My Thoughts Exactly: 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Why do you insist on calling the Volkswagen Jetta GLI a "GTI with a trunk?"

Maybe back in the days of the Mark II Golf and Jetta, where both cars were actually the same from the front bumper to the C pillar. Back then, journalists found the difference between the GTI and GLI, remarking that the latter was more of an inexpensive Audi than anything. That’s quite a compliment.

While perceived as a more upscale car than the Golf, the Jetta would eventually become the best-selling vehicle in the Volkswagen lineup for decades. If you ask enthusiasts whether they would take a GLI over a GTI, they’ll stick with the Golf. After all, it is the original "hot hatch."

Over time, the Jetta would receive a more distinctive design over the Golf. Yet, it seemed that the GLI could never shake off the stigma as being a "GTI with a trunk."

Until now.

As with the development of the Volkswagen Jetta, the GLI engineered to differentiate itself from its hatchback brother. While sticking to the red-trimmed formula and dropping the uprated 228-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged TSI engine underneath its hood, the Jetta GLI received the braking system from the Golf R. It also added a few other subtle features that one might not find on a Golf GTI. 

The result is a compact sports sedan that has the heart of a Golf GTI, but with a slightly different mission.

"Slightly different?" Let me explain. 

Take in consideration one of the main differences between the Jetta GLI and the Golf GTI. The sedan weighs about 100 pounds heavier than the hatchback. If you have driven both of these cars, you will notice the weight difference right off the bat. 

One hundred pounds might not feel substantial, but it is. If you do not believe me, go to a gym and take a look at weights. Try to feel a 100-pound weight, if available. Translate that into an automobile. Hopefully you understand that a car that is heavier by 100 pounds truly make a difference in terms of performance and driving dynamics. 

The Jetta GLI is not just heavier than the Golf GTI. You also have a length and wheelbase difference. The Jetta GLI has two inches more on the wheelbase over the Golf GTI. That is a huge difference when it comes ride quality, cornering, and car control. The Jetta GLI also has a longer overhang at the rear, due to its trunk. 

You can break down and scrutinize these measurements for hours. However, you have to come up with an approach to each of these two cars. To do so, I had to take the Jetta GLI onto some of the most exciting roads within a short distance from my home in the Twin Cities. 

Taking it on these great roads revealed a few bits about the Jetta GLI. For one, you need to set the DCC active chassis control to Sport in order to truly get the best experience out of the car. That way, the steering weight is heavier and the suspension is at a firmer setting. The cornering is precise, but not super sharp. You will find nominal roll and lean through the turns. Acceleration and braking are good. Not to mention, the front seats offer good support and bolstering as you run through the twisties. 

That is what you want in a compact sports sedan, right? You want competency on challenging roads. You want to feel confident in your ability to drive them. 

The Volkswagen Jetta GLI had these benchmarks in mind. However, I felt they should have gone further. To do so, they had to look no further than their own current and now-former lineup. 

I already remarked how the Golf GTI is a great track day car. The 100-pound advantage helps, along with a much shorter body length. These factors enable the original hot hatch to continuously provide excitement at every turn. 

The Golf R takes that same idea to the next level. The steering is sharper, as are the brakes. It is heavier than the Jetta GLI because of its 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, but the Golf R offers more handling and traction overall. 

Neither of these comparisons diminish the Jetta GLI's credentials. That is why you have to look at it through another lens. 

Just like most of its rivals – namely, the Honda Civic Si, the Kia Forte GT, the Mazda3, and the Hyundai Elantra Sport, it is a useful and fun daily driver. It will seat up to 5 humans. It has a 14.1 cubic foot trunk with fold-down rear seatbacks to carry longer item. Oh, and this Autobahn tester turned an average of 29.8 MPG with a high reading of over 33.0 MPG.

While some would look at a Jetta GLI as some performance compact sedan, there are other useful ways to enjoy this car. The bottom line is you get a car with enough credibility worthy of its 228-horsepower turbocharged engine, dual clutch transmission (it is also available in a manual, by the way), performance brakes, and active chassis control system. 

Furthermore, you get all of this for a final sticker price of $31,665. The starting price for a 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is $26,245.

Did I mention that the Jetta GLI is quite the value? Well…actually…not exactly. 

Let me tell you what that $31,665 does not get you. The 8-inch Composition Media infotainment system is wonderful and offers smartphone connectivity. Yet, this model was not equipped with a native navigation system. The cruise control is good, and the Jetta GLI Autobahn has a lot of driver assistance features as standard. This tester was not equipped with the Adaptive Cruise Control found on higher Jetta models. The native navigation I could live with, but please don’t tell me that the omission of the Adaptive Cruise Control is because you want "real drivers" to own a Jetta GLI. "Real drivers" would also want that extra later of safety and security on long road trips, too. 

Don't get me wrong, I like the Volkswagen Jetta GLI. I’ve driven enough "regular" Jettas to not only wait for this one to arrive for duty. And, yet, I got to experience how the GLI would translate onto this vastly improved generation. 

For those of you who still think that a Jetta GLI is a "Golf GTI with a trunk"…think again. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Volkswagen of America

All photos by Randy Stern

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