The hatchless hot hatch

The Volkswagen GLI is kind of like the Volkswagen GTI hot hatch — only, no hatch. Instead of throwing a lot of go-quick goodies into a Golf, the VW skunkworks had its way with a Jetta. The result is a seriously fun compact sedan that won’t break the bank.

Just a few weeks ago, I drove the more pedestrian Volkswagen Jetta SE 1.4T with a five-speed manual transmission. The GLI I drove for this review was unfortunately an automatic, but in all other ways was quicker and more engaging to drive than its easygoing sibling — which is not to say I found the regular Jetta boring to drive. I might go so far as to say I preferred the Jetta 1.4T over most compact, front-wheel drive cars I have reviewed in recent years.

Among compact sedans with hotted-up chassis and engine components, the GLI might just make it 2-for-2 for Volkswagen.

  • 2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven
  • Year:
    2017
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    inline-4
  • Transmission:
    six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    210 @ 5300
  • Torque @ RPM:
    207 @ 1700
  • Displacement:
    2.0 L
  • Top Speed:
    130 mph (Est.)
  • Price:
  • car segment:
  • size:
  • Purpose:
  • body style:

Design Notes

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Volkswagen has a history of trendsetting design. While some reviewers say the brand’s current lineup is too conservative or boring, I think time is going to be far kinder to VW’s current designs than those of some of its competitors. In other words, as I said in my review of the Jetta, I think VW has picked designs that will age gracefully.

The GLI takes everything I liked about the Jetta and puts a little more attitude into it

The GLI takes everything I liked about the Jetta and puts a little more attitude into it. Lower body moldings make the car appear lower and more aerodynamic. Tasteful red accents outside (GLI badges, grille opening, brake calipers) and inside (dashboard accent, steering wheel stitching, door trim pieces) make it clear to keen observers that this is no ordinary Jetta.

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven Wallpaper quality High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Up front, the GLI has some GTI styling cues. The fog lights are surrounded by aero strakes, and the grille openings are filled with honeycomb plastic instead of VW’s usual horizontal bar motif. From the side, the GLI has all of the elements that make the Jetta pleasing to the eye, with additional ground-effects that make it look more speedy. At the rear, a subtle trunk lip spoiler, dual exhaust tips, and a small GLI badge tip off educated viewers to its performance credentials.

Bridgestone Potenza 225/40R18 Y-rated directional performance tires might also communicate the GLI’s intentions, for folks who take notice of things like that.

Interior Notes

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Interior
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The 2017 Volkswagen GLI takes everything I liked about the Jetta SE and dials it up with slightly nicer trim and finishes. There was soft-touch injection-molded plastic in several places where the cheaper Jetta SE had hard-touch, scratchy plastics. The V-Tex leatherette seats were accented with sporty red stitching. In some places where the Jetta SE had piano black plastic trim, the GLI had metal trim — most notably, the bottom spokes of the steering wheel, which itself was laced with red stitching.

Controls are simple and purposeful, and the design of the interior doesn’t try to distract the driver

Everything else is a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jetta remains roomy inside, with 41 inches of legroom for front occupants and 38 inches for rear passengers. Controls are simple and purposeful, and the design of the interior doesn’t try to distract the driver — something that should be a priority for anyone claiming to build a “driver’s car.”

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Interior
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2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Interior
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If you’re like me, with two small kids to tote around in the back seat, you’ll appreciate the space the GLI offers for wee ones who are still traveling in car seats. Think of it as a GTI with more room in the back seat. The trunk is pretty huge too, at 15.7 cubic feet — plenty for toting travel supplies for the wee ones and a week’s worth of groceries at the same time.

Powertrain Notes

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Drivetrain
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Sporting the 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine from the GTI, the 2017 VW GLI is making about 60 more horses than that 1.4-liter turbo in the Jetta SE I tested earlier. Output is listed at 210 horsepower at 5,300 RPM (on premium fuel) and 207 pound-feet of torque at just 1,700 RPM.

Shifts were crisp when accelerating briskly

In my test car, this smooth, torque-happy engine was paired with VW’s six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. Shifts were crisp when accelerating briskly — which I did, a lot. But the transmission also proved smooth as silk during run-of-the-mill commuting while hauling the kids to school or doing the weekly grocery run. Admirably, there was no noticeable shuddering or clutch-slip feeling at low speeds — a problem that affects some dual-clutch automatics, in my experience.

A six-speed manual transmission is available, and to be honest, I would have preferred that. A car with the great engine and chassis of the GLI begs for it. I’m not saying the DSG was bad. It’s just not got enough pedals for me.

The car uses VW’s XDS brake-based system that will selectively apply a little brake pressure to the inside wheels in a turn as weight transfers off of them

Volkswagen does not include a true limited-slip differential in the GLI, but the car uses VW’s XDS brake-based system that will selectively apply a little brake pressure to the inside wheels in a turn as weight transfers off of them. This feels a little like a limited-slip diff to those of us driving well below the chassis’ limits on public roads, but would probably show its shortcomings on a track when compared to a true limited-slip or locking differential, where you want to save your brakes for, you know, braking.

The Drive

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Exterior
- image 735277

The Volkswagen GLI is a little heavier, with a little longer wheelbase than its GTI cousin, but the powertrain and VW’s excellent chassis tuning make it a lot of fun in the twisty stuff.

The Volkswagen GLI is a little heavier, with a little longer wheelbase than its GTI cousin

Steering feel is a notch above the already-excellent feel offered in the Jetta SE I drove previously, with a little more heft and feedback. However, the car will break traction a bit on the inside front wheel when cornering hard and hitting the gas with aggression. With traction control switched off, the steering wheel will fight you a little if you mat the skinny pedal. But for the majority of my spirited backroad driving, the GLI remained a courteous dance partner.

Those 210 horses are ready to gallop at a moment’s notice

When I had my wife and kids in the car, no one complained about a harsh ride or road noise. That can be a challenge for hotted-up family sedans, in my experience. It’s all the more laudable because of those 225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenzas.

Acceleration and braking were, of course, excellent. Those 210 horses are ready to gallop at a moment’s notice. They put a grin on my face a lot during the test week.

The Competition

Nissan Sentra NISMO

2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO High Resolution Exterior
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Nissan decided to get into the hot compact sedan game with two models in the last year: First, the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo, which gave the Sentra the 188-horsepower turbocharged heart of the Nissan Juke along with some suspension and chassis tweaks to stiffen the car. Then they tweaked the suspension tuning and chassis bracing a bit more to give us the Sentra NISMO.

The NISMO’s primary differentiating factor from its SR Turbo sister is its borderline tacky body trim. If the folks in Yokohama really wanted to compete with the GLI, they should have given the Juke engine the same 215-horsepower tune found in the Juke NISMO RS. As it is, the GLI is much, much more powerful both by the numbers and by the seat of your pants. Let’s not even talk about the Xtronic CVT in the Sentra NISMO. It can’t hold a candle to the driving feel offered by the DSG automatic in the GLI, for those who choose shiftlessness.

If the folks in Yokohama really wanted to compete with the GLI, they should have given the Juke engine the same 215-horsepower tune found in the Juke NISMO RS

There are good things to note about the Sentra NISMO. Alcantara NISMO sport seats are excellent, and Alcantara on the steering wheel feels great. Like the GLI, backseat legroom is prodigious, and the trunk is cavernous. It’s a good choice for those who have a family but don’t want to drive one of the many numb, uninspiring entries in the compact or midsize sedan segments.

The primary advantage the Sentra NISMO holds over the GLI may be real-world transaction prices. Nissan has always prided itself on offering a strong value quotient, and the Sentra NISMO is no exception. A base Sentra NISMO starts at $24,990, which undercuts the base GLI by nearly $3,000 before dealer discounts. Usually, it will be easier to get a Nissan dealer to discount the Sentra NISMO than it will be to get a VW dealer to discount the GLI.

It bears mentioning the GLI has more standard equipment, including Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility that is not available in the Sentra NISMO at any price.

Read our full review on the Nissan Sentra NISMO.

Hyundai Elantra Sport

2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport High Resolution Exterior
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2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport High Resolution Exterior
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The Hyundai Elantra Sport is Korea’s take on a hot compact sedan. Its 201-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged engine is plenty strong, but lacks the GLI’s refinement. The Hyundai’s engine sounds thrashy and unpleasant at higher revs.

Where VW’s DSG is silky smooth at all speeds, the Elantra Sport’s transmission exhibits plenty of clutch-slip at low speeds

Hyundai falls short on its dual-clutch automated manual gearbox, too. Where VW’s DSG is silky smooth at all speeds, the Elantra Sport’s transmission exhibits plenty of clutch-slip at low speeds. I noticed that a lot when parking or backing the Elantra Sport, making parking lots and parallel street-parking spaces a chore.

The Elantra Sport also tended to plow into turns more than the GLI, and its ride was harsher. All in all, it felt like a good effort, but lacked the polish of the VW GLI.

Where Hyundai beats VW is, of course, warranty. The Elantra Sport gets a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty just like all Hyundais. Hyundai also offers real leather, if VW’s V-Tex leatherette bothers you.

Hyundai also beats VW and even value-oriented Nissan on pricing, with Elantra Sport ringing in at $21,800 for a well-equipped base model. While it’s a little less rambunctious than either car, it’s also a lot cheaper.

Read our full review on the Hyundai Elantra Sport.

Ford Focus ST

2015 Ford Focus ST
- image 696645
2015 Ford Focus ST
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The hottest competitor in this race may be Ford, whose Focus comes in both ST and RS flavors. The RS really is a trackable car, ready to take to the autocross or your local track day at the weekend. But the ST is the livable, street performance car — and it’s putting down a lot more power than the VW GLI, at 252 horses and 270 pound-feet of torque.

The caveat: Ford only offers the Focus ST in hatchback form, so it’s kind of the oddball in terms of styling, among this group. But in all other ways, it’s clearly aiming for the GLI and its cohort — right down to its starting price of $24,775.

Its legroom is a far cry from the GLI, at just 33.2 inches in the rear seat.

What may hurt the Focus is its tight interior confines. Its legroom is a far cry from the GLI, at just 33.2 inches in the rear seat. So if your passengers are on the taller side, your front-seat room may be compromised.

If passengers aren’t a priority, however, the Focus ST offers decent cargo space — with 23.3 cubic feet behind the second row, and 43.9 cubic feet behind the first row with the back seats folded. It would be a fun way to get to band practice.

Read our full review on the Ford Focus ST.

Conclusion

2017 Volkswagen GLI - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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I’m the perfect candidate for these cars. I’m married, I’m past the age where insurance would kill me if I owned a “performance” car, and I have two fast-growing kids. But I don’t want to get a fun car only to have to feed it copious amounts of unleaded. These relatively fuel-efficient cars with warmed-up powertrains and nice handling offer a good combo of practicality and driving engagement that hits me right in the bullseye.

The GLI made a strong play for my emotions

The GLI made a strong play for my emotions. It returned just shy of 30 MPG even though I drove it pretty hard and did a lot of idling during photos. It made me happy just to drive my kids to school and do random errands for the family. Need milk? Sure! No problem! I’ll drive to the next town — it’s cheaper there!

I admit, I’m a Nissan fanboy, and the Sentra NISMO makes me swoon a little, even though I’m not crazy about the boy-racer body trim. But the fact that Nissan could have easily tuned the engine for GLI-competitive power frustrates me as an enthusiast.

I’ve also owned Fords, so I have a soft spot for the Focus ST. But There’s so much I don’t like about the Focus. I feel like it’s a compromised choice, for me. The interior feels too claustrophobic. I detest Ford’s distraction-filled interior design, too.

The Hyundai Elantra Sport doesn’t do much to stir my blood compared to the GLI, Sentra NISMO, and the Focus ST, but I admire its warranty and value.

I place the GLI at the top of the segment

I place the GLI at the top of the segment. Its combination of refinement and user-friendliness is unmatched, even if the Focus ST is faster, the Sentra NISMO is flashier to look at, and the Elantra Sport has a longer powertrain warranty and cheaper price.

Disclosure: Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of fuel for this review.

References

Volkswagen Jetta

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Exterior High Resolution
- image 729227

Read our full driven review on the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE 1.4T

2015 Volkswagen Jetta High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the Volkswagen Jetta.

2017 Volkswagen Passat R-Line – Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Read more Volkswagen news.

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