The Volkswagen GTI is a performance icon for the German brand. This more powerful, sharper-handling version of the Golf hatchback invented the “hot hatch” market segment back in the 1970s, ushering in a string of successful and less successful imitators.
The idea is to take an ordinary economy car and turn it into a fun-to-drive performance machine. It won’t look like a flashy sports car, but it will share some everyday affordability and usability with its humbler brethren.
The GTI is still a leader of that segment. In addition to zippy acceleration and precise, agile handling, it brings a usefully sized interior and a smooth, quiet ride. By many standards, that’s an impressive combination given its starting price in the upper $20,000s.
But Americans have long associated hatchbacks with cheap, basic cars, and the Golf is not one that goes out of its way to change that — at least not visually. It’s a box with a hood sticking out the front. Functional, yes. Fancy, no.
Buyers in the U.S. overwhelmingly prefer sedans to hatchbacks. And that’s why Volkswagen sells a performance version of its compact Jetta sedan, too. This Jetta GLI is freshly redesigned for 2019.
Though it’s less famous than the GTI, the Jetta GLI sedan shares most of the same mechanical components, from its suspension to its 228-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. And like the GTI, it’s available with either an excellent six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; the competing Honda Civic Si comes only with a manual, while most well-equipped compact cars offer only an automatic.
Unlike the GTI, though, the Jetta’s design stretches and curves over a longer body, and from the rear, it could pass for an Audi A4. It has a roomier rear seat, too, along with a decent-sized trunk for a compact sedan.
Priced from $26,890, the GLI is roughly $5,000 more expensive than a comparably equipped Jetta with the base 147-horsepower engine, standard suspension and fewer exterior embellishments. But if you’ve decided you want the extra zip, the GLI does cost $1,500 less than the base GTI, and the Jetta’s advantage grows to nearly $7,000 between fully optioned models. That price advantage is excellent news for anyone who likes the way Volkswagen’s affordable sporty cars drive.
The GTI and GLI both have hearty engines that sing and thrust when you dig into the throttle, but which are also mild-mannered and easygoing when you’re just puttering around. The same goes for the steering and handling — this is not a hard-edged sports car that beats you up at all times, but it comes alive when you drive a little bit harder. And unlike some performance cars, meanwhile, you can access that enjoyment without going so fast that you will end up in jail.
Unfortunately for buyers who prefer sedans, not merely lower prices, the GLI’s cabin is not as luxurious as the GTI’s. There are more cut-rate plastics, and the seats aren’t as magnificently supportive. The cabin design is more modern than the old Jetta’s, and its infotainment screen is bigger, but it is not more luxurious.
The top-trim Autobahn model does have a nifty all-digital gauge cluster, which in theory allows the driver to reconfigure the view in useful ways — in particular, to put the navigation system’s display in front of the driver. But unlike the standard Jetta, you cannot get the GLI with a navigation system, so most of its reconfigurations are less than useful. Most even eliminate a tachometer — which few buyers of a sports sedan, especially with a manual transmission, will appreciate — so basically the only usable view in this spiffy reconfigurable gauge cluster is a digital rendering of two utterly conventional round gauges.
Miscues aside, the GLI is both spacious and fun to drive, and not much more expensive than ordinary well-equipped economy cars. If it weren’t for the GTI’s superior interior quality and comfort, there would be even fewer nits to pick about its Jetta counterpart.
The GLI’s closest competitors include the more affordable but less powerful Hyundai Elantra Sport and Kia Forte GT; the Honda Civic Si, which comes with little luxury equipment and no automatic transmission; and the speedier but comparatively crude Subaru WRX. Prospective buyers would also do well to consider the standard Civic as a fun-to-drive compact sedan if they’re not wedded to 200-plus horsepower, or the Honda Accord Sport 2.0T if they don’t mind a larger vehicle.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.