Building a sportier sedan: 35 years of the VW Jetta GLI

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Volkswagen’s Jetta GLI – a performance version of VW’s best-selling sedan. Over the past three decades, multiple generations of the Jetta GLI have delivered an affordable, family-friendly package to automotive enthusiasts. Ahead of unveiling the 2019 Jetta GLI at the Chicago Auto Show, let’s take a quick look back at the car’s history.

1984 Jetta GLI

The Jetta GLI first arrived in the United States for the 1984 model year. After the successful launch of the Golf GTI – or as it was known here, the Rabbit GTI – Volkswagen decided to create a similar sporty version of the Jetta. Unlike the Golf GTI, the top-of-the-line Jetta had a four-door option, seating for five and a spacious trunk, which better fit the needs of the average American family.

The GLI’s first iteration was powered by many of the cutting-edge mechanical pieces featured in the Golf GTI, including a fuel-injected, 90-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine with revised cylinder heads, lighter pistons and higher compression ratio. It also had a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission and improved sports suspension.

The original GLI has become a rare classic, as it was only built for one model year. Its power numbers seem mild by modern standards, but in its day the first GLI was frequently tested against entry-level sports sedans from German luxury brands – and often came out on top.

As the Jetta evolved throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the GLI underwent several more enhancements to improve its performance and visual appeal. The first 16-valve, 2.0-liter engine arrived in the 1990 GLI, for instance.

2003 Jetta GLI

The new millennium brought a slew of improvements for GLI. The Mk4 Jetta debuted with Hartmutt Warkus’s modern, rounded design for the 1999 model year and the GLI returned for the 2002 model powered by the 2.8-liter narrow-angle VR6. In 2004, the more efficient 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct injection engine was also offered, the only time that GLI was offered with more than one engine.

2006 Jetta GLI

The Mk5 Jetta GLI paired the 2.0-liter TSI turbo engine with an independent rear suspension and 18-inch alloy wheels. Where the original Jetta GLI was offered with few options, the Mk5 GLI ‘s demonstrated just how important tech and creature comforts had become for compact sedan owners, with available options such as touchscreen navigation, keyless entry and heated seats.

The fifth-generation version of the GLI, built on the Jetta Mk6 platform, offered 210 horsepower and available technologies like lane departure warning and blind spot detection systems.1 But the benefits of the GLI – a European-tuned sport sedan at an affordable price – were just as evident as when it first arrived in 1984. We’ll see what advances the next generation of Jetta GLI offers later this week.