When it first debuted in 1984, the Volkswagen GLI was dubbed a “GTI with a trunk” and its mission was simple: to deliver an accessible German performance sedan. The car had to be undeniably fun to drive without sacrificing any of the usability and efficiency that drivers expected from the brand. Technology, efficiency, safety, and performance have changed in 35 years, but the mission of the Volkswagen sixth-generation hot sedan remains the same.

Today the Jetta GLI is still one of the most fun small sedans that you can buy. It is roomy, fun, affordable and economical. From the outside, it is a bit difficult to spot the GLI since the differences are minor. Featuring a sport suspension, the GLI sits 0.6 inches lower than a regular Jetta, giving it a more planted look. The front bumper features a lower front spoiler and larger air intake than the regular Jetta. A standard compliment of full-LED lighting, including front LED projector headlights, LED DRLs and side mirror-mounted turn signals, as well as LED taillights, sets the GLI apart. Featuring a red accent stripe, the wide grille on the Jetta GLI is filled with a honeycomb pattern that gives a subtle nod to previous GLI variants as well as its spiritual sibling, the Golf GTI.

The interior is classic Volkswagen with a very simple and clean layout. Everything is within easy reach and looks great. Red stitching is used on the steering wheel, shifter, armrest and floormats. Our Autobahn model featured comfortable leather seats that could use more lateral support for spirited driving. Our Autobahn also had the 10.25-inch digital screen, which replaces the traditional instrument panel. The customizable digital display’s 133 DPI resolution renders details with extreme precision. The driver can select a classic display profile or set options manually, including: gear, speed, estimated fuel economy, distance, travel time, assistance systems, estimated range, compass, elevation, audio, and acceleration. Additionally, data such as telephone contact images and CD covers can also be displayed in the display.

Every GLI features a 10-color LED ambient lighting system. Coordinated with the drive mode selection feature, the system provides white light in the Normal profile, red light in the Sport profile and blue light in the Eco profile. The driver can set any of the 10 colors using Manual or Custom mode. Also standard is a fantastic audio system that can make the long trips more fun. We really enjoyed the Beats Audio system, which comes with a 12-channel, 400-watt amplifier, digital signal processing and eight speakers and a subwoofer.

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The GLI is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injection 4-cylinder engine, making 228 horsepower — with premium fuel — and 258 pound-feet of torque. This engine features variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust sides, as well as variable exhaust valve lift. The power is taken to the front wheels via a standard 6-speed manual transmission, with an available 7-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. Our car had the optional automatic transmission and although it worked well, we still prefer a traditional manual transmission and are thankful that Volkswagen gives us the choice.

The engine is pretty strong but as a sports sedan, there are times where we wished for more power. Boost builds quickly and you can really use the engine to have some fun, but don’t expect to win many drag races. If you crave more power, Volkswagen wants you to buy a Golf R.

If the road becomes twisty, you will be in much better shape because the Jetta is at home on curvy roads. The Jetta GLI features a MacPherson strut front suspension with special tuning for the GLI. The rear suspension is a multi-link independent rear suspension, unique to GLI variants. The front differential is an electronically controlled limited-slip differential that hydraulically varies torque to each front wheel, working in tandem with the electronic differential lock (which uses individual brake-force distribution to help prevent understeer) to help create neutral handling and limit wheelspin.

GLI models also get larger brakes with 13.4 inch front brakes from the Golf R and 11.8 inch rear discs. Bigger 225-45-18 tires mounted on 18 x 7.5-inch alloy wheels are also part of the package and help provide lots of grip on twisty roads.

The Jetta is also economical, providing 25 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway when paired with the DSG transmission. Pricing starts at $26,245, which is a bargain for a premium car that is so much fun to drive. Our Autobahn model with the DSG transmission will set you back $30,745. That is still one of the best deals out there for anyone looking for a fun car that can be so practical.

Specifications

Engine:DOHC 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder
Horsepower:228 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque:258 @ 1,700 rpm
Front Suspension:McPherson strut
Rear Suspension:Multilink
Transmission:Six-speed manual
Axle Ratio:3.24:1
Curb Weight:TBD
Base MSRP:$26,245
Image courtesy of Volkswagen

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