2021 Volkwagen Jetta GLI Autobahn Review by David Colman +VIDEO
Best Bang for the Sport Sedan Buck
By David Colman
Special Correspondent to THE AUTO CHANNEL
I don't need a new car right now, but if I did, my personal choice would be this 2021 VW Jetta GLI Autobahn. It ticks every box on my list and then some. It's really fast, but not so fast as to be intimidating. It handles exceptionally well, but doesn't require maintenance of a separate bank account to keep it shod with tires. Its looks are outstanding in an understated Brooks Brothers sort of way. The subtle red pin striping and elimination of the Jetta name in favor of a GLI insignia are the automotive equivalent of an elegantly placed pocket square. With four doors, a vast trunk, plus a back seat designed for grown-up humans, this GLI is eminently practical as a family conveyance. And too top it all off, the base price for this top line, top performing Jetta is $30,745.
The Jetta model line covers a wide range of equipment, with no less than eight separate models on offer. The least expensive Jetta S checks in at a base price of $18,895. However, the less expensive variants rely on a somewhat anemic 1.4 liter inline turbo 4 which produces just 147hp. As you climb the price ladder, from S to SE to SEL to SEL Premium, standard equipment becomes more lavish. Top echelon Jettas like the SEL Premium, R-Line and GLI are much better endowed in the engine room with a 2.0 liter 4 cylinder turbo that makes 228hp and 258lb.-ft. of torque, That extra dollop of brute force improves the 3,082lb. Jetta's power-to-weight ratio from a sluggish 20.85 lb/hp to a scintillating 13.51 lb/hp. That latter figure plants the GLI squarely in the upper echelon of prime sports sedan territory, so feel free to go BMW hunting with this comparatively inexpensive Bimmer- beater.
For the impecunious, VW even offers a less expensive version of the GLI than the one we drove. It's called the GLI "S" model, and it retails for just $26,345. But the range topping GLI, called the "Autobahn" model includes such a raft of delicious components that buying the S model seems penny wise and pound foolish. Topping the improvements from a driving standpoint is the addition of Adaptive Chassis Control, which VW terms DCC. This refinement is due to a damping system that coordinates shock absorber valving with the driving mode you have selected. As the Owner's Manual puts it, "DCC incorporates the suspension tuning of the driving mode in use." In my case, the Sport Mode was exclusively chosen, and the best part of the system is that you Do Not need to re-select Sport Mode every time you restart your GLI. Once chosen, it remains in effect. This is a great boon to the enthusiast driver, and something almost every other manufacturer needs to emulate.
I wish the same could be said for Lane Assist, which unfortunately "always switches on after switching on the ignition." Lane Assist is a minor nuisance when you're traversing the Interstate. If you remember to signal every lane change, it graciously allows you to move laterally without nudging the steering wheel in the opposite direction. However, once you've got the GLI off the Freeway and tackling some curvy back roads, the Lane Assist becomes more of a liability than an asset. I found that every time the Jetta topped a gradual rise in road elevation, the front wheels would go light for an instant as the system struggled to detect visible road markers where none existed. Although this unwanted assistance can be turned off via an "Assistance systems menu in the Infotainment system" VW really needs to provide a separate button for instant Lane Assist deactivation.
Aside from that shortcoming, the GLI was a blast to drive on back roads. In particular, we loved the responsiveness of the shock valving as it adapted to multiple pavement puzzles with brisk equanimity. Playing an equally important role in the well snubbed grip of this Jetta were the quartet of super adhesive Hankook Ventus Evo S1 radials (225/45R18) which put their TW 340 rating to good use in helping the GLI generate substantial lateral grip in challenging circumstances. Best of all, the Autobahn comes to you with a standard 6-speed manual gearbox that raises the backroad driving experience from good to great. Each time you select a gear, its number is prominently displayed on the instrument panel, so you're never in doubt about where you stand with this transmission. The manual also includes a hill holder feature which prevents backsliding on hill starts, and a very smooth clutch engagement protocol. VW also offers an optional 7-speed Tiptronic automatic.
If you upgrade your GLI choice from "S" to "Autobahn," here's the raft of improvements you get in return for your extra $4,400: enhanced audio (400 watts, 8 speakers), fully digital gauge cluster with 10.3 inch touchscreen, leather upholstery, panoramic sunroof, ventilated front seats, adaptive dampers, power adjustable driver's seat, red brake calipers, XDS cross differential system with limited slip front locker. For the money, you couldn't begin to equip your GLI with all these refinements in the aftermarket.
2021 VOLKWAGEN JETTA GLI AUTOBAHN
ENGINE: 2.0 liter inline 4, turbocharged TSI
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 24MPG City/35MPG Highway
PRICE AS TESTED: $32,540
HYPES: Best Bang for the Sport Sedan Buck
GRIPES: Lose Lane Assist
STAR RATING: 10 Stars out of 10