The VW Jetta Sport is started with a key. Recall those? Ignition keys are to automobiles as snail mail is to email: obsolete. This key reveals a great deal about what to anticipate from this variant of VW’s tiny sedan. It is a straightforward and uncomplicated car. There is nothing fancy here. Given that this Jetta also comes with a six-speed manual transmission, a Sport logo affixed to its B-pillars, and a surprisingly low MSRP, we were forced to determine whether it is a budget-priced GLI, a sports sedan for which we have a great deal of fondness.

The Sport is positioned in the Jetta lineup one step above the S, with a small $900 premium and a very reasonable $22,650 base price, which is $10,010 less than the GLI. In the case of the Sport, however, basic does not imply utterly devoid. The Sport is equipped with a sufficient amount of accessories. The 17-inch alloy wheels and LED headlights and taillights that come standard on every Jetta prevent it from appearing cheap from the outside.


There is no mistake that the Sport’s spacious interior comes at a price. It is well-built and has a few conveniences, including an 8-inch digital instrument display, two USB connections up front, and lovely cloth seats. But, there is an abundance of harsh plastic, the standard HVAC system is manually regulated, the front seats lack bun warmers, and the 6.5-inch infotainment screen is a throwback. Although not being VW’s most recent touchscreen system, it does have a straightforward user interface as well as volume and tuning knobs. The only option available for our test vehicle was the $955 Driving Assistance package, which added adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, multiple driver-assistance functions, and a thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed, leather-covered steering wheel.

This steering wheel is nearly as beautiful as the one in the GLI, and it is the most sporty aspect of the Sport. Not to worry, however. This automobile is nice and sophisticated. It begins, both literally and figuratively, with the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 158 horsepower at 5500 rpm. It starts with a hum that hardly climbs above a whisper, is smooth across the entire tach range, and makes the Sport feel more costly than it actually is. It comes as no surprise that our six-speed manual vehicle’s straight-line sprints—60 mph in 7.0 seconds and a quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 92 mph—cannot compete with those of the 228-hp GLI six-speed—60 mph in 6.1 seconds and the quarter in 14.6 seconds at 100 mph. However, the Sport’s performance mirrors that of the last Jetta automatic we evaluated, with the exception of a 1-mph faster quarter-mile trap speed.

In typical urban driving conditions, the Sport’s performance is inferior to that of the spirited GLI. According to the specifications, the Sport produces 184 pound-feet of torque at 1750 rpm. Nevertheless, our right foot said otherwise. In city traffic, it’s simple to catch the engine off-boost; below 2000 rpm, it’s as though gerbils have replaced the ponies beneath the hood. The effect of flooring the accelerator is modest. In our top-gear acceleration test, the Sport required 28.7 seconds to accelerate from 30 to 50 miles per hour, whereas the GLI accomplished so in 12.0 seconds. The Sport performs far better at greater engine and road speeds, achieving 50 to 70 mph in 13.6 seconds compared to 8.4 seconds for the GLI. The six-speed manual transmission makes it enjoyable to maintain the engine in its lively zone. This vehicle has a mild clutch, making it a pleasure to drive, even at modest speeds.

If not intoxicating, the rest of the Sport’s driving experience is accomplished. Its surprisingly sophisticated demeanour is a result of its comfortable ride and precise driving, which match the engine’s quiet demeanour. Volkswagen went as far as lowering the suspension by 15 millimetres and installing a larger front anti-roll bar to make it more engaging to drive than the standard S model. While it is not a vehicle that begs to be driven aggressively on two-lane roads, it remains composed when leaned on. The Sport’s 0.87-g skidpad grip is 0.01-g better than the GLI’s, and its 176-foot stop from 70 miles per hour is only two feet longer. Both vehicles are equipped with all-season tyres; a sports sedan such as the GLI need more grippy rubber.

In our 75 mph highway fuel-economy test, the Jetta averaged 44 mpg with the 1.5T engine, which is an impressively frugal fuel consumer. This is 2 mpg better than both its EPA highway rating and the previous Jetta automatic we tested, and it allows for a possible 580-mile highway range.

No, the Jetta Sport lacks the essential manoeuvrability and performance to be labelled a reduced GLI. Yet, with a spacious back seat, a silky engine, and reasonable road manners, it is much more than a low-cost people carrier. Ignoring the ignition key, of course.

Rich Ceppos has examined automobiles and automotive technology during the course of a career that has spanned ten years at General Motors, two stints at Car and Driver totaling 19 years, and tens of thousands of kilometres in racing cars. It somehow worked out that he was in music school when he learned what he wanted to do with his life. Between his two C/D positions, he was executive editor of Automobile Magazine, executive vice president of Campbell Marketing & Communications, worked in GM’s product-development division, and was appointed publisher of Autoweek. Since college, he has raced consistently, holding SCCA and IMSA professional racing licences, and competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He is currently the caretaker of a 1999 Miata and a 1965 Corvette convertible, and he likes the fact that none of his younger coworkers have yet said “Alright, Boomer” when he relates a tale about the crazy old days at C/D.