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2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI: Still Good Fun

The humble sports sedan has been dying for the past few years. These days, if you’re looking to buy an affordable vehicle with a smidgen of sportiness, you’re being pushed toward hatchbacks. There are plenty of standout hatchbacks for strapped enthusiasts, but you’ll have to open your checkbook and scribble down a much higher number if you want a powerful sedan.

No one sent an email to Volkswagen, which continues to offer the spunky Jetta GLI. While the Jetta GLI and Golf GTI have been twins, they have now been separated from the hip. The Golf GTI has undergone a serious transformation with new engines, more tech, and a fresh design for 2022, but the Jetta GLI’s alterations for the 2022 model year are more superficial. Underneath the nip and tuck, everything remains the same.

2022 Volkswagen Jetta side profile from the front in front of an abondoned building.
Joel Patel/The Manual

That may sound like going with the Jetta GLI results in shoppers getting a raw deal. The Jetta GLI doesn’t have the same powerful engine, sharp handling, or tech as the new Golf GTI, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Jetta GLI now feels like its own thing. While you can find vehicles that have a purer driving experience and others that have more power than the Jetta GLI, they cost more and can’t match the refined side of the VW. In addition to being one of the few sporty sedans that people can actually afford, the Jetta GLI has the rare talent of being a quiet and refined daily driver, as well as a hoot to drive.

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Design & Interior

The Jetta GLI’s makeover for 2022 is relatively light. Park this sedan alongside a 2021 model and the two look nearly identical. Squint hard enough and you might notice updated bumpers at both ends, a new grille, and a revised VW logo. The GLI also gets its own unique diffuser with a honeycomb pattern, dual exhaust tips, and wheels. It’s more than enough to differentiate the GLI from other Jettas, but not enough to make the sedan look gaudy.

This, after all, is a VW that needs to appeal to everyone, not just juveniles looking to stand out on Instagram. It needs to say that you’re sophisticated. An adult with a real 9-5. The Jetta GLI does just that without coming off as being boring.

On the inside, all that distinguishes the GLI from its fellow classmates are some red trim, aluminum pedals, and badges. The GLI is dark and colorless on the inside. Turn the ambient interior lighting to a shade of red, though, and you’ll feel like a proper villain. It’s not the nicest cabin in the class, but it’s far from being the worst. Plus, the main selling point with the Jetta GLI’s cabin is that it’s spacious for the whole family. Four adults can go on a weekend road trip and pack the large trunk with decent-sized bags. We’d all love to drive supercars and sports cars, but the real world has its way of forcing our hands. In the real world, the Jetta GLI’s spacious, quiet, and comfortable interior is what you want.

There’s also something that has to be said about the Jetta GLI coming with the right amount of technology. Only available in a fully loaded Autobahn trim for 2022, the Jetta GLI comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, and wireless smartphone compatibility as standard equipment. The Golf GTI comes with more impressive tech features, but the GLI has physical buttons and dials, which makes things easy to use. Good luck changing the temperature of the climate control system in the new Golf GTI on the go. With the Jetta GLI, the buttons and dials don’t require a user manual to comprehend.

Driving Experience

Winter is hardly the time to test a sporty sedan with summer tires. With ambient temperatures hovering in the low 40s during our time with the Jetta GLI, there wasn’t a way to get enough heat in the tires to get them to work properly on-road. With that being said, we expect the Jetta GLI to fare much better during warmer months.

Even in freezing temps, the Jetta GLI feels far peppier than its modest horsepower figure lets on. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at 228 horsepower, but feels far punchier thanks to 258 pound-feet of torque that doesn’t seem to let up. Praise be, the test vehicle that VW lent us was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. We love a manual transmission and the Jetta GLI’s is a good one, though it has relatively long throws and a grainy clutch. Neither would stop us from choosing the manual over the available seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, but this is a case where you can’t go wrong with either option.

Our main gripe with the manual transmission is that we weren’t able to use it as much as we wanted to. Second gear tops out at 72 mph. So, on the majority of back roads, you’re left to short shift just to have a more engaging experience. That’s not a huge issue, because there’s plenty of torque to carry you out of corners, but it would be nice to have a reason to shift into third or fourth on roads that aren’t highways.

Because of the frigid temperatures during our week with the Jetta GLI, we noticed a severe case of understeer. Applying even the smallest bit of throttle during cornering resulted in the sedan plowing straight ahead. It was horrifying the first time it happened and scary the second, third, and fourth times. Instead of letting it happen over and over again, I tried changing my driving style. Instead of using any throttle to get out of corners, I drove the Jetta GLI as a momentum car, carrying more speed into a corner and slingshotting the car around a corner. The sedan responded with sharp turn-in and a high amount of grip. It just didn’t want to steer and go fast simultaneously.

Personally, I blame the insane amount of understeer on the weather. With sticky summer tires, adaptive suspension, and a limited-slip differential, the Jetta GLI has the equipment to perform far better. Traveling from one side of the road to the other because of understeer is unheard of in the modern era. Hopefully, we can get a second chance with the Jetta GLI, because it deserves it. But the weather didn’t make the Jetta GLI less enjoyable to drive. It kept us on our toes, constantly trying to manage the throttle and steering to stop from careening off the road. There was a sense of danger that bordered on thrilling, like getting a look at sharks from a cage out in open water. Everything becomes a little more enjoyable when there’s a sense of danger involved.

While the Jetta GLI’s handling was certainly a hoot for more than one reason, the way the sedan feels composed in daily driving is impressive. In normal circumstances, the Jetta GLI rides well, is relatively fuel-efficient, and doesn’t suffocate you with all of the downsides of a normal sporty offering. Others in the class have the Hyde part down, with Jekyll being the difficult act to perfect.

Should You Get One?

Yes. Few vehicles can be fun to drive and comfortable. Usually, enthusiasts have to pick one over the other, choosing to suffer on the daily commute for the ability to enjoy an empty road on the weekend. With the 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, you get to have a comfortable daily driver that, with the clicks of a few buttons, can turn into a fun car. Obviously, we recommend swapping out those summer-only tires when the warm weather ends.

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Joel Patel
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Joel Patel is a Northern Virginia native that became enamored with cars at a young age when he was tasked with holding the…
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