As affordable fun sedans go, the Jetta has been a great contender for a long time, but how good is it now?
I’m a sucker for a fun little sedan, and appreciate companies that continue cranking out new ones. Volkswagen has been shipping the Jetta GLI for decades, giving its loyal buyers a slightly more performance-oriented variant of its compact sedan at a reasonable price. While it’s based on the same MQB platform as VW’s GTI, this Jetta feels like it’s half a generation behind the updated Mk8 GTI I reviewed last year.
The Jetta got a refresh for the 2022 model year, and the 2023 carried over mostly unchanged, with only minor cosmetic updates and remote start being fitted. Having played with plenty of practical four-door enthusiast models, including the all-new Honda Civic Si, I had to see if VW’s quick Jetta still gets the job done.
One thing I have to mention: During my test, some jerk in a parking lot dented the passenger rear door and didn’t leave a note, so I feel bad that the car got injured on my watch.
The Useful Specs
For 2023, VW simplified the order sheet for the Jetta GLI, now only offered in the nicely-equipped Autobahn trim level. Equipped with the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder as the Mk8 GTI I reviewed last year, the GLI pumps out 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. As you’d expect from a smaller performance model, the GLI has a 6-speed manual fitted standard, with an option for a 7-speed DSG.
Pricing for a base model Jetta S starts at $20,655, and the more-equipped and quicker GLI with the 6-speed manual is $32,680, with the DSG option adding $800 to the sticker. The GLI I tested was shipped with the DSG, and added Pure Gray paint, the gloss black package (which adds gloss black wheels, roof, wide mirrors, and rear spoiler), and thanks to the global parts shortage the ventilated front seats weren’t installed, so there was a $200 credit that brought the total MSRP to $34,270 after destination.
A Peppy Daily Driver
Practicality is fantastic in the Jetta GLI, providing a car you’ll have no gripes after spending several hours commuting in. While it’s a sportier trim level than the more basic Jetta models, the GLI is still refined and smooth when in the comfort or eco drive modes, yet ready to pick up the pace when you are, thanks to a potent boosted 4-banger under the hood. Steering feel is remarkably light yet precise, making any city driving or parking lot maneuvering simple.
In the custom drive mode, I put the engine in eco, and firmed up the suspension and steering, to make the GLI feel a hint more playful while being mindful of fuel consumption. After my week-long test, with mostly city miles covered, the GLI scored 28 MPGs on average, which is just below the EPA’s 26/36/30 estimates.
I like the cabin layout of the Jetta, which is a no-nonsense setup. There’s a dash of style, including a grippier steering wheel to remind you you’re in the fun trim level, but it’s still quite German and intuitive. The instrument cluster employs VW’s digital cockpit, allowing you to customize the layout and data displays across the 10.25-inch screen. I retained a more conventional look with a speedometer and tachometer flanking each side of the display. Because the 2023 Jetta carries over a slightly older infotainment system than the Mk8 GTI I reviewed, there’s an actual volume knob next to the touchscreen that incorporates wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Seats in the GLI are great, while nicely balancing between subtle and sporty, with great support right where it’s needed. Even the back seats have a hint more lateral support than in a normal affordable sedan, so that your passengers can stay in place if you’re taking the fun route to lunch during your workday. Space in the back seat is good too, so your coworkers won’t feel cramped, and the kids will have plenty of room for activities.
The front seats heated up quickly when tested during a cold front I recently experienced, but sadly the missing ventilated seat feature didn’t get tested during more typical warm days in Central Texas. Trunk space is massive, albeit a bit simple when it comes to storage needs. I wish VW gave the Jetta a bit more in the way of storage features in its cavernous boot. Standard safety features are aplenty, with VW’s full stack of active and passive systems to keep you in good hands on the road.
Can It Entertain The Enthusiast Driver?
Sneaking out to your favorite nearby winding road is definitely enjoyable in the Jetta GLI, so long as you don’t think you’re in a true performance car. The turbocharged engine is punchier when configured in the sport drive mode, with a bit more exhaust noise allowed (some of which is coming through the speakers). 258 lb-ft is no small figure in a smaller sedan, and VW made sure plenty of that torque is available across the mid-range where you want it. Do expect some moderate turbo lag at lower RPMs, especially when pulling away from a stoplight.
If you want to have the most fun on twisty roads, opt for the manual transmission. The DSG in the Jetta GLI was a bit frustrating when I used its manual mode, because it never let me have full control over its shifts. I could never rev up to anywhere near the redline, because the automatic upshift would kick in a good 1,000 RPMs before it, while also being a bit slow to change. Downshifts seemed labored too, even with the car dialed into its sportiest engine and transmission settings. Where the Mk8 GTI gets a cool, tiny nub for its automatic shifter, this Jetta GLI gets a more conventional shift lever, which seems dated by comparison.
The custom drive mode allows you to play with the dynamic chassis control, steering weight feel, suspension firmness and response, and e-differential capability, but just put the drive mode into sport when you want to have fun. That setup does the job perfectly, giving you quick engine response, just heavy enough steering, and a chassis that doesn’t feel too rigid while keeping body roll tidy. I’d like the sport suspension mode to be slightly firmer, to better distinguish itself over the normal mode, but it’s still good. Because of the larger proportions and increased weight of the Jetta over its GTI sibling, there is a hint more flex if you’re tossing the GLI more aggressively, but there really isn’t a big compromise if you want the extra cargo space over the hot hatch GTI.
Braking is positive in the GLI, with nice pedal feedback and solid confidence when needed to scrub speed ahead of tighter corners. What bugs me about the GLI I tested is the fact that it was equipped with all-season tires, just as VW did with the GTI I reviewed. Performance trim levels, particularly press cars, need the good rubber, because all-season tires compromise the fun factor. I appreciated that Honda ticked the option box for performance summer tires on the new Civic Si I tested, which give it a leg up on this Jetta GLI that could have been more enjoyable with stickier rubber.
The Good And Not Great Things
To better differentiate itself versus a more conventional Jetta, VW gave the GLI lots of cool styling treatments, particularly around its exterior. I like the more aggressive grille, hints of red trim, red brake calipers, and the classic GLI badge. This isn’t just another boring sedan, it’s the fun one, so it needed some good details.
Cabin treatments in the GLI are sporty yet subtle too, with little doses of red throughout the black cabin, but the seats are definitely cool. I dig the red backing in the leather that pops from under the perforations, and the red contrasting stitching is another nice touch. I’ve seen other compact cars better execute use of ambient cabin lighting, but I appreciate VW including it in the GLI.
The 2023 Jetta GLI gets the 7th generation Jetta’s climate control panel, which uses real knobs and buttons. This is something I absolutely hated about the new Mk8 GTI‘s interior. This GLI does get the steering wheel controls featured in the new GTI, which utilize capacitive touch switches rather than physical buttons, and they’re not good at all. There’s zero feedback, and they’re easy to accidentally engage when you’re giving the GLI any steering inputs.
Fun, But Not Fantastic
The GLI is definitely a more entertaining version of the VW Jetta, offering more power, sharper handling, neat styling touches, and a slightly higher cool factor. The trouble is that it needs to step all of these aspects up a notch to better position itself. Considering VW has the GTI on the same showroom floor, buyers should definitely gravitate toward the iconic hatchback over this sedan that could easily be mistaken as a basic four-door.
Then we get to the price. At $34,000, the Jetta GLI is not cheap, and is barely less expensive than the GTI I reviewed. For that figure, I’d wander over to the nearest Acura dealer to check out the all-new Integra before making a decision on my next fun sedan. If you don’t need leather seats or a sunroof, and are happy to row your own gears through what might be the best gearbox fitted to a new sporty four-door, I’d suggest getting a Civic Si to save a considerable amount of cash while enjoying a much more favorable driving experience.