KNOXVILLE, TN – In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park east of here, the Tail of the Dragon is a roadway with 318 curves along an 11-mile (17.6-km) stretch.
Road signs warn it’s a high-accident zone. At a nearby 1950s-style motel is a “Tree of Shame,” its limbs festooned with banged-up auto and motorcycle parts from wrecks on the zig-zag roadway.
It’s safe enough for non-crazy drivers. But you want to pay attention to the road; this is a place not to text and drive. And you want to drive a vehicle that won’t get nervous or show an unstable personality.
The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is just what the dragon ordered. It’s far from a muscle car, but the wiry performance-oriented sedan delivers quick torque from one gear to another, brakes confidently and more than holds its ground.
VW has made the GLI for 35 years (an anniversary edition is available this year). The recipe is simple enough: Take an everyday-use 4-door sedan, drop in a turbo engine, dial up the suspension and dress it up a bit. Bake and serve hot. This dish has a kick.
The new version of the compact sedan now has more in common with its Golf GTI hatchback stablemate, another pocket rocket (but one with a sooner rpm tip-in).
The commonality includes sharing a 2.0L 4-cyl. turbocharged direct-injection EA888 TSI engine. It cranks out 228 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque. That’s 18 more horsepower and 41 lb.-ft. (55.5 Nm) more than the previous GLI engine.
Buyers can choose between a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The GLI also has moved to the same global MQB platform that underpins the GTI and other VW models.
The German automaker hopes the redone GLI will appeal more to American buyers. “We want to grow here in the U.S.,” says Jan Dickman, VW’s head of compact cars.
With a title like that, it’s understandable that he’s a car-segment believer even though utility vehicles and light trucks now dominate the market. Cars accounted for only about 35% of the 17.1 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year.
That’s not so bad in Dickman’s view. “As a German guy, I look at that 35% and say, ‘That’s more than the whole German vehicle market.’” (Tree of Shame with parts from Tail of the Dragon accidents, left.)
Putting the GLI on the shared MQB platform makes all sorts of sense, including dollars and cents, says Jetta product manager Daniel Shapiro.
For one thing, VW has put a lot of R&D into developing that go-to platform. It is a solid and sophisticated architecture that helps make the GLI stable while tackling roadways, especially tricky ones named after mythical creatures.
Then there are the financial savings that come with platform and engine sharing. “There’s a reduction of unit costs,” Shapiro says. “It allows us to share engineering time and tap into economies of scale.”
Despite the collective effort, the ’19 GLI stands out on its own.
To keep the 18-in. wheels well-planted, the GLI uses a strut front suspension and a new multilink independent rear suspension.
The GLI also employs a VAQ torque-sensing limited-slip differential that helps mitigate understeer while powering through corners.
Over the past three decades, VW says it typically has downplayed the GLI’s sporting capabilities. Not anymore.
Compared with the outgoing model, the new one sits 0.6 ins. (1.5 cm) lower to give it a planted look and feel. Performance visual cues include a red GTI-themed line in the grille, red brake calipers, integrated spoiler, finned diffusor and dual chrome exhaust tips.
But designers didn’t get carried away putting a lot of sportswear on the GLI. They want it to appeal more to grown-up enthusiasts with wherewithal rather than boy racers on an allowance.
Standard across the GLI trim levels are several driver assistance features, including blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking and rear cross traffic alerting.
“Customers want a performance car, but also a safe car,” Shapiro says.
VW contends that while some automakers have made their performance offerings considerably more expensive, it tried to price the GLI affordably. The vehicle starts at $25,995 (the regular Jetta at $18,745) while the kickoff sticker for the GLI Autobahn high-end edition is $29,195.
The GLI is a standout. But VW folks, even while talking it up, refer to its kindred ties to the somewhat gutsier GTI. Shapiro, repeating what seems like a company line, says, “We’ve taken the heart and soul of the GTI and put it in the GLI.”
So why wouldn’t consumers opt for the GTI if it is so inspirational?
VW’s answer: A consumer who is drawn to the GTI hatchback isn’t particularly interested in the GLI sedan, and vice versa.
That help prevents one vehicle from cannibalizing the other. VW says consumers aren’t cross-shopping the two. They seldom waffle about whether they want a hatchback or a sedan.
So, take your pick. You won’t go wrong with either.