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2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: Still Not-Quite-GTI Performance, But For Less Money

It's been a long time since Volkswagen's Jetta GLI—the quickest, and most expensive, version of its entry-level four-door sedan—has lived up to the marketing line of a 'four-door GTI.' Witness the previous-generation car, which was hampered by a detuned version of the Golf GTI hatchback's turbocharged engine and the loss of its manual gearbox towards the end of its run.

For 2019, however, everything seemed to be in its rightful place. The redesigned Jetta GLI swapped its somewhat bloated NCS platform for the very same MQB architecture underpinnings as the Golf GTI. On top of that, it also boasts an identical drivetrain to the GTI, with no more handicapping of horsepower between the two sides of the same compact performance coin.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta front

If only the end result felt like the true sum of its parts. After spending time behind the wheel of the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, I still can't vouch for the four-door being able to match its five-door sibling in terms of thrills.

All The Right Moves

On paper, all of the right ingredients are there: the GLI ditches the torsion beam rear suspension found on the standard Jetta and swaps in a multi-link setup for fully-independent response at all four corners, it offers 228hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0L, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and it can be had with either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG) automated manual transmission.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta rear 3/4

The GLI also embiggens its brakes front and rear, with the forward units measuring 13.4 inches, sourced from the potent Golf R. Its suspension system is stiffer than that of the base Jetta, and it rides slightly lower, all the better to attract attention to its somewhat more extroverted aero package (front fascia, trunk lid spoiler, side skirts) and dressy 18-inch wheels. The 35th Anniversary Edition car, which was the version I sampled, also features adaptive dampers.

All this comes from the factory almost 3.0 inches longer and nearly a full inch wider than the older Jetta GLI, yet posts almost exactly the same weight.

Good, But Not Great

As might be expected in a car that offers 20 or so additional ponies compared to its predecessor, the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta offers competitive acceleration from a stop, measuring just a few ticks over five and half seconds when launching to 60-mph. In my DSG-equipped tester, however, accessing all of that grunt required me to stay on top of engine revs by way of the car's paddle shifters.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta dashboard

Let the boost drop and you'll be stuck with a moment or two of hesitation when flooring the pedal in automatic mode, with only a great whooshing moan from under the hood to show for your right-foot efforts. It's a task that I assume would be simpler—or at least more natural-feeling—when using a clutch pedal.

I'm not so sure that the latter would have nearly as much of an effect on the Jetta GLI's overall fun factor. With a wheelbase that's stretched 2.0 inches over that of the more nimble Golf GTI, the sedan simply doesn't encourage the kind of shenanigans that make the hatchback Volkswagen fun to drive. Is it quick? Certainly. Does it feel confident and composed on more challenging sections of road? Yes. Did I ever feel the urge to take the long way home, or seek out a particularly twisty stretch of asphalt to play with the GLI? Never.

Look Beyond Performance

While the GLI might not be the GTI equivalent that Volkswagen hypes, it does have more than a few saving graces to make it worth considering among its admittedly thin competition in the small, fast sedan segment.

Let's start with price. The most lush version of the Jetta GLI, the Autobahn trim, tops out at just under $30k, even if you opt for the $800 DSG transmission option. The sportier, mid-tier 35th Anniversary Edition is cheaper still at $26,995. Compare that to $35k for the GTI Autobahn, and the appeal of the four-door begins to coalesce. Even with the few additional tech features found in the Golf, that $6,000 gap is hard to justify.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta fender badge

Then there's the Jetta GLI's size. With a larger interior to go with its stretched sheet metal, the Volkswagen is rear seat-friendly even for larger adults, making it a strong stand-in as a family car alternative to traditional mid-size options. It may not have the flexibility of the Golf's hatchback, but it does deliver a sizeable boot to compensate.

The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI doesn't match its showroom sibling GTI in terms of fun, nor feature the same cop-baiting exhaust cackles as the more unhinged Hyundai Elantra Sport, or the all-wheel drive grip of the similarly-potent Subaru Impreza WRX. What it does offer is a chance to trade the pedestrian character of the standard Jetta for the smoother, faster, and more stylish duds of the GLI, at a price point that is quite competitive with each of the above.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta profile

Perhaps one day VW will again crack the code that delivers GTI playfulness wrapped in the adult appeal of a four-door sedan, but until then, the current GLI is a two-thirds equivalent in terms of both value and driving pleasure. Not a bad place to be on a landscape where hatchbacks have almost entirely replaced trunks amongst compact performance fans.

Which high performance Volkswagen hatch should you spend your money on? We compare the the GTI versus the Golf R.

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