2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Review: Still on the Podium?

Volkswagen Jetta Full Overview

Debuting for 2019, Volkswagen’s current A7-generation Jetta represented a meaningful step forward for a nameplate that had lost some of its luster over its previous few iterations. It impressed us enough, in fact, to earn a third-place ranking among compact sedans in our MotorTrend Ultimate Car Rankings. How’s it holding up against the ever-increasing competition? To find out we spent a week in a range-topping GLI model in Pure Gray and fitted with the Autobahn Black package, which left it a few red wheel stripes shy of aping the 35th Anniversary model we tested in 2019.

Now, this GLI isn’t the Jetta that ranks as our third-best compact sedan. Our class rankings focus on the highest-volume variants, which in the compact-sedan class would be the Jetta powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. After years of GLI models being equipped with significantly dumbed-down and differently tuned GTI parts, the A7 GLI is once again a GTI with a trunk, albeit one with a longer wheelbase and Golf R brakes.

How would this car stack up if we made a special rankings category for the sporty compact sedans, including the Hyundai Elantra N Line, Mazda 3 Turbo AWD, and Subaru WRX? (The on-hiatus Honda Civic Si will be included once it returns next year based on the all-new 2022 Civic.)

On the objective measurements front, Subaru’s WRX holds the high ground. Its 2.0-liter boxer engine produces equivalent torque (258 lb-ft) but 40 more horses (268), so despite its slower-shifting manual transmission, plus the added weight and friction of the Subie’s standard all-wheel drive, the WRX is about a half-second quicker to 60 mph and through the quarter mile. Its tires and brakes are closely enough matched to the GLI’s to deliver stopping and handling performance numbers within a percentage point of one another.

A 2020 Honda Civic Si sedan powered by a 205-hp, 192-lb-ft turbocharged 1.5-liter trailed the VW Jetta GLI by another half-second in acceleration but outperformed it in braking and cornering by a more significant 3 to 4 percent. (We don’t anticipate the next Si to receive a significant power bump that will threaten the GLI in terms of acceleration. ). That leaves the Mazda 3 Turbo AWD and Hyundai Elantra N Line. The torquier 2.5-liter Mazda is slightly quicker but considerably less athletic in terms of braking and cornering, while the 1.6-liter Hyundai brings up the rear in all categories. (The higher-performing 2022 Elantra N and its 2.0-liter turbo will surely rectify this.)

A big bonus the VW offers that the current competitors can’t match is the Jetta GLI’s Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive damping system. Honda offered a similar setup on the Si but without the VW’s Custom mode option, which makes it possible to individually adjust the chassis components. As an example, we put the steering feel, front differential locking program, throttle response and shift strategy, and even the adaptive cruise control in their most aggressive settings but left the dampers and exhaust note in Comfort mode. The Sport options for these latter features respectively jiggled our kidneys and sounded like a poorly tuned aftermarket “fart can.” But Custom allows you to do you, and to place the GLI into your own personal sweet spot.

To sum it up, the basic 2021 Volkswagen Jetta package offers the sufficient people and luggage room, competitive fuel economy, and higher level of onboard technology to maintain its third-place ranking, while the GLI seems like an easy top-two finisher among the sportsters of the class—at least until we we get to drive the 2022 Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Elantra N.

Looks good! More details?

SPECIFICATIONS 2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
BASE PRICE $32,540
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.0L/228-hp/258-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,245 lb (60/40%)
WHEELBASE 105.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 185.2 x 70.8 x 57.9 in
0-60 MPH 6.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.6 sec @ 98.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 109 ft
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.6 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 140/96 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.69 lb/mile
Note: Curb weight and test numbers represent mechanically identical 2019 test vehicle.

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