We’ve been hearing about the death of the sedan, and especially the manual sport sedan, for a few years now. Carmakers are dropping sedans from their lineups like urine-soaked hotcakes, and Ford’s given up on them entirely, in America. Not everyone believes this, though. Even as Volkswagen’s finally cracking the U.S. market with SUVs like the new, bigger Tiguan and even bigger Atlas, it proves with the 2019 Jetta GLI that fun sedans aren’t dead yet.
You get it with a 228 horsepower turbo engine. You can get it with a manual or a very good DSG. You get it with a lot of goodies from the GTI and Golf R hot hatches. And you can put it to good use on the famous Tail of the Dragon, which is what I just did.
(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen was nice enough to fly me to Knoxville, home to that giant golden spherical wig shop. From there they poured booze in me, shoved high-grade people chow in my mouth, and let me drive their new GLIs on some very windy roads. Windy like twisty, not like, um, a zephyr.)
During their presentation to inform all of us sleepy, doughy journalists and the occasional more lithe lifestyle blogger about the Jetta, Volkswagen’s representatives reminded us that even with sedans losing ground to SUVs, they still command 25 percent of the American car market, and that 25 percent is bigger than the entire car market in Germany.
So, yes, sedans are not nearly as popular as they once were in America, and they’re rapidly losing ground to SUVs, but that does not mean by any stretch that they are gone, and with so many carmakers just giving up, that just gives Volkswagen even more reason to double down and try and get a bigger bite out of that sedan-slice.
Part of that bite includes sport sedans, and that’s exactly what the Jetta GLI is: a straightforward, by-the-numbers take on the concept of a sport sedan.
So What Does That Mean, Really?
Fundamentally, that means that it’s a car large enough to carry four-ish people and their luggage in comfort, and is not too big but also not exactly small, either. It’s a general, everyday use car that just happens to be fun to drive when you want it to be.
It also means that this is one of the vanishingly few cars you can still get with a manual transmission as standard, and Volkswagen insists that manual Jettas are here to stay.
I mean, come on, we all know in our guts what a sport sedan is supposed to be, and usually that Platonic image of one that we conjure up in our minds is expensive and fun and has BMW badges on it and a driver who’s maybe sometimes kind of a dick.
The nice thing about the Jetta GLI is that I think it provides all of the essential traits we crave in a sport sedan, only it starts at $26,890 for the manual and tops out at $30,890 for the Autobahn trim level with a DSG seven-speed dual clutch automatic, so it doesn’t have to be expensive. And, if you buy one, the driver doesn’t have to be a dick.
How’s It Look?
The newest version of the Jetta I think is a pretty handsome sedan, of not especially striking. It’s not likely to haunt your every waking dream, but it is a good-looking car, with pleasing proportions and engaging detailing.
There’s even something about the new hood with its many ripples that reminds me of a Citroën 2CV, though every VW rep I spoke with insists that was not an intentional homage.
The GLI version differs from the other Jetta trims in that it has a unique grille with the trademark VW-fast-version red stripe, different front and rear bumper covers, side skirts, and red brake calipers. There’s also 18-inch alloy wheels, and everything sits about 0.6 inches lower.
There’s a 35th Anniversary Edition as well that includes a black roof, black mirror caps and a little black rear spoiler, along with some special exterior red badging and little seat tags that say “GLI 35,” if you’re into small textile tags.
The wheels also have a red stripe around the outer rim, which I think looks cool.
Overall, the car looks purposeful and handsome without being overtly showy. I suspect the design will age well, too.
How Practical and Usable Is It?
Unless your daily routine involves hauling around two alpacas and their tuba and double bass for some freakish music project you’re working on, you should have no problem using the Jetta GLI for your daily needs.
The interior is roomy and comfortable, with excellent seats covered in some neoprene-like fabric that I think makes more sense than leather.
The Autobahn version has a full LCD instrument cluster and big center-stack infotainment screen, along with heated seats and dual-zone climate control and dynamic cruise and all of the expected modern car electro-candy.
The 35th Anniversary and the lower-spec edition has analog gauges flanking VW’s usual and bafflingly archaic-seeming black-and-white digital screen, along with a smaller center-stack infotainment screen. It’s not nearly as nice as the Autobahn’s level of equipment, but, that said, it’s also totally fine.
The rear seats feel plenty roomy (there’s 37.5 inches of legroom and 37.2 inches of headroom) and the trunk is nice and big, easy enough for me to crawl into and nap, if the situation demanded that, which it sometimes does.
The trunk hinges are pretty large, but they didn’t really seem like they’d interfere that much with what’s in the trunk, though I bet the lump from the center-rear seat belt I suspect might get in the way when you’re loading big things in there.
It’s not a huge deal, but I bet that would end up being an annoyance if you owned this car.
Okay, Enough Trunk Talk; What’s It Like To Drive?
The Jetta GLI has, essentially, the drivetrain of the Golf GTI jammed in its bigger-butt’d body, and that’s a very good thing. The new Jetta is finally on the MQB global platform, probably the best small car architecture there is, so that does wonders here.
The engine is VW’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbo inline-four, the EA888 engine, and now it’s making 228 HP and 258 pound-feet of torque, numbers that have gone up 18 horses and a remarkable 51 foot-pounds since the last model.
I think both those numbers are in a sort of very usable sweet sport for a fun car—they’re not the sort of meteor-that-killed-the-dinosaurs numbers that many performance cars like to shout, but they’re realistic, real-world levels of usable power that are more than capable of doling out the fun and driving engagement you want, without that sense of always holding back that you get in, say, 500+ horsepower cars.
That’s the whole point of a sport sedan, after all—it has to be engaging to drive. Luckily, Volkswagen brought us somewhere where we could really get a sense of what this thing is like when driven fairly hard: the Tail of the Dragon.
Wait, Just Explain the Tail of the Dragon A Bit, Here!
Good point, disembodied voice.
Right on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina is a road, technically part of U.S. 129, that everyone calls “Tail of the Dragon” because, like how you’d imagine a dragon’s tail, this thing is incredibly windy and sinuous and if you don’t respect it, it’ll hurt you.
The Dragon has about 318 turns in 11 miles. Really, it feels like the road was planned by extracting the small intestine of a wolverine and laying it out on a picnic table and just calling it good.
The turns are all kinds of turns: banked, hairpins, sweepers, 90 degrees, S-shapes, you name it, all one right after another, and all right through dense forest with minimal visibility to see what’s coming at you next.
If you’re a passenger and you’re not getting at least a little nauseous, then you’re either already crashed into a ditch or you’ve hit your head and are currently in a coma.
It’s incredibly fun to drive, but it is pretty hairy, both from just the physical turns, and also from the other drivers. Motorcyclists haul ass down the road and often take the “racing line,” which means at any moment you may turn around a blind corner to find a guy on a Ducati or a longtime couple on a Harley trike heading at you, in your lane.
Cars do this as well, really, but the motorcyclists at least have that Tree of Shame pictured at the top of this section to remind them about bad ideas.
It’s easy to lose control on any number of these turns, and, if you’re lucky, it’ll be one that doesn’t have a sheer drop off down into a ravine or into a solid wall of rock.
This affable fella here was that sort of lucky-unlucky, as he went off hard in his BMW wagon and lost his bumper, but at least went off into some soft dirt and leaves instead of down a mountain.
He was a great sport about it all, and was excited to make onto Jalopnik, so everyone say hello to a kindred spirit.
Oh, and cell service is really spotty up on the Dragon, so if you do go off, you may be waiting a while for a tow. That’s part of why people who don’t obey the etiquette of the road, like this dipshit in an Audi who was in front of me, are so maddening.
The driver was going slow and yet also managing to cut corners and drive in the wrong lane, over and over, and ignored turnouts to let faster drivers (in this unlikely situation, that was me) get by. It was somehow both dangerous and the most tedious way to drive the road. Don’t be like that guy.
Who you absolutely should be like, though, is this crew I spotted on the road:
These were the rides of a quartet of older adventurers, wringing out a little Mini Cooper and a lovely Riley One Point Five with genuine joy and aplomb all down the Dragon.
You want some life goals? Look right up there, people.
Okay, We Get It, So How’d The Jetta GLI Do?
The GLI handled these challenging roads like an absolute champ. Grip was fantastic, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that these cars came with VW’s no-cost optional summer tires, Hankook Ventus S1 Evo s, instead of the likely more common all-seasons that most dealers are likely to spec. If you’re planning on driving one of these with any sort of vigor, I’d definitely say it’s going to be worth getting the summer-only tires and a set of winters in case winter is coming.
Going hard into corners, you could hear the tires screeching just a bit but nothing ever broke free; the GLI grabbed hard and felt great. There’s a torque-sensing limited-slip differential that certainly helps get that power to the wheel that needs it, and there’s some fancy electronics doing some kind of complicated math inside of some plastic box under the hood that’s helping to eliminate torque steer, because I really didn’t feel any.
There’s multiple drive settings, and the Sport one does stiffen everything up and make the throttle response tighter and gives a bit of a better sound to everything, too. I don’t think it’s quite as nimble as the Golf GTI, since the GTI is shorter, but this is cheaper and roomier than the GTI, and it’s pretty damn close. It’s not as intense as a GTI in looks or details (plaid seats, if only!), but if you want a Jetta with an injection of Funzadrine, it sure works.
The manual, being a manual, is a bit more old-school fun, but I think the DSG gets you through the Dragon a bit quicker. I think I’d still opt for a manual since I’m never going to set any speed records, anyway, and the shifter feels very good to use.
The brakes get used hard on a road like the Dragon, and they stopped me with the calm, determined assurance of a bouncer keeping me out of a club I’m too ugly for. Even after a lot of use at the end of the 300+ turn run, they didn’t seem to be fading or have any heat-related issues.
The GLI is fun as hell to wring out. It’s relatively easy, too, and it rewards even minimal skill and effort with a lot of great driving sensations. On a road like this, it’s an extremely effective tool for making three passengers and their luggage very nauseous, if you’d like.
While I’m sure there’s a huge number of metrics where a BMW 3 Series sedan can come out much better than the GLI, I’m not really sure I’d care at all. A 3 Series has about 35 more horsepower and also costs around $15,000 more to start, and I’m not convinced rear-wheel drive gives it that huge of an edge over this humble-but-fun Volkswagen.
If you’re a grown-ass adult who doesn’t determine your own self-worth by the badge your car wears on its stupidly agressive nose, then I’d say a Jetta GLI is by far a better use of your money if you want an everyday fun and usable sport sedan.
The Jetta GLI is a practical car that’s a hell of a lot of fun when pushed. What more do you want?