The Volkswagen Jetta GLI has long been the most affordable way for European sports sedan fans to get their fix, and the latest incarnation is arguably the most appealing in more than three decades of availability.
I’ve always liked the understated simplicity of the sixth-generation Jetta’s design, and especially appreciated the 2012 GLI for reintroducing an independent rear suspension as well as soft-touch interior trim to the Jetta line. The 2016 Jetta GLI moves things up a notch or two: Its cabin now features Volkswagen’s impressive new MIB 2 infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, while its exterior gets pumped up with yet more eye-catching style.
New details include a subtle but effective colour substitution on the honeycomb grille, the lower chromed horizontal underline exchanged for bright red. The sportier hue continues outward into the revised headlamps, just like the previous chrome line, albeit with more dramatic effect. The lower fascia is the real spectacle, however, now completely de-chromed and reworked with a narrower air intake and deeper lip spoiler that’s divided into two body-coloured sections with additional black aero elements. It’s more aggressive, more substantive, and wider-looking. Additionally, the old Jetta GLI’s black-on-black fog lamp strakes are now black-on-body-colour, and more artful in the way they wrap around new squared-off fogs.
Things are more subdued in the back where the rear bumper gets a similar split look to the front spoiler, albeit affecting the diffuser-like design just below. The tiny deck lid spoiler and darkened LED taillights remain unchanged, while my tester wore the same optional 18” Mallory wheels as last year, these still framing large rotors with red-painted brake calipers for a decidedly track-ready look.
The aforementioned MIB 2 touchscreen is certainly more advanced than Volkswagen’s previous unit, now featuring proximity-sensing links that expand as your finger approaches, predicting your choice and making the digital button larger and easier to push while driving. Whether you opt for the available 8” display or the smaller 6.3” version (as tested), you’ll benefit from smartphone connectivity tech, while the overall experience is more intuitive than the previous system, not to mention graphically superior, plus incorporates a wider range of functions and apps.
What will matter more to many drivers are the simple things, like finally replacing the standard 30-pin Apple connector with a regular USB. Dual SD card slots are pretty cool additions, too. Of course, a rear-view camera comes as part of the standard GLI package. The only problem is that you’ll likely be gawking at all of this techno wizardry, not to mention the GLI’s sport-luxury detailing, when your eyes should instead be focused on the outside.
The cabin of the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is all done out in black with red stitching, plus piano black plastic with glossy red pin striping, along with the usual bright aluminum touches VWs are famous for. Great-looking, red-stitched leather seats continued the sporty theme in my Autobahn model, while providing superb support with aggressive bolstering. What’s more, beautifully finished leather wrapped around the gorgeous, flat-bottomed sport steering wheel, also detailed with red thread, while red-stitched leather adorned the shifter boot, handbrake grip and skirt, plus the centre armrest/storage bin lid.
In some ways, the GLI is one of the nicer cars in its class, but in others it doesn’t even measure up to the common Toyota Corolla, let alone the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra (have you seen the new Elantra Sport?). The dash top is beautifully finished in high-quality soft synthetic right to its outer edges and down the sides of the centre stack, but other key areas don’t achieve such high standards of refinement including the door panels that only receive small padded leatherette armrests along with rubberized inserts. Volkswagen covered the A-pillars with black fabric, though.
There’s certainly no shortage of headroom up front and more than enough shoulder and hip space for my 5’8” frame. In the rear, I had about 3” of clearance above my head and the same amount next to my shoulders, with plenty more ahead of my knees and feet. Overall, the Jetta proves ideal for taller folks. The back seat offers good lower back support and features a centre armrest with dual cup holders, but no outboard seat heaters.
I like the way the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI balances comfort with performance. It’s a sports sedan, for sure, but it hasn’t forgotten its need to be an everyday driver and family hauler, either. It’s the type of car that keeps a person at ease during daily commuting no matter how bad the traffic jam is, and then lets you happily enjoy multiple hours on your way out of the city on the weekend. Ergonomics are excellent and visibility is superb.
In general, front-seat livability and fast-paced highway stability are as good as entry-level compact sedans get, and then when called upon the Jetta GLI delivers solid grip and deft balance that’s unmatched in its class―this side of a Subaru WRX at least. Adding a sport suspension that includes lowering the ride height by 15 millimetres helps, and surprisingly doesn’t seem to negatively affect ride quality, while the XDS cross differential enhances handling even more. Consider the latter pre-emptive traction control in that it uses ABS to reduce understeer similarly to how stability control limits oversteer. It works wonders, especially on slippery surfaces.
The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI needs all the traction it can get, mind you, as its powertrain is plenty responsive. The direct-injected, turbocharged 2.0L 4-cylinder is now good for 210 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1,700 rpm, while my tester’s 6-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission was very smooth yet as quick-shifting as autoboxes get, enhanced further with paddle shifters. I have yet to test the standard 6-speed manual gearbox, so I can’t comment. As for fuel economy, the latest Jetta GLI is rated at 8.5L/100km combined for the manual and 8.3L/100km for the DSG.
Also critical, a very capable set of 4-wheel discs slows the relatively lightweight 1,432kg sedan quickly with little fade after repeated stomps, allowing confidence for late braking before corners. Then again, if things go awry, post-crash automatic braking will mitigate the effects of a secondary collision―not that I want to quell your enthusiasm for spirited canyon carving.
Of course, all the usual standard active and passive safety features are included, while my top-line Autobahn tester also featured blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. However, unlike the Jetta Highline with the Technology package, it doesn’t boast autonomous emergency braking and therefore fails to qualify for IIHS Top Safety Pick+ status. On the plus side, all Jettas earn a best-possible 5-star rating from the NHTSA.
The unavailable Technology package also means the GLI can’t be had with auto high beams, adaptive cruise control, or the larger Discover Media infotainment interface noted before, but at least the Autobahn upgrade adds that system’s excellent navigation guidance and mapping, a sweet-sounding, 8-speaker Fender audio system, and dynamic cornering HID headlamps. Other extras include the 18” alloys and leather upholstery mentioned earlier, plus a 6-way power driver’s seat with manual lumbar and a garage door opener. That’s a lot of premium kit for $36,195. If you want all the goodies and prefer a manual transmission, you’ll save an immediate $1,410. Alternatively, you can choose the base GLI for just $29,395.
Standard GLI features not yet mentioned include auto on/off headlights, fog lamps, heated power side mirrors with integrated LED turn signals, proximity access, push-button ignition, metal doorsill plates, ambient lighting, rain-sensing wipers, aluminum sport pedals, a tilt and telescopic steering column, cruise control, a colour multi-info display, dual-zone automatic HVAC, a cooled glove box, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front and rear parking sensors, satellite radio, heated front seats, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks to expand the Jetta’s already sizeable 439L trunk, and a large centre pass-through.
The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn really is a practical, do-it-all compact sedan when needed, and an autocross track star when wanted. Not many cars pull off such diverse dual personas as effectively while providing such a high level of comfort. Now equipped with state-of-the-art infotainment, it’s hard to fault.