The cars we loved.
The high mark in the sport compact car market has always been BMW’s 3 Series. A pricy small car, it had few peers in any market it competed in. Of course, building a compact car with excellent road manners, cushy interior and plenty of options was easy, pricing it in the lower end of the market was not. That’s where the entry level part of the entry level premium car market really starts to get interesting or non-existent.
Slaying dragons at the top might have been a pipe dream, but for Volkswagen’s popular Jetta, it gave the lower ranges of the 3 Series something to loose sleep over. The GTI was a star in the Pocket Rocket league. It established that German performance could be had at an affordable price point.
For many the GTI was a bit too boy racer. As subdued as it was compared to the Japanese competitors, its two door hatch form factor introduced an element of practicality. Those wanting GTI performance in a sedan were out of luck until 1984 when the first GLI was introduced. It would be offered until 1992 when the third generation was winding down.
When the fourth generation Jetta appeared in 1999, Volkswagen was going through a kind of mid-life crisis. It seemed preoccupied with nostalgia with a just-in-the-showroom retro styled New Beetle and Microbus concepts floating around. While warming the hearts of many female Baby Boomers, the retro craze offered nothing for the performance minded VW fan. Fortunately, the cash generated by the sale of retro cars allowed some performance substance in the form of the GLI for 2002. For the enthusiast with a small family, the GLI had been one of VWs best kept secrets from 1984 to 1992. Now all new and aerodynamic, it was the perfect mini Q ship or sleeper car depending on where it was sold.
The GLI was essentially a four door GTI with a trunk. It offered similar performance to the GTI, but with a more scaled down option list and a more low key outward appearance. From 2002 on, GLI remained in the Jetta model list to this day (late October 2013). Featuring the 24 valve version of the 2.8-liter VR6 engine, the new GLI made 200 hp, just like the GTI.
In addition to the more powerful engine, the GLI featured a six speed manual transmission and low profile performance tires on 17 inch aluminum wheels. While the GLI was more softly sprung than the all out performance minded GTI, it offered many of the same driving dynamics. Its straight line performance was nearly the same with 0 to 60 coming in the high 7 second range. As for price, it was positioned below the more luxury oriented GLX and GTI. At under $24,000, it under cut Audi’s A4 and BMW’s 323. In fact it, if offered more power and one more gear than the BMW 325 (200 vs, 184 and 6 speeds vs 5).
The Audis and BMW’s in question were rear wheel drive and offered a level of handling predictability that the Jetta could not match. Also 200 hp was still plenty of power to manage through the front wheels by the turn of the century, so some torque steer was present in the GLI. Despite that small fault, the GLI would offer considerable value for those shopping for a small affordable German sports sedan.
Like many German cars, the Jetta GLI evolved with few visible changes. Eventually the wheels got larger and a subtle, yet tasteful ground effects package differentiated it from lesser models. The options list would grow to include things like touch screen based entertainment and navigation systems. The interiors remained tasteful with leather or cloth often in subtle earth tones when not in the more typical all black.
As new cars went in that category, they were almost nonexistent. With so few European choices at the time, the Jetta GLI competed against used German cars for those who were not interested in the growing crop of near-premium Japanese cars. There were almost no American entries in this league yet as Cavaliers and Neons were considered subpar to many enthusiast with mre than a fast food worker’s salary.
The turn of the century was still a time when nearly all Jettas headed for North America were made in Germany. The real German car made in Germany was a selling point for Jettas at this time. Saddly, only Wolfsburg edition cars actually come from Germany. Everything else sold here can trace its origins to Mexico. The GLI model would continue into the current generation of now Mexican built cars. Oddly enough its basic specs are similar to the cars from the early Ohs. The 200 hp rating is the same, but now comes from a inline four cylinder turbo engine. There’s still a six-speed manual, but also bigger 18 inch wheels.
At nearly $30,000 for a 2013 model, it offers no navigation system or other creature comforts that have become standard on even the least expensive Hyundai. The ideal of the GLI continues, even if it’s not as great a value as it once was. Unfortunately as German entry level performance cars go, VW is still the only game in town. The lower ranges of the 3 Series (the new 320 in particular), still don’t offer as much as the GLI at 4 to $5k more. For some that’s still slaying the dragon, even if it’s a tougher fight.