Payne: It’s the most powerful VW GLI ever — and it has a stick

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy.

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

You could hear the teeth gnashing this summer when Chevy introduced the eighth-generation Corvette without a manual transmission option.

Heresy! Off with their heads! God save the manual!

But to paraphrase Mr. Twain, the death of the manual has been greatly exaggerated.

For those willing to pay less than half the price of a new Corvette, the next-generation Volkswagen Jetta GLI is not only the most powerful GLI ever — it also comes with a stick.

Not that I don’t understand the concerns of the Corvette faithful. Super sports-cars with manuals are surely on their last legs. There is something deeply satisfying about being able to slowly unleash 500 horsepower at a stoplight, the rear wheels smoking as you work throttle and clutch together like bow and strings. WAAAWWHHRRGH!

Or the satisfaction of a buttery, 4-to-2 downshift into a 90-degree turn after a perfect heel-and-toe downshift. AWROOOMYEAHHH!

But high-end dual-clutch automatic boxes do it all so much better that it’s pointless to resist. The faithful want 2.9-second zero-60 runs? Gotta have a dual-clutch automatic tranny. Want a car that stops on a dime with lightning quick downshifts? Same answer. Want a $70,000 ‘Vette that can compete with a $190,000 Porsche on track day? Once you’ve gone dual-clutch auto there is no going back.

But in Budgetville where most car enthusiasts still live, dual-clutch automatics are unaffordable and sticks are still where it’s at for the enthusiast.

The new Mazda 3 is offering the manual as a premium option, the Mazda Miata is a manual icon, and VW’s Jetta may be the best bargain this side of — well, its sibling Golf GTI.

As readers of this column know, the GTI is my favorite all-around player. For four decades the total package of hatchback value, interior comfort and performance fun.

The Jetta has always been the more affordable, sedan version of Golf. It’s the nerd to Golf’s party boy, the vanilla to Golf’s Rocky Road, the Teller to Golf’s Penn. Jetta never got a GTI performance equivalent.

That changed in 2011 with the first Jetta GLI stuffed with GTI goodies. For its seventh generation, Jetta has brought back the GLI again. I took the manual version on a road trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I was racing my (manual, of course) Lola sports racer.

I expected the trip to measure Jetta GLI’s relevance compared to the GTI — and to automatic transmissions in general.

From the first press of the Jetta GLI’s clutch pedal, it was a different barrel of monkeys. Forget to press the clutch pedal and brake pedal, and the car won’t start at all (automatics require only pressing the brake to start). With a whopping 258 pound-feet of torque from its 2.0-liter turbo-4 and a tidy six-speed box, the GLI rekindles the joy of manuals.

It’s the same torquey 228-horse engine found in the Golf GTI. Torque comes on strong at 3,000 rpms, and with the Sport mode engaged (is there any other?) the turbo-4 makes a satisfying grunt when flogged. Unlike high-horsepower manuals (the Camaro ZL1) that require the strength of Zeus to shift, the VW six-speed is light to the touch for quick shifts.

Mrs. Payne was my co-driver. Though she prefers automatics (especially on long trips to, um, Indy, where an automatic transmission and adaptive cruise-control is particularly handy) she was content with the GLI stick, especially the hill-assist feature which makes first-gear hill starts a cinch.

Only the second to third shift is mushy (careful, or you’ll grab fifth by mistake and bog the engine). Rush a corner, and the gas and brake pedals are nicely aligned for heel-and-toe downshifts. The Jetta rotates nicely on it its award-wining MQB chassis screwed down with a stiffer suspension than the base Jetta.

The recipe is all GTI including multi-link rear suspension, flat-bottom steering wheel, limited-slip differential (perfect for autocrossing) — even big 13.4-inch brakes borrowed from the top-of-the-line, all-wheel drive, smokin’ hot-hatch Golf R.

Whew! You can see the vanilla melting. Especially as my GLI tester was wrapped in a very GTI-ish red coat with red war-paint grille. Twin pipes in the rear also signal competitors to keep their distance.

All this… and less.

True to Jetta’s entry-level spot in V-dub’s lineup, VW offers this manual treat at just $26,890, a significant $1,600 discount over the 2019 GTI. Trade up to the loaded, GTI Autobahn edition, and the delta between GLI and GTI grows to a yawning $5,000.

So is the GLI worth it?

On my 600-mile round trip to Indy, the differences reveal themselves. In between the handsome silver-rimmed gauges, the GLI gets away with a cheaper, pixelated digital display. The cloth seats never chafed, but they aren’t the bolstered, plaid thrones of the GTI. That means less body grip on high-G turns.

But the big differences are body style, and here’s where the GTI earns its premium. The Jetta is a big car with the same cargo and rear leg room as the mid-size Passat of just two generations ago. But while its cavernous 14.1 cubic feet of trunk space made for excellent airport runs (to pick up my sons and a friend), it paled in dexterity to the GTI’s 22-cubic-feet hatchback.

The GLI back seat gains two inches on the GTI but gives up an inch of precious headroom. And while VW has tried hard to sex-up the Jetta’s exterior with some nicely sculpted shoulder lines, it doesn’t have the character of the Golf classic.

I’ll pay the extra $1,600 for GTI, but I won’t pay the extra 800 clams for the GLI’s automatic transmission.

The six-speed manual was a reminder of the joys of the stick. Unless you’re stuck in three-hour Los Angeles traffic jams, the manual is a wonderful way to explore the torque range of the excellent VW engine.

The GTI/GLI torque numbers dwarf anything else in class, especially the manual Mazda 3 which soars in aesthetic appeal at just $28,420 — but then doesn’t offer an engine option beyond the merely competent standard 2.5-liter four-banger. Talk about vanilla.

By combining a sporty chassis, good power and a stick, the Jetta GLI is a cure for the common SUV. Or the $60,000, automatic Corvette.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI manual

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: Base price $26,890 including $895 destination charge ($26,890 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,217 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 25 city/32 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Manual fun, torque-tastic turbo-4

Lows: Vanilla styling, not a hatchback GTI

Overall: 3 stars

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