2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Road Test: Fun Made Easy | Edmunds

When Volkswagen invited us to Asheville, North Carolina, to sample the 2022 Golf R for the first time, we jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t be eager to pedal the most powerful Golf ever made? You can read our review of Volkswagen’s hottest hatch here, but TL;DR: While the new Golf R is good, a few impossible-to-ignore flaws keep it from real greatness.

However, the Golf R wasn’t the only notable people’s car that we drove — and as it turns out, a far more modest VW was the surprise of the trip.

Cue the 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. For 2022 the GLI gets massaged front and rear bumpers to update the looks, and some new tech garnishes the interior. That isn’t what you’d call “big news.” The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which is completely unchanged from last year, makes a tidy 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

Those power figures won’t worry the Hyundai Elantra N, the Hyundai Sonata N Line or even the Toyota Camry TRD, but as we’ll find out in a moment, that’s OK. Just as before, power is sent through either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to the front wheels only. GLIs also get Volkswagen’s near-magic VAQ front differential that helps maximize traction in tight bends, adaptive dampers that can move between comfort and sport profiles, and the brakes from the previous-generation Golf R. All this for a total of $32,385 if you go for the manual. The double-clutch automatic transmission is an $800 option.

Straight-line performance. High levels of ultimate grip. Excessive amounts of horsepower. These things were not on the to-do list for the GLI’s engineers and product planners. Instead the focus was to build an affordable and approachable sport sedan for young buyers who might want a GTI but find the hatchback thing a bit too 1974 (or the new car’s price a bit too dear). It might sound like cake, but building something affordable that’s fun to drive every day takes a lot more than throwing a turbocharged engine under the hood.

But Volkswagen nailed it. Driving the GLI is a breath of fresh air compared to the tech-laden new GTI and Golf R. The infotainment in the GLI is decidedly last-gen, and that’s a good thing because a major problem with the new GTI (and Golf R) is just how buggy and frustrating the new UX proved to be. The first thing you’ll notice after stepping into a GLI is that the tech doesn’t get in your way. It’s there when you need it and gone when you don’t.

The second thing you notice — once you get going — is the GLI feels markedly slower than the GTI (even when compared to the last-generation car, which had the same horsepower number), but rest assured that’s a good thing. Less power means you can rev the little four-cylinder all the way out to redline and not feel like you’re signing a one-way ticket to traffic court. It’s gutsy without constantly straining at the leash. The GLI doesn’t goad you the way a GTI does.

Because it still has the option for a manual, it’s an engaging experience. You lose nothing to the GTI and R in the shifter, either, since they feel pretty much identical. The lever itself leaves plenty to be desired in the Golf R — its easygoing character doesn’t fit the more hardcore persona of that car. But in something whose main purpose is to be an entertaining daily runabout like the GLI, the nonchalant shift action and super-light clutch end up being ideal.

GLIs are also shod with a set of Hankook tires that are about as grippy as a pair of flip-flops on an iced-over lake. That means the car’s lateral limits are nowhere near the GTI’s or R’s, but there’s a flipside — even novice drivers can explore the limits of grip without having to push themselves or the car too hard.

If you hear the tires howling for grip in the new GTI, your heart jumps. Hear the same thing in a Jetta GLI and you just smile and laugh it off. It’s good, easygoing fun, and that’s the beauty of a car with low limits. You focus on the grip that you do have, make sure your downshifts are rev-matched just right, and get a feel for the car’s handling without the worry of a high-speed accident coming your way.

When you’re not hooning around the hills outside Asheville, the GLI turns into a comfortable daily driver. This might seem surprising, but despite being the “sporty one,” the GLI actually rides better than the standard Jetta. You can thank the multilink suspension setup at the rear for that — the normal Jetta gets a torsion bar that’s far less sophisticated. The cabin remains a quiet, civilized place to be when you’re just cruising along the highway; wind noise and tire noise are modest for something so (relatively) inexpensive.

Is it perfect? No. The steering is imprecise and too light, and the throttle pedal feels like an on/off switch at times, especially in Sport mode. Not only that, but the interior is a bit drab, and Volkswagen has seen fit to install the steering wheel from the 2022 GTI with its fiddly touch-sensitive buttons. They simply don’t offer the same tactility or ease of use that normal buttons would, posing a learning curve that doesn’t do the car any favors.

That said, these chinks in the GLI’s armor ultimately don’t detract from what is a very, very good entry-level sport sedan. It might not present as the hottest or quickest compact, but what it does have are character and oodles of approachability. A pleasant surprise indeed.

Edmunds says

Dear Volkswagen, more like this. Please.

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