By Derek Price
That’s before you add any of the brand’s famously pricey options. For car lovers, this is where inflation truly hurts.
For drivers who don’t necessarily need or want the supposed cachet of BMW, I’ve got a suggestion: save some money and drive a Volkswagen GLI.
This is a seriously cool car. It’s a faster, sharper version of the VW Jetta that follows the same recipe that makes the high-priced German sports sedans so desirable.
Its suspension is phenomenal, for starters. It’s tuned to feel firm and communicative in corners, and it practically begs to be driven at autobahn speeds. It’s one of the most confidence-inspiring suspensions I’ve ever driven in an affordable new car.
And if you think it’s fun to drive on the road, just try taking it to the track.
A few months ago, the GLI was one of my favorite cars to drive on the infield road course at Texas Motor Speedway. Despite sending power to the front wheels and being one of the least powerful cars on the track that day, it was a joy to push hard because I could feel everything the car was doing.
The steering, brakes, engine and dampers all respond so quickly and communicate such brilliantly clear messages to the driver that it makes this a fantastic track car — even if it doesn’t look the part.
The GLI is understated, to be sure. It has some wild red accents that catch the eye and tip off aficionados that it’s something special, but the overall look is similar to the mild-mannered Jetta.
With a turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, it makes enough power to get into trouble but not enough to be obnoxious. Its 228-horse output is just perfect, as I see it, including on the wallet. The GLI is rated for a surprisingly efficient 36 mpg in highway driving.
You can still get it with a manual transmission, thank goodness. While my tester came with a seven-speed automatic that isn’t bad, I would have liked the six-speed manual a lot more.
It seems sacrilegious to take a car like this, one crafted so carefully and beautifully around the sheer joy of driving, and sticking an automatic transmission in it. That’s what a lot of today’s buyers want, unfortunately.
If you insist on picking the least fun transmission, the GLI’s dual-clutch automatic gearbox does a good job responding to input from the paddle shifters with almost instantaneous speed. In fully automatic mode, it drives without a fuss, eliminating the jerky feeling that VW’s dual-clutch transmissions delivered a few years ago.
With so much attention lavished on the performance of this car, it seems like the interior construction may have gotten overlooked. It feels cheaper and more hollow than the Honda Civic Si, which has a slightly lower price, and you can sense the cost-cutting in all the plastics VW picked for the cabin.
On the flip side, the current Jetta platform delivers space and comfort better than most vehicles at this price. It’s impressively roomy, including for loading cargo into its big-mouthed trunk opening. And with the fully loaded GLI Autobahn priced more than $10,000 under the basic, pared-down 3 Series entry model, it may be the best bargain coming out of Germany this year.
Pricing starts at $31,295 with only one trim level offered, the full-featured Autobahn. It includes VW’s Digital Cockpit, a limited slip differential, heated and ventilated seats, a panoramic sunroof and more.
Options include $800 for the automatic transmission and $395 if you want a premium paint color.
At A Glance
Wheelbase: 105.7 in.
Length: 186.5 in.
Width: 70.8 in.
Height: 57.7 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (228 hp, 258 lbs. ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed DSG automatic
Fuel Economy: 26 city, 36 highway
Why buy it?
It’s a performance bargain. The GLI offers German sports-sedan thrills and precise handling at a great value.