Here’s Why the 2024 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Is the Most Underrated Car I’ve Driven This Year

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It’s surprisingly tough in today’s automotive market to find a good-sized, relatively affordable new car that doesn’t try to be too much. So many manufacturers try to specialize in tech, convenience features, over-the-air updates, and being the latest in electrification that shopping them all can become dizzying. These are all admirable goals, but just like you occasionally crave a simple slice of plain cheese, sometimes you want a car that’s just a car. So far, among the cars I’ve driven this year, the 2024 Volkswagen Jetta GLI has been precisely that.

There are two Jetta flavors available. The first is the regular Jetta, which is more affordable but has a smaller, 158-hp engine. The second is the Jetta GLI, which is a bit more expensive but has the 2.0-liter EA888 engine that produces 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It sends power to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, as evaluated here.

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Old Is Good

Debuting in 2018, today’s Volkswagen Jetta does not exemplify the bleeding edge of VW technology. In fact, spending a week with it convinced me the car is perhaps the final thing to check off on VW’s list of stuff to update. It’s long overdue for the new generation that’ll arrive later this year, but this works out well in today’s Jetta’s favor.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge this version of the Jetta isn’t long for the world, but I already regard it with sentimentality. Volkswagen seems like it left the Jetta for last because its priorities lie with SUVs and EVs like the ID4 and ID Buzz. After that came its passenger cars: the enthusiast-focused GTI and Golf R, then finally the Jetta. (RIP to the discontinued Arteon.) The recently updated Golf variants have the enthusiast crowd to impress, so where does that leave the Jetta?

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It leaves it with me: Someone who likes humble, small, straightforward sedans with nicely appointed interiors, and can fit four wheels and tires off my daily driver 2002 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, in a pinch, with the rear seats folded down. In fact, when you park them side-by-side, the Jetta is just about the size of an early aughts C-Class. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

Those aughtsy sentiments are painted all over the driving experience. Volkswagen’s more modern offerings have come under fire over general public hatred of its touchscreen-heavy controls. These issues don’t really apply to the Jetta, as most of its controls largely still consist of hard buttons and real knobs. (Here’s me hoping the new Jetta will skip over all that touch-based nonsense.) The gear-selector lever is an actual lever, and it clunks substantively when you use it. Climate controls are a series of buttons and dials. How lovely. How retro.

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Why It’s Pleasing to Drive

Heavy but pleasantly quick steering encourages fast hands around suburban corners to add a little spice to the routine. And because the car is already so petite and light on its feet, hardly anything upsets it. Short overhangs and good visibility mean it is incredibly easy to place. Paired with its agile nature, it’s something you’d enjoy darting in and out of traffic with. An alert suspension tune doesn’t lull you to sleep on longer commutes, and a snappy transmission whips the engine into the correct gear quick enough.

You’ll want to put the 2024  VW Jetta GLI in Sport mode and use the paddle shifters if you desire any engine liveliness, by the way. Left to its own devices in Normal mode, the automatic transmission treats downshifts like they’re the last thing it wants to do, and you’re left gasping your way through the breathless low revs before encountering any sort of meaningful pickup when you put your foot down. Sport mode makes the throttle response a touch peppier and wakes everything up. This is the mode to jam out in.