Tested: 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Manual is all About Fun
Volkswagen's popular Jetta is a sustainable smile generator with the performance GLI treatment.
Cars do not get much more fun than the Jetta GLI. In the past year, a time which saw vehicles like the Lexus LC 500 and Toyota Supra come into my temporary care, this Jetta ranks right up with those big sports car and grand touring players. Volkswagen has created a complete gem with this example, and it's one that benefits greatly from the presence of the ever-so-rare manual transmission. Lovers of DIY shifting can rejoice as the large German automaker seems to stay committed to providing gearheads what they want in their lineup. You know the cliche where a woman says she just wants to meet a guy who's down to earth and honest? The Jetta GLI is that equivalent.
With the optional automatic (a dual-clutch automated manual to be specific), I'd be afraid of this Jetta losing considerable 'fun' points, but the entire package is so comprehensively together that I think it not matter which transmission you choose. Though, you should by all means go with the stick shift of course; I'll try not to have this become a rambling about why manuals are better etc, even if they are...Apart from that, what is it that makes this car of the people so special?
While other Volkswagen SUVs have fallen short of my expectations, the small entry-level Jetta impresses from the cheap models all the way to this loaded GLI 'Autobahn' that represents the pinnacle of modern Jetta lineage with all the add-ons and options you can think of. To avoid dragging on, Jettas just happen to drive rather well. I was confounded by how much I enjoyed driving an earlier Jetta 1.4T R-Line, an honest and earnest ride. You can read that here. After my experience with the more affordable version, I was ecstatic to try the GLI with its romping turbocharged engine it shares with the venerable and legendary Golf GTI. And drive rather well it does. I found the 1.4T model to simply be yearning for greater power and the GLI delivers like getting that flush on the final card.
On one of my favorite roads, snaking up and down a river canyon, the GLI displayed a polished poise of a much more advanced and expensive machine. Steering has a weighting that balances between light and heavy for a natural effort. I found it a little numb, but it improves the harder you drive it. The best part though is the commanding and willing front end. Even though this compact sedan is front-wheel drive, you'd actually never know it. Torque steer is not in the VW's vocabulary as it puts power down like an all-wheel drive in corners. Understeer? None of that either, unless you deserve it naturally.
Your first aggressive attack of a corner is when you learn and realize the magic on hand. Throw the nose in and get on the power early and hard and you will be amazed at how the front tires, Hankook Ventus S1 summer rubber, appear to grip and pull you through and out of a corner. It's easy, enjoyable, and repeatable to a devastating effect. Helping is a fancy electronic limited-slip differential and a trick 'cross differential system' to further its riotous agenda. The balance stays alarmingly neutral and makes you question why other front-drive vehicles feel so inept in comparison.
If you overcook things, which is hard to begin with already given the eager attitude to gravitate towards apexes, but if you do, a small throttle lift is all that's needed to get the front to bite again and instill a degree of rotation, continuing on your merry way. It's such an uplifting, and confidence-filled experience on good roads like Salmon Falls. And on slower, high-frequency routes such as this, there isn't much that could be faster than this; it's SO usable. It also feels far quicker than I could manage in my own Nissan 370Z, a proper RWD sports car. Brakes are good, too, measuring 13.4" up front and giving the feedback and feel that's needed. I didn't experience any issues on public roads where it's unsafe to brake deeply and heavily anyways, but I can't comment how they would hold up for track duty.
So yes, it drives beautifully around corners and lights up your day. Now, propulsion wise, the GLI utilizes an evolved version of Volkswagen and Audi's turbocharged two-liter inline-four. Horsepower is rated at 228 with torque a higher 258 pounds of torque. Power is plentiful and feels stronger than the modest 228 would suggest. Yes, there's turbo lag (that lapse where boost pressure builds, 18 PSI of it in this case), augmented further by a manual transmission (automatics hide turbo lag because they downshift to mask it), but it's far less noticeable than it was in the 1.4T engine, which had lag of hilarious yet fun proportions. With the power on tap, any gear at just 2,000 RPM gifts substantial acceleration; even top gear on the freeway will whisk you along. Once you hit 3,000 RPM, the Jetta takes flight, relishing in a delectable midrange performance that carries all the way through to most of the 6,500 RPM redline. Most small turbo engines fall off significantly near redline, but the Volkswagen unit performs better in this regard. This little engines pulls with tenacity in any gear you give it as Illegal speeds come up alarmingly quick and with a furor that belies the 228 horsepower rating.
In 0-60 MPH acceleration testing, standing starts proved a more interesting task as it's the one time traction became an issue, if only just. But the real culprit that caused underwhelming 6.2 seconds to 60 runs was a clutch that is too gentle. It's very light and incredibly easy to use and modulate - this would be the perfect first stick shift type of car - but that does affect it when doing hard launches from 2,500 RPM. Simply, it just doesn't grab like a performance clutch can and should. Two runs was all it took to induce the smell of burning clutch. Is this a problem? No, because when is anyone actually going to do standing, aggressive starts in their own car. On the move, changes from 1-2 and 2-3 can be done with proper haste as the gear knob is both light and precise in finding the next ratio. 6.2 seconds isn't exciting, but the Jetta also has tall gears (not an issue with the available horsepower) which further prohibit raw numbers. These tall gears do afford a 50-70 MPH passing run that can be done in only second gear, resulting in a RAPID 2.8 second time. That's about as quick as my 370Z because it necessitates a gear change or puts you in a gear too high.
Back to the transmission and clutch, both were a treat to utilize on canyon roads and day to day driving, having a balance of ease, but precise enough for spirited driving. And the clutch handled just fine in spirited driving by the way. Heel-toe downshifts can be done, but other cars are easier I found, mostly owie to pedal spacing. An annoyance that did struck me was a far too intrusive hill-start assist. Modern stick shift cars will commonly hold the brake for you on a hill to prevent you from rolling back, this VW included. However, it holds the brake too strongly and refuses to let up even once you have the proper footing to begin forward momentum. What follows is a sudden release of the brake which causes lurching, almost as if you're stalling the car and causing it to buck. Or, when it insists on holding you, you feed more (excessive) throttle and then the brake releases you to a startling effect. It's a system you have to learn is all, and one that could be improved.
One more thing about the engine before moving on is the efficiency of the unit. The entry 1.4T model I tried prior had accomplished a scarcely unbelievable 49 MPG on the freeway. I expected the performance-oriented GLi to be quite a bit less, but I was surprised to still see a remarkable 39 MPG on the freeway. A car this thrilling and quick on the road and it gets that good of mileage? Yes! Day-to-day driving resulted in a stellar 30 MPG. This little two-liter wonder amazes in this application.
On the inside is where the Jetta GLI does suffer a bit. While I wrote that I quite liked the interior in the $24,000 Jetta, here in top-shelf GLI Autobahn trim, it's more or less the exact same interior quality, but now at a marked higher price of $32,000. It's okay, meaning it's acceptable, but it definitely could be nicer. Nobody would mistake this for a luxury car like one would in a Mazda 3 Signature; just too much hard plastic in places it shouldn't be, and you can't help but think it all feels a little cheap. It's also dated, but I don't mind the simple layout though others might. I did like the seats and found them comfortable and supportive enough even if I would like a more aggressive shape still for the GLI level. Road noise is fine, too, nothing shocking nor particularly great. The ride quality, even with the handling chops, proved to be good as to not upset or annoy passengers while still maintaining that superior chassis control when attacking. The back seat also gives substantial space to carry the family with you and a decent trunk to boot, too.
Now, I quite enjoy the look of the Jetta, having a sophisticated and mature look that is recognizably handsome to any set of eyes. Part of that is because it resembles its more expensive Audi brethren, but the only real hiccup here is that the GLI looks too much like every other Jetta. Besides a couple small GLI badges, which is tasteful I do admit, there's not much that would separate this from the much less expensive R-Line models to the casual viewer. In fact, I think the casual viewer could not discern the two apart at all compared to the 1.4T R-Line I had late last year. For those that don't like overstyled cars like some of Honda's Civics, it can be a relief, but I do think the GLI should be more unique and made to look more special. Regardless, it's handsome machine, if a bit too Tom Hiddleston and not enough Chris Hemsworth.
Well, as you can surely tell at this point, I rather liked the Jetta GLI. It can provide the affordable exhilarating driving experiences that most other carmakers have given up on or abandoned altogether. There is one glaring issue, though, with the Jetta GLI, and that's it's VW stablemate the Golf GTI. Next to the Jetta, I like the hatchback look of the Golf GTI more and the practicality associated with it. I find it also has a more endearing and quality interior. It's also basically mechanically identical, so it drives about the same, which is to say excellent. I also rather like the pedigree that is associated with the Golf GTI name, as it's a legend in the realm of hot hatchbacks dating back 40 years now. But, if you don't like hatchbacks, the Jetta is your bet.
Rivals from other makes? There isn't much. Mazda's fabulous new 3 Turbo Signature can be had with all-wheel drive and a luxury resort interior, but it's automatic only and doesn't give the thrills of the Jetta. Hyundai's new Sonata N Line has far more firepower, but it also can't be had with a manual and the handling balance isn't as deft as the Jetta's. You could include Subaru's WRX for a more gruff but less polished experience, and it's also a heavy drinker. While it's only an interior refresh away from being perfect, the Jetta GLI is a reasonable and exceedingly fun sports sedan. #savethemanuals.
2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn
As-Tested Price: $32,335
The Road Beat Rating: 4.5/5
Pros: Ridiculous amounts of fun, practical, and doesn't break the bank
Cons: Cheapish interior; Golf GTIs
Verdict: A riot of an affordable performance car