Life is full of choices. When you look back on your life, I am sure you could point to at least one car that, for whatever reason, you let get away. Unfortunately for this car guy, there are more of those cars than I care to mention. But today, the one I let get away dates back to the summer of ’89. I was 16, and one summer evening I found myself in New Haven looking over a Mark I 1984 VW Jetta GLI. Having read every magazine review I could, I was thrilled the car lived up to the high expectations the press had built up. When the first GTI reached our shores in 1983, that car was a revelation. VW knew they had a hit, transferred all the GTI goodies to the Jetta and hey presto, the GLI was born! Over the years, I’ve owned a couple Jettas, but none captured the fun spirit of that ’84 GLI. For every Jetta generation since then, there has always been a GLI. Some stayed true to the recipe better than others, but now in its seventh iteration, how does this GLI compare?
First, it’s a huge help that the Jetta is a handsome car to begin with. As with all GLI’s that came before, VW goes the subtle route with its appearance with their performance Jetta. Unique front and rear fascias and wheels, side skirts and dual chrome exhaust tips and rear spoiler are GLI specific, but that honeycomb grille with that red trim might as well be a siren call to VW fan boys. One evening after work I pull up to a local craft beer bar, and within moments, a couple of guys, mid-twenties, approach me and they want to check out the car. Turns out they own a VW shop dedicated to tuning older models. They were impressed with VW’s latest effort. That weekend, I took the GLI to a Cars and Coffee event. More VW fans spot me looking for a parking spot, but I am waved over to where they are displaying their cars, and to park and show the GLI with their cars. They all said this was their first time seeing the new GLI in person, and again, they loved the subtle, tasteful and sporty treatment VW bestowed upon the car. So, the VW faithful approve, but I need to point out something when you look at the cars the GLI competes against. In particular, the Honda Civic Si. The Civic Si’s appearance is so cartoonish and ridiculous, I wouldn’t expect anyone to take me seriously if I were seen driving one.. The Jetta GLI, in comparison, comports itself as a serious sports sedan that an adult car drive and not feel embarrassed about. Sure, that morning the GLI was at Cars and Coffee with VW gearheads, but that evening I rolled up to the valet for dinner at a swank Southport hotel for dinner, and the GLI had no trouble fitting in with cars costing double or triple the cost.
Stepping inside, it is immediately apparent VW took the same approach as they did with the exterior-subtle, but just enough so you know you are not sitting in just any old Jetta. Thankfully, the current Jetta sports an already pleasant cabin, so there really wasn’t much to be done here. Yes, there’s the flat bottom rimmed steering that is all the rage on any car purporting any car suggesting sportiness. Less faddish is the red stitching on the seats and armrest. I invited the VW fanatics at Cars and Coffee to have a seat and tell me what they thought. They praised the comfort and support of the driver’s seat. Our Jetta has VW’s Digital Cockpit, or as the rest of us describe it, a digital gauge cluster, the first of its kind in a Jetta. Some might dismiss it as gimmicky, but the adjustable LED interior ambient lighting is particularly cool. Some critics complain about an abundance of plastic, but to that, people should remember the regular Jetta has a starting price under $19,000. Even so, our well equipped GLI is a wonderful setting to rack up the miles in comfort.
For the seventh generation, VW stuck to the original playbook-take the goodies from a GTI, put them on a Jetta. What that means is a 2.0 turbocharged four cylinder providing 228hp. Buyers can choose between a six speed manual or seven speed DSG automatic. Thankfully, our test car had the manual. I can truthfully say the latest GLI carries on the spirit of the original on the road. The car is an absolute joy to drive. No, you’re not going to be overwhelmed with power, but the GLI gives you enough to work with, and I assure you, if you get bored, that’s your own fault. The GLI sounds great when you open her up, but puttering around town, it’s quiet enough so you’re not going to get confused with some teenage Fast and Furious wannabe. The GLI is what you want it to be, depending on your mood. Slogging through downtown, it behaves like your typical small sedan. But when the road opens up and gets twisty, the GLI is absolutely ready to reward spirited driving. For driving dynamics, VW got the GLI absolutely right.
VW offers the Jetta in three flavors; base S, limited edition 35th Anniversary, and top-spec Autobahn. Our test car was the Autobahn. Standard equipment includes 18″ wheels, panoramic sunroof, rain sensing wipers, LED exterior lighting, heated and ventilated front seats, power driver’s seat, leather seating, stainless steel pedals, the aforementioned Digital Cockpit, 8″ color touchscreen infotainment center, Beats audio (sounds terrific!), Apple CarPlay and SiriusXM radio. Standard safety features included forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, and blind spot monitoring with rear traffic assist. Including destination, our Jetta GLI stickers at $30,090USD. This represents a fantastic value. For this price, you get practically every feature you would want in a modern car in a performance package that is tough to beat. The top spec GLI is still thousands less than, say, even the most basic Audi A3.
This latest Jetta GLI is everything the original was-a GTI, but with a trunk. My week with this car went by far too quickly, and I was sad to see it go. The fact I had encounters on two occasions with VW fanatics, and their reaction to this car confirms that VW got this GLI right. Sure, there are other alternatives for affordable sports sedans, like the Honda Civic Si and Subaru Impreza WRX, but in comparison, they come off as immature. The GLI was, and still is, a sports sedan to be taken seriously, and is rolling proof that you don’t need to look like a fool in order to have fun. Thirty fives years later, the Jetta GLI still delivers a rewarding driving experience at a price that won’t break the bank. Just don’t be like me and let one get away!