Expert Reviews

First Drive: Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Three hundred and 18 curves. Eleven miles. Located in a place called Deal’s Gap along the Tennessee and North Carolina State line, there’s a sinuous stretch of Highway 129 that is known as the Tail of the Dragon. A mecca for motorcyclists from around the globe, there is a monument known as The Tree of Shame that is adorned with parts from ill-fated machines that could not tame the beast.

As a motorcyclist myself, it was strange to experience the road for the first time travelling not on two, but four wheels. Volkswagen was confident enough in the performance chops of their new Jetta GLI to hold its press launch drive there.

Volkswagen is bucking the trend by offering driver’s the choice of the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG or a (halleluiah!) smooth shifting six-speed manual transmission.

Light truck sales in Canada continue to increase their market share, making up 70.1 percent of all vehicles sold in 2018, up 1.5 percent from the previous year. Volkswagen experienced 3.7 percent sales growth despite flat and falling markets in the United States and Canada respectively, thanks to demand for Tiguan and Atlas SUVs. They made the controversial announcement last September that they will be discontinuing Beetle production, which had less to do with the vehicle’s sales than the popularity of the Tiguan.

While numbers in North America may be dropping, the nameplate still sells in high volume on a global scale, making it worthy of a makeover.

More aggressive styling 

Much like the waistbands of the North American population, the Jetta has grown substantially in size since its inception in 1979. Only nominally larger than the previous generation Mk6, the new-for-2019 Jetta is wider, longer and higher, offering more legroom, shoulder room and a longer wheelbase.

Bringing it closer to its GTI hatchback sibling, the GLI gets a honeycomb grille, more aggressive bumpers front and rear, side skirts and a sport suspension that makes it sit 1.5 cm lower.

Previously offering a wide array of powerplants and trims, the regular Jetta’s packaging will be simplified for 2019, offering only two gasoline engine choices. If you don’t want the 147 hp 1.4 L engine, you’ve got to step up to the GLI, which will only be available in two flavours – standard GLI and the 35th Anniversary Edition.

Both versions get a 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder engine putting out 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 18 hp and 51 lb-ft. Honouring the number of years the GLI has been in production, the special edition gets unique badges inside and out, dark grey 18-inch wheels with a red stripe, blacked-out roof, mirrors and spoiler for $750. 

The Canadian GLI will be offered only with heated Titan Black leather seating and is exclusively front-wheel drive. Standard equipment for the starting price of $31,695 is robust, including sunroof, remote start, dual-zone climate control and Beats audio, among other amenities.

Special GLI accents continue inside

Unlike many other manufacturers these days, Volkswagen is bucking the trend by offering driver’s the choice of the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG or a (halleluiah!) smooth shifting six-speed manual transmission. Opting for the DSG will cost you an extra $1,400 but means you also get stop/start capability. Navigation comes standard, but so does the 8-inch infotainment screen with App-Connect, letting you access Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

The $995 Driver Assistance package, which includes adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane assist and high beam control, can be added a la carte to either level of trim. Some people won’t want it. Some people won’t want to pay for it. So, neither group is forced to get it. While many manufacturers are packaging their vehicles to bundle up things you want with a bunch of things you don’t, I applaud VW for letting buyers have some choice.

Leaving the hotel in Knoxville, TN driving the standard GLI equipped with a six-speed manual, the cabin was quiet, and the transmission was smooth. Our gear fit easily in the large trunk and the centre console had ample room for keys, cell phones and coffee. The leather heated and ventilated seats were comfort and supportive, but not constricting. Variable ratio steering is light but has good feedback and feel.

But you don’t care about what it’s like around town, you want to know what it’s like on the Dragon.

Driving the dragon brings out GLI's manual fun

Approaching from the North, the terrain quickly transitioned. Grades increased, and views improved. Switching from Normal to Sport driving mode, steering became tighter, shift points and ignition timing increased and the ambient lighting on the dash turned to red.  An Eco mode is optimized for fuel economy and a Custom mode allows you to combine your favourite aspects of each mode to create your own. Throttle response became noticeably sportier and a deeper, louder exhaust note emanated…from the speakers rather than the dual exhaust.

Returning from Spain very recently where I rode a Ducati though the mountains, I wasn’t prepared to be impressed with these roads as much as I was. Imagine an asphalt rollercoaster, snaking through the forest. No two turns are alike, and each bend brings a unique apex with camber and radius changing constantly. Handling was well balanced with the help of adaptive damping and with the help of the VMQ limited-slip differential, wheel spin and torque steer were minimal.

Shifting mostly between second and third to stay in the meaty party of the powerband, the transmission was quick and smooth while the clutch was predictable and light. Driving the DSG on the way back, shifts were faster without my sluggish left foot slowing things down, but just wasn’t as much fun as you’d expect. Without constant attention, it kept going up a gear to prioritize fuel efficiency. Not the time or place. Also, moving the shifter forward to select a higher gear and back to go down a gear is counter-intuitive. Here’s hoping Volkswagen keeps offering a manual option, regardless of the fact that more people will buy the auto.

The roads in and around Highway 129 may not be as legendary, but they are no less entertaining. Snaking up, down and around through small towns, forests and farmland, each turn is as engaging as the next.

Verdict: Sporty value equation improved

Previously making up five percent of Jetta sales in Canada, Volkswagen is hoping to bring the GLI closer to 20 percent with this new offer, and packaging which provides a savings of $3,300 over the previous comparable model. Sharing the global modular platform called MQB with everything from the Golf to the Atlas allows the new Jetta to be offered at a competitive price point.

The GLI is not a sports car. That being said, it did a hell of a good job performing on a stretch of road that has taken far more capable vehicles as casualties. Granted, much of that has to do with the person behind the wheel. While there was law enforcement in the area, abiding by the laws of physics is more important since going off the road will result in hitting a tree as a best-case scenario. If you want a GTI, but also need more space and possibly the security of a trunk, the GLI makes a compelling offer.