The enthusiast car segment has yet another carry-over sport compact to celebrate. The refreshed 2022 Volkswagen GLI didn’t get any meaningful mechanical upgrades, but as we’ve learned from VW’s overhauled GTI, a comprehensive redesign can be a mixed bag.
The Jetta-based GLI has always played second fiddle to its Golf-based sibling, the GTI. Despite riding on the same chassis for much of its existence, the GLI has always been seen as the inferior, Americanized option. The one with a “bumper wart” (trunk) on the back and more overall length than would be considered proper for an enthusiast model.
The Corolla-looking fifth-generation Jetta we got in ’05 was probably its stylistic low point, but even then, the GLI wasn’t bad, per se; it just wasn’t the GTI. That was also the last time it was largely the same car as the GTI apart from its trunk. Consequently, that was the last generation many enthusiasts seemed to care about. As subsequent Jettas diverged from the Golf in size, underpinnings and cheapness, so too did the GLI from the GTI.
Now that both sedans and hatchbacks are going the way of the dodo, the GLI’s plight is even more pronounced. It still has its devotees, but VW certainly isn’t going out of its way to please them. Thanks to the overseas popularity of the Golf, the GTI has remained a more attractive investment target for VW’s bean counters than its boot-bearing sibling. So while the Golf stayed tight and “European” and continued to have first dibs on VW’s newest performance and interior tech, the Jetta diverged, becoming a larger, softer, cheaper, more “American” option that had to wait around for the Golf’s leftovers. Great jumping off point, eh?
Yes and no, believe it or not, but perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. For 2022, the GLI got a moderate refresh that included some aesthetic updates and a packaging overhaul. It’s more expensive because the base model no longer exists — it’s now Autobahn or nothing — and if that package doesn’t suit you, too bad. There are essentially no options; even the 10-inch navigation system, which is included with the Autobahn package on a GTI, is M.I.A. entirely on the GLI.
And yes, that’s the good news. See, the 10-inch Discover Pro infotainment suite and its various associated control interfaces are far and away our least favorite components of the new VW ID.4, GTI and Golf R. There’s no dancing around it; they just plain suck. The only part of that mess to migrate into the GLI was the awkward steering wheel control setup; the other major control interfaces carry over from the 2021 Jetta and GLI. That’s right, baby; there be knobs up in here.
It’s not all good news, though. Along with “de-contenting” the navigation system, VW held back the GTI’s 12-way power adjustable seats (the GLI gets six-ways), three-zone climate control (dual only), heated rear seats and a few other interior and exterior bits — oh, and 13 horsepower. The GLI also gets the old XDS brake-based front differential in lieu of the GTI’s VAQ system, which employs a mechanical limited-slip differentials. So the GLI only comes “loaded,” but in this case, that’s obviously relative.
The GLI has more than just real buttons and knobs going for it. It still gets VW’s excellent dynamic chassis control (DCC) adaptive suspension system (Honda put the Civic Si’s similar suspension out to pasture for the new generation) and a six-speed manual is standard equipment. DSG’s optional, but you’ll be paying close to $35,000 out the door (assuming no markup or other shenanigans) for the pleasure of letting the computer do the work for you.
The GLI’s 228 horsepower only looks bad on paper when compared to the GTI’s 241; neither VW is as potent as the Elantra N or Veloster N (275 & 276 horses, respectively) but both beat the cheaper, more accessible Hyundai N Line models (201 hp) and the Civic Si (new or old).
Admittedly, the GLI looks half-baked on paper. But mercifully, it’s far more than the sum of its spec sheet. The GLI can be a bit underwhelming if you don’t bother putting it through its paces, but I challenge anybody to call it boring or inadequate after giving it a proper shakedown. Both the throttle response and suspension sharpen dramatically enough in “Sport” that I completely forgot I was driving a sedan that is pushing the modern definition of “compact.”
It’s fun, full stop — every bit as much of a blast as the GTI, in fact. The latter’s strengths are only relevant if you’re really pushing the car. Whether between the cones or on a road course, the limited-slip differential will make a meaningful difference in your ability to put power down out of a tight corner without overcooking your brakes. On the street? You won’t notice the difference, I promise.
In fact, the GLI so surprised me that I’m inclined to rank it second amongst VW’s sport compacts — right behind the GTI and ahead of the Golf R — if we’re strictly talking about fun factor. The GTI’s atrocious UI/UX situation detracts from its everyday utility but doesn’t make it any less of a hoot to toss around. The all-wheel-drive Golf R’s added four-season utility is certainly a plus, but it makes for one very expensive Golf, and apart from winning stoplight races in damp weather, there’s just not a lot of giggle factor in the Golf R. It’s the kind of car that almost wants to be equipped with DSG, at which point I’m going to start looking at an Audi S3.
I haven’t driven the new Honda Civic Si, but my wheel time in the GLI makes me all the more eager to do so. The Elantra N Line and N models both offer more value and far better tech (and in the case of the Elantra N, a heck of a lot more power too), but their styling isn’t for everybody. The GLI’s no stunner, I’ll admit (seriously, what’s going on with that c-pillar?) but it’s far more subdued than the flamboyant Hyundais. The Kia Forte GT splits the difference rather nicely, but I still think I’d rather drive the VW.
If we’re talking about sheer driving enjoyment and nothing else, GTI is still the right answer, but it’s incredibly difficult to recommend that car to somebody who needs a convenient, user-friendly daily driver — and that’s half of the formula that once made the GTI so appealing. Previously a jack of all trades, the GTI is now merely jack. It’s definitely possible someone would be willing to give up the GTI’s superior dynamics for the GLI’s 2.4 inches of additional rear legroom or its 14.1 cubic-foot trunk, which is longer and might actually be more beneficial to some than the GTI’s technically greater volume of 19.9 cubes.
The sport compact landscape has shifted dramatically over the past decade. Between the industry’s thirst for crossovers and SUVs, both long-term price creep and inflationary pressure, and a dearth of young enthusiasts with money to spare, the segment (perhaps with the exception of Hyundai) has largely matured away from affordable boy-racer bombshells like the Fiesta ST and Mazdaspeed3. The GLI never leaned too hard in that direction but being a half-step behind the GTI, it was at least cheaper.
With the departure of the base GLI trim, that’s no longer the case. At $32,685 (destination included), it’s a grand dearer than the base GTI, not to mention appreciably more expensive than the Mazda MX-5, Subaru BRZ or Toyota GR 86. That’s a hard pill to swallow, even if it’s easier to live with than its hatchback sibling.