Motor Trend, May 1984 pages 82-87

Driving Situation - handled

Volkswagen Jetta GLI

by Don Fuller

photos by David Dewhurst
(*the pictures didn't copy well from the microfiche, so I didn't even bother to try to scan them. -Dave *)

It says something for the brilliance behind-and the tenacity of-an automotive concept these days when it still wails and stampedes along as strong as ever after a decade in production. Such is the VW Rabbit, and its permutations, one of the most wonderful being the Jetta GLI.

The GLI is one of those things American enthusiasts have cried for: a European car intended to give as much operational excitement as the versions the same company sells in the homeland. Too many times we hear of interesting, marvelous cars being available over there, while the ones we can buy look roughly the same but somehow don't work nearly as well. Part of this, we recognize is due to many old dears in our government not wanting anybody to have too much fun. But some of it is also because either the American arms of those companies or the European offices themselves don't believe people over here will want cars like that. We'd never know the difference, of course, except enough of us have been over there to see what a toyland of car motoring life can be. And the GLI is one of those toys

As permutations go, we're discussing two levels. First, the Jetta is derived from the Rabbit, offering a trunk instead of a hatchback. According to marketing surveys and clinics done by VW-and, likely, nearly all the others as well-buyers perceive a notchback as having greater value than a hatchback. Exactly why is an utter mystery to us; a hatchback offers clearly superior versatility and significantly greater cargo-carrying capacity - these would appear to be features of worth and value. Additionally, a hatchback is probably more expensive to manufacture-fitment of and structure for the hatch and glass and so forth. But, apparently, people perceive a notchback roofline as more formal, which therefore equals higher class, and higher class certainly means more expensive. Well, if it's more expensive looking it has to offer more value.


Anyway, we have the Jetta, a derivation of the Rabbit, which VW can sell for more money because the buyers will pay it. As 4-door sedans go it's adequate without claiming to be overly capacious: two in front, two in back, reasonable room, decent comfort, no lounging. The trunk under that formal notchback roofline is huge though; deep, long, wide, and tall.

Up to this point we're talking familiar quantities. But the GLI part is relatively new. The GLI is the Jetta sequel to the Rabbit GTI, the second level of the permutation, and the GTI is one of the great econoracers of this day or any other. The GLI, then offers the notchback buyers what the GTI gives the hatchback market. Ant the G-blank-I series, in this country, means we can have the same kind of neat autobahnen/interstate/mountain terror we have always envied Fritz and Karlheinz for driving.

Such envy, in the case of the GLI, is well founded. This is a serious car, worthy of envy, greed, lust, pagan desires, and all those other proven, time-tested human traits. Using the base Jetta as a starting point, with its 1.7-liter fuel-injected engine, the GLI is composed of the addition/substitution of several important pieces. The engine is 1.8-liters by virtue of the bore being opened from 79.5 to 81.0 mm. Compression ratio is up from 8.2:1 to 8.5:1. The exhaust system is larger in diameter for freer flow. These and other changes contribute to horsepower going from 74 at 5000 rpm to 90 at 5500, with torque from 90 lb/ft at 3000 to 100 at 3000.

The GLI package includes more than just horsepower, however. Gearbox ratios are tighter from 2nd on up, with 5th in the GLI being roughly equal to 4th in the standard fare model, and the final drive is changed from 3.89:1 to 3.94:1. In the chassis, springs are firmer, shock valving is calibrated appropriately, there is a front anti-roll bar of 16.5mm diameter and the rear bar is increased to 20.5 mm. Front brakes are internally ventilated as opposed to the solid rotors of less ambitions Jettas. And, according to Volkswagen, the Jetta GLI, like the Rabbit GTI, rides on 14x6-in alloy wheels mounded with 185/60SR14 radial tires. However, ours didn't; it was on 13x5-in alloy wheels and 175/70R13 tires. Somebody, apparently, goofed; be sure and check yours before driving away from the showroom.

In the cosmetic/accessory category, the GLI includes just enough black trim and serious-looking appurtenances to match the hurry-up image. The sport seats, with higher bolsters and an attractive pinstripe fabric, are fittingly firm and supportive; those who prefer sofa loungers probably won't like them but then those people whouldn't buy a GLI anyway. For those of you who drive in locales where paving contractory ave to scratch their heads to follow the contours or contrary mountains, the seats will prove themselves able to hold you securely in place. You'll also get a secure grip on the nice 4-spoke steering whell and the big shift know, both wraped in leather. Mounted in the console, in support of hte speedo, tach, collant temperature, and fuel-level gauges are additional instuments monitoring volts, oil pressure, and oil temperrature. The GLI also includes vent windows reg "GLI" identification on the trunklid, and wide-body side moldings. Finally, as a clue to just how serious an operator is behind the wheel of this thing, the driver's side windsheild wiper is fitted with a little airfial to keeep it firmly on the glass for a clear view no matter how much Sturm und Drang accompanies your travel, measured as it will be on the GLI's 120 mph speedometer.

Clearly, the name of this car's game is performance. Our intrepid tester recorded 0-60 in 9.53 seconds, a quarter mile in 17.18 seconds at 78.7 mph, and while the speedo needle won't sweep the full band of its 120 mph face, top speed will be close to 110. Braking distance from 60 was a commendably short 142 ft, and the ventilated discs gave good repeatability with minimal fade. And the GLI scrabbled its way around our skidpad to the rubber-squealing tuen of 0.79 g maximum lateral acceleration. All these numbers indicate a pretty big performance envelope for somehting that started life as, and still is, a bonn fide economy car. And the last two categories of braking and cornering force would be even more impressivve with rubber that matched factory information. (We note, however, that the owner's manual says tire chains cannot be used on the 185/60-14 tires. Snowbelters, take care.)

But the Jetta is more than numbers gathered from a n asphalt test tube. For longer than we ccare to remember, there have been plenty of cars that offered us all the right numberts- and none of the right feel. In fact, this is the major shortcoming of too many so-called "sporting" cars from manufacturers on this side of the Atlantic; they have fulfilled the checklist and missed the point entirely. It's the subjective subtleties that make all the difference, not jsut the numbers on the chart.

So, we're glad to announce, if it's the perception and reception of subjeciive subtleties of the hightest order that you're after in your driving hours, Mr. Small Sedan Seeker, you should step right up to the Jetta GLI. The conservative yet smart nothcback exterior may be the calling card of acceptance to your business clients, and four doors could be the rationale that lets you justify it as a family car. But we'l all know the real reason you opted for the GLI version, airfoiled windshield wiper and all, is that you wanted somehthing more than just a respectable hauler. You could have brought home a regular Jetta for that.

There is a decidedly pruposeful, nasty nature to the GLI, jsut as there is with the Rabbit GTI. It goes beyond merely stiff springs, no chrome, and "Euro-roadcar" appliques. Secret cars are those the rabble doesn't notice, while delivering a full spunk of performance. It starts with an exhaust note that's acceptable to the uninitiated ear yet promising to the trained; just a tone of eagerness underlying respectability. The seat holds you in an entirely businesslike position and refuses to let you slouch from the work at hand. The steering wheel is made for steering, she shift know for shifting, the instruments give strainght white-on-black analog information, nothing pretentious, nothing silly.

Throttle response is as if the engine is only a connector between gas pedal and tachometer needle. Let's go, it seems to say, and you'll certainly oblige. From 1st gear to 5th, the ratios are exactly where you always want and sometimes need one to be. At first, there's a certain unfamiliarity with the closer ratios: the GLI accelerates so well in top gear that, accustomed to today's economy oriented gearoxes, you're likely to keep seracing for one more slot- this can't be 5th? It's upper-end performance, though, is exactly like what it should be: Imagine running a normal Rabbit or Jetta in 4th gear and having 22% more power at a 500-rpm higher peak besides - don't you think that would do wonderful things for highway performance? It does.

Handling is pretty special, too, but not just because of the numbers. If you've tried and were disappointed by cars that delivered all the numberts but couldn't make a mountain pass or coexist with bad pavement if thier shocks depended on it, try the GLI. THis car may have been born in a sanitary engineering room, but it was coachecd int he harsh outdoors, conditioned on a regimen of alpine crevasses, whipped into shape on survival training that allowed no laggards, sent to the high and hard rough country, and told to find its way out.

What this means to you as a driver is a competence ready for adversity and no fear of the unknown. Rough pavement beaten to death by winters? Handled. A suffeen decreasing radius corner bounded by cliffs and boulders? Handled. Off-camber switchbacks carving into a perverse bobsled run? Handled. A road survace that goes about two directions on each of hte three major axes, all at once? Handles. You want messages telegraphes accurately back tot he steering wheel, a seat attached straight to yor pants, pedals that initiate the responses you want when you want them?


Granted, the GLI isn't the only automotive option tht can do this, there are certainly others. But the GLI's special appeal involves an all-roundedness that, while not unique is certainly rare. That, and a price of $8690 that shoudl leave salesmen of some of those other nameplates embarrassed to show their faces around the water cooler.

The modern car is an involved, complex device. It gathers input form a variety of sources. But in the Jetta GLI, as with the Rabbit GTI, the major sensors are not connected to, or gathering information from, the likes of coolant temperature or crankshaft position or mass airflow. No; in the GLI, the major sensors are connected directly to you.

(* *) Dave's comments/original article errors
Posted for public interest, not for profit.
Volkswagen, Jetta, Rabbit, GTI, GLI and any other registered trademarks or reserved trademarks are property of their respective owners and appear without permission.

Go back...