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2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI First Drive: Second Chance

Knoxville, TN – We traveled to this neck of the American woods at the invitation of Volkswagen for the occasion of the launch of its new 2019 Jetta GLI. The chosen environment for us to discover the car was a section of the Smoky Mountains that straddles Tennessee and North Carolina.

We know the Jetta itself quite well by now, of course. We’re also well-familiar with its GLI variant, which is celebrating 35 years of existence this year. What’s also no secret is how difficult life was for the last edition of the Jetta GLI.

Essentially, 2019 represents a second chance for the variant, and mindful of that Volkswagen has boosted its product offering. This is an improved product we were introduced to – though that doesn’t mean the battle is won.

Photo: D.Rufiange

And here’s why.

When tradition alone is not enough
The three letters attached to the Jetta GLI (which stands for Grand Luxury Injection) might mean more or less the same thing when stuck to the Jetta name as the Golf with its GTI (GTI = Grand Touring Injection), the two don’t resonate with the public the same way. Mention the Golf GTI and people tend to get all excited. Slip Jetta GLI into their ears, and you get raised eyebrows.

The GTI letters have made their reputation, in other words, while the GLI ones not so much.

This of course makes life more complicated for the new variant we were being introduced to, despite its many qualities. To win over consumers, it needs more than the letters attached to it. And it doesn’t really get that “more” from its exterior shell.

The GLI version does sport a distinctive black front grille with a bee’s-nest motif. It also gets side skirts, exclusive 18-inch wheels and a few other accents here and there, but the overall effect is not really apt to turn heads.

Photo: D.Rufiange

We can say it respects Volkswagen traditions, but is that enough? It works wonders in the case of the GTI, less so with the GLI.

For the moment, only a hawk-eyed Volkswagen lover will readily tell it apart. Methinks Volkswagen missed an opportunity to make a bolder statement with the styling of this variant’s new edition.

The offer
I mentioned earlier that in this respect Volkswagen has made upgrades. To that, I should add that the company’s engineers also simplified the offer. For 2019 there are only two versions available, a generously equipped base model (priced at $31,695) and a special 35th-anniversary edition ($32,445). In both cases, an extra $400 gets you the automatic transmission.

Here’s where this pricing is interesting: VW has cut some $3,300 from the asking price. Why, you might ask, thus looking a gift horse firmly in the mouth? Well because the GLI version didn’t sell much, representing only 5% of overall Jetta sales. The company is hoping to increase that to 10% with this new version, hence the more attractive price point.

Photo: D.Rufiange

That anniversary edition, by the way, it gets prettied up with a few additional black accents, grey   wheels accented with a red strip and special badging.

Just under 1,000 units of this special edition have been reserved for Canada, and they’re already at Canadian dealerships. First come first served…

For the rest, a drive-assist package can be thrown for an extra $995. It includes automatic high beams, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and forward collision alert with emergency braking. Blind spot monitor with rear transversal traffic detection are already included with the GLI as standard equipment.

It adds up to, well, a lot. Buyers get good bang for their buck. It’s just a shame it’s wrapped up in a humdrum package.

Photo: D.Rufiange

The interior
On this day we drove the U.S.-spec version of the 2019 Jetta GLI, and it actually is less-generously equipped than the variant we’re getting north of the border. Our base model includes such goodies as
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, heated front AND rear seats, Volkswagen’s virtual cockpit (with 10.25-inch screen), 8-inch multimedia screen, Beat audio system, panoramic roof, remote starter and ventilated front seats.

Oddly, though, there’s no heated steering wheel, which seems to be a pretty big oversight for a model that’s supposed to include everything a Canadian motorist could need in their car.

Upgraded powertrain
Under the hood of the 2019 GLI sits a 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo engine with an output of 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.

And that unit makes its presence felt when at the wheel, in a good way. More on that in a bit…

Photo: D.Rufiange

For the transmissions, as mentioned there’s a manual in the product offering as well as an automatic. The first is a well-spaced 6-gear unit, while the second is a 7-speed DSG transmission. Now you’re talking letters that resonate…

Models equipped with the latter unit bet push-button start.

What’s maybe more interesting than any of that, given the car’s mandate, is in regards to the chassis. It includes a multi-link rear suspension and VAQ limited-slip differential designed to reduce under-steering at the onset of turns taken at speed. The system works in conjunction with the XDS system for locking the differential.

An adaptive suspension, combined with the drive modes that can be chosen from, allows for adjusting the stings to fit the mood or driving situation. The model also comes with ventilated front disc brakes and solid disc brakes in back, both sets getting snazzy red calipers.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Solid on the road
Once you take it on the road, the Jetta GLI reveals itself to be a serious driving machine.

First of all, as I mentioned, you can feel the added power (and torque) the 2019 edition benefits from as you bring the pedal closer to the metal. The manual gearbox is a charm to use and shifting is smooth. The DSG is as effective as ever, though when the car is put through its last shifts, it does sometimes struggle to keep up. Also, even when using the manual mode, it ends up intervening, which can spoil the fun when you’re attacking corners with aggression.

For most buyers, of course, that won’t really come into play.

The chassis is solid and the VAQ system is effective when entering corners. I might also add reassuring, especially on wet road surfaces.

For the rest, the general level of comfort inside is excellent. The Jetta GLI can be thoroughly enjoyable even when you don’t drive it to extremes.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Conclusion
The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI comes with both good and bad news. The good has to do with the content VW is offering, both in terms of the equipment included and the mechanical components that make it run. This a solid product.

The bad? Well, the container, in short. The Jetta GLI is not ugly, but to attract buyers it really could have done with some bolder and more distinctive styling.

Alas, Volkswagen did not push the envelope there.

No doubt the automaker is making the bet that the model’s target market consists of people who already own a Volkswagen and that conquest sales (where owners of other car brands come over to your side) won’t make up much of the Jetta GLI’s overall sales.
 
But it also means it’s hard to imagine the model experiencing strong sales success.

Although, there is the price reduction to factor in. Maybe that will be enough of an incentive?

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Photos:D.Rufiange
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