of.
The GLI's sheetmetal and exterior trim got updated for 2016, and though it's not dramatic, the look is clearly sportier than the base Jetta. Ours came in flaming Tornado Red, which is a bit of a weird color for a German sports sedan. The car looks far better in grey or black, more consistent with the more conservative sedan shape and ethos. VW manages to make the car more aggressive looking without making it look boy-racer weird. Thank goodness there's a built-in lip spoiler instead of a garish rear wing or trunk-mounted spoiler.
Front: We like the black trim and the red stripe on the fascia, and the overall clean VW design looks handsome.
Rear: Clean smoked out taillights look handsome, and the single set of twin tailpipes looks racy. Well done.
Profile: The GLI is a well-proportioned sedan with a short front overhang and a tall rear end, giving it a sleek and attractive look. VW's simple single character line gives the car a nice long look.
Cabin: Though the cabin is dark and uses a bit too much glossy black, it's an aesthetically pleasing look. The red seat-stitching is a nice touch.
If it weren't for the vinyl seats and the overuse of piano black in the trim pieces, we'd love what VW's done with the overall look and feel of the interior. That said, the GLI is comfortable for drivers and passengers. Keep in mind, this car costs less than $30K, so the roominess and the seat support and cushion are on par with the price point. It's too bad that VW's only fabric choice is dark, hot leatherette.
Front Seats: The seats have good cushion and bolstering, quite comfortable under relaxed and hard driving. The VTex leatherette in black get pretty hot and could use some ventilation. Leather, unfortunately, is not available nor is the Golf's great tartan fabric seats. C'mon VW.
Rear Seats: Plenty of space and legroom for two passengers.
NVH: The car seems well built with decent sound deadening, though we wouldn't call it whisper-quiet. No rattles that we could sense.
Visibility: Great visibility out the front thanks to thin A-pillars, and the large side mirrors make lane changes easy. The tall back trunk makes backing up less than simple, but the camera makes things much easier.
Climate: Automatic climate control for two zones works well, as do the controls and digital temp display. It also comes with heated front seats and heated wide mirrors and heated windshield washer nozzles, which are perfect for Chicago.
The Jetta in all trims is a truly safe car you can rely on. In government crash tests, the Jetta received five out of five stars for overall safety, four stars for total front impact protection and five stars for total side impact protection. It does lack teh more advanced systems like intelligent cruise control, automatic emergency braking
IIHS Rating: The Jetta GLI, as with all other Jetta models, gets the Top Safety Pick+ rating.
Standard Tech: The GLI has ABS, stability control, an Intelligent Crash Response System that has Automatic Post-Collision Braking, which applies the brakes after a crash to help prevent the car from making a secondary collision.
Optional Tech: Upgrade to the SEL for adaptive headlights, blind-spot warning, and navigation.
The advantages of a GTi-type sporty sedan is roominess. There are plenty of storage options, but it's not a Honda Accord, by any means. That being said, it's not really lacking for space or cubbies, so storing gear isn't an issue. It could benefit from a center storage console instead of the adjustable armrest, which has its own level of comfort and convenience.
Storage Space: Big door pockets and a large glovebox are the GLI's strong points. The binnacle in front of the shift knob is convenient for smaller items.
Cargo Room: 15.7 cubic feet of trunk space is downright cavernous for a car this size, rivaling bigger sedans.
The mileage numbers by the EPA for the GLI aren't stellar, but they're not terrible, either. Other performance-minded compact cars like the Ford Focus ST (31 mpg highway) and the Subaru WRX (27 mpg highway) actually fare slightly worse. The VW sibling Golf GTI gets 34 mpg highway, one better than the GLI, and it's more fun to toss around.
Observed: 26.5 mpg
Driving Factors: We drove the GLI in both stop-and-go suburban traffic, as well as open highway, about equally over the course of a week. We were a bit throttle heavy to exploit the peppy engine.
Everyone has to have a premium audio brand associated with their nicer cars these days, and the GLI is no exception. It benefits from a Fender premium system that's more than just a name. The sound was crisp, loud and distortion-free as we blasted down the highway cranking our middle-aged tunes. We just wish the control knobs were bigger for easier modulation.