2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI SEL

2016 Volkswagen Jetta GLI SEL

Dual persona GLI is both luxury commuter and weekend track star

In VW-speak the GTI gets the lion’s share of attention, even more so than the hyperactive R or in this review’s case, the GLI.

To be clear there have been at least 25 GTI-branded models from numerous manufacturers over the years, including Citroen, Dacia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Proton, Rover, Seat, Suzuki and of course Volkswagen, the name originally shortened from Gran Turismo Iniezione, Gran Turismo Injektion or Grand Tourer Injection, depending on where it was coined, fuel injection being new and worthy of emphasis in the ’70s when the Golf/Rabbit-based GTI was introduced. Mention “GTI” in most parts of the world and the majority of car enthusiasts will think only of that legendary VeeDub. As for where the “L” in GLI came from nobody seems certain, VW needing a three-letter acronym for the sportiest version of its Jetta four-door and the middle letter likely derived from the German word limousine that directly translates into sedan. I’m guessing that VW fans won’t likely care how GLI came into existence, only that it did.

The concept makes perfect sense of course, especially considering that our modern-day sport sedan can also be sourced from the land of hyper-speed autobahns and circuitous Black Forest backroads. VW’s Audi subsidiary produces its fair share of sporty four-doors as do its main rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the Volkswagen GLI merely following the mainstream volume brand’s tradition of being a sport sedan for the people.

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The first Jetta GLI I personally tested and reviewed was a 2002 Mk4 followed up a year later by a 2003 version of the same car, while the last one I put through the paces was a sixth-generation 2012 model. That car was significant because it returned an independent rear suspension to the Jetta line, while its interior was upgraded to almost match the near premium quality found in the old GLI. This latest 2016 GLI moves things up a notch more, its cabin now featuring VW’s impressive new Android Auto and Apple CarPlay enhanced “MIB 2” infotainment system, while its exterior gets pumped up with more eye-catching styling.

New details include a subtle but effective color substitution on the honeycomb grille, the lower chromed horizontal underline exchanged for bright red, this sportier red theme continuing to bleed into the revised headlamps just like the chrome line use to, although with more dramatic effect. The real drama happens below, however, the lower fascia completely de-chromed and reworked with a narrower reshaped air intake and deeper lip spoiler that’s divided into two body-color sections with additional black aero elements resulting in a much more aggressive, more substantive, wider looking car. Adding yet more to the go-fast appearance, the old GLI’s black-on-black strakes that sat next to vertical fog lamps are now black-on-body-color for even greater homage seemingly paid to the rear brake ducts of ’80s-era wide-body slant-nose 911s, the new GLI’s strakes more artfully surrounding squared-off fogs as they bend downward to visually feed into the thin air slot between the split spoiler mentioned a moment ago. Things are more subdued in back where the rear bumper cap gets a similar split look to the front spoiler, albeit affecting the diffuser-like design just below. The tiny deck lid spoiler above appears the same, as do last year’s updated LED taillights, darkened for the GLI, while the same twinned five-spoke 18-inch Mallory wheels as last year continue to frame large rotors with red painted brake calipers for a decidedly track-ready look.

That MIB 2 touchscreen infotainment system is certainly more advanced than VW’s previous generation unit, now featuring proximity-sensing links that expand as your finger gets close, predicting your choice and making the digital button larger and easier to push while driving. I first tested VW’s upgraded “Discover Media” infotainment system in the 2016 CC, that one featuring the same smaller 6.3-inch display tested here with the Jetta GLI; my second experience was in a 2016 Golf that featured a larger 8.0-inch touchscreen. Despite living with a Samsung Note 4 day in and day out I’m not one for big screens in cars, so the lesser display is just fine by me. What matters more is everything inside, and to that end VW incorporated the latest smartphone interfacing technology for the two most popular operating systems mentioned earlier, as well as MirrorLink. My Samsung obviously synced with Android Auto, allowing a much more intuitive experience than previous VW infotainment systems while incorporating a wide range of functions that I’d probably still be playing with if the German brand had made my weeklong tester a long-term unit. If wishes were horses beggars would ride, or so the old saying goes, more directly meaning that I had to cram my learning into mere days.

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In addition to the slick interface, VW Car-Net with intuitive App-Connect is like having a personal concierge along for the drive, allowing full connectivity from your phone to the car and vice versa. The Car-Net portion of the system, which is the feature VW will want you to buy into, is a subscription-based service that offers security features, remote vehicle access, advanced telematics and enhanced navigation.

What matters more to me, however, are the simple things, like finally removing the standard 30-pin Apple connector along with the entire annoying dongle system and replacing it with regular old USB inputs. Shocking I know, but VW, the last holdout to Apple’s antiquated proprietary connector has moved over to the dark side and embraced standardization, the new USBs allowing anyone using any device (yes, even a Blackberry, speaking of holdouts) to freely connect so as to recharge or do anything else that wireless Bluetooth won’t allow. Dual vertical SD card slots are pretty cool additions too, these integrated right into the infotainment interface, while VW still offers an optical drive for those of us who love higher quality tunes yet don’t want to fill up our phones with ultra-heavy FLAC files. Of course, a rearview camera comes as part of the standard GLI package, a handy safety feature no matter the size or outward visibility of your car.

The problem with the latest GLI is that you’ll likely be gawking at all of its techno wizardry, not to mention its sport-luxury detailing, when your eyes should rather be fixed on the road ahead, or behind. It’s all done out in black with red stitching, plus piano black lacquered plastic with glossy red pin striping, along with the usual bright aluminum detailing that performance-oriented VWs have become famous for. The seats are superbly supportive and great looking with amply aggressive bolsters in the midsection highlighted with red stitching, plus stylish ribbed inserts from top to bottom, all done out in pretty real looking and feeling simulated V-Tex leatherette. Hides in mind, some of the nicest genuine leather in the mainstream volume sector wraps around the gorgeous flat-bottomed steering wheel, also detailed with sporty red thread, while red stitched leather adorns the shifter boot, handbrake grip and skirt too, with pleather on the armrest/storage bin lid.

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In some ways the Jetta is one of the nicer cars in its class, but in others it doesn’t even measure up to the common Corolla or Elantra, let alone the all-new Civic that’s shockingly good. The GLI’s dash top is beautifully finished in high-quality soft synthetic right to its outer edges and down the sides of the center stack, but other key areas are not detailed to such high standards including the bottom half of the instrument panel, the lower portion of the center stack and the lower console, not to mention each door panel that would normally get soft touch front uppers in this $30-something crowd, but instead only receive a small padded leatherette armrest along with slightly pliable plastic inserts. Volkswagen does wrap the A-pillars with fabric, however, in sportier black like the roofliner, while a nice overhead console boasts a large rubberized sunglasses holder, map lights, a dome light switch, and the controller for the powered glass sunroof.

There’s certainly no shortage of space up front with plenty of legroom plus about four inches of air above my five-foot-eight frame’s head, and more than enough roominess from side to side for my medium build. Likewise in back, where I didn’t have quite as much area to move around in with just three inches above my head and about the same next to my shoulders, albeit quite a bit more ahead of my knees and feet. Volkswagen includes a comfortable center armrest that folds down to expose a leatherette padded top incorporating dual cupholders at its front edge. There aren’t any outboard seat heaters in back, but there’s a 12-volt charger on the rear side of the front center console and the overhead dome light is actually more like two rear spot lamps designed to be turned on separately for reading. Most importantly the rear seats are quite comfortable with good lower back support.

I like the way the GLI balances comfort with performance. It’s a sport 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 you could commute with in total comfort, the seats relaxing no matter how bad the traffic jam, while the ergonomics are excellent all-round and visibility superb. In general, front-seat livability is as good as it gets for a compact mainstream four-door sedan, but then when called upon, for those moments when you just feel like going faster than you probably should, whether on some forgotten backcountry road or merely around a cloverleaf on your way to work, the GLI delivers such superb grip and deft balance that it’s really unmatched in the mainstream compact sedan class, this side of the Subaru WRX at least.

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While lowering the ride height by 0.6 inches helps, which surprisingly doesn’t seem to affect ride quality compared to less sporting Jetta trims, VW utilizes a cross differential system dubbed XDS to enhance road-holding further. Call it pre-emptive traction control if you like, but either way it uses the ABS braking system to reduce understeer in a similar way to how stability control limits oversteer, which works wonders on the open road, especially on slippery surfaces, but might cause some problems on the track where too much brake-induced electronics limit stopping power when needed.

While I can’t see a lot of GLI users contesting their cars around local racecourses on weekends, its powertrain might make the prospect tempting. Take-off is very responsive, the GLI getting the GTI’s upgraded direct-injection, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder after all, now good for 210-horsepower and 207 lb-ft of max torque from as low as 1,700 rpm, while my tester’s six-speed dual-clutch DSG automated transmission was as quick-shifting as autoboxes get, enhanced by paddle shifters on the steering wheel spokes. A short-throw six-speed manual is standard, although I haven’t tested the current one so can’t comment, but previous versions have been superb. Another GLI boon is a very capable set of four-wheel disc brakes that slowed the 3,157-lb sedan quickly with very little fade after repeated stomps, allowing the confidence for later braking before corners.

Braking in mind, VW includes a very useful post-crash automatic braking system that attempts to mitigate the effects of a secondary collision, not that I want to quell your enthusiasm for spirited canyon carving. Of course, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are also standard, as are traction and stability control, tire pressure monitoring, and loads of additional active and passive safety features, while my top-line tester even included blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert as part of the SEL upgrade. So-equipped the GLI gets the highest Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS, while all Jettas earned a best-possible 5 stars from the NHTSA.

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Additional SEL enhancements include the dual-SD-slot and navigation-enhanced proximity-sensing 6.3-inch infotainment system mentioned earlier, and bi-Xenon HID headlamps with adaptive cornering capability. These are some nice high-end extras for a price that’s still at the low end of the premium spectrum, fully loaded for $30,380 plus freight and dealer fees. If you want all the goodies and prefer a manual you’ll save $1,100 right off the top, that model going for $29,280, while you can get into a base GLI for as little as $26,920 with the manual and $28,020 for the DSG auto.

That base model won’t leave you begging for much more, incidentally, its standard features list including halogen headlamps and its own 6.3-inch “Composition Media” touchscreen with most of the goodness of the system I described earlier including Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink, while standard items that get grandfathered up to SEL trim include the GLI’s aforementioned unique front and rear styling, 18-inch alloys, red brake calipers and sport suspension, as well as auto on/off headlights, fog lamps, heatable powered side mirrors with integrated LED turn signals, darkened LED taillights, a rear spoiler, proximity keyless access with pushbutton ignition, doorsill plates, ambient lighting, aluminum sport pedals, a tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped multi-function GLI sport steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, a color multi-info display, a trip computer, dual-zone auto HVAC, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a rearview camera, front and rear park distance control with Park Pilot, a Fender audio system with eight speakers and a sub that sounded fabulous, a powered USB input, illuminated vanity mirrors, six-way powered driver’s seat with manual lumbar adjustment, V-Tex leatherette upholstery, a powered glass sunroof, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks to expand on the Jetta’s already accommodating 15.5 cubic-foot trunk, plus a flip-down center pass-through that allows rear passengers to enjoy the benefits of the more comfortable outboard seats on the way to the ski hill.

All of this go-fast luxury goodness is fairly efficient too, the GLI EPA-rated at just 23 mpg city, 33 highway and 27 combined for the manual or 24 city, 33 highway and 27 combined for the DSG.

I can think of a lot of reasons why a GLI would make an ideal daily commuter, but its biggest selling point has to be all the fun you can have with it on weekends. It’s a practical do-all four-door when you need it, plus a fully capable autocross track star when called upon. Not many cars pull off such diverse dual personas as effectively as the Jetta GLI, which is why it earns a very high recommendation in my books.

Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press

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