Volkswagen Jetta GLI: Death of a Manual Transmission

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For 2018, Volkswagen no longer offers a Jetta GLI with a manual transmission, but is that a bad thing?

Change is coming, and it is inevitable. The tides of time have an inescapable wrath, but should we be complacent and ride the wave? That was the prevailing question nagging me when I drove the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta GLI. 2017 2018 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Death of a Manual Transmission Save the Manuals

You see, this carry-over 2017 press car was quite an oddity. This is the first MK6 Jetta GLI I have ever seen in person with a manual transmission. You could almost call it rare. What antiquity: this car has three pedals sticking out of the floor, that, when used correctly, work together with a lever sticking out of the center console to operate the transmission. How quaint.

Of course, I am being facetious as I am a manual transmission apologist, defender, advocator and diehard. However, the evolution of the GLI, and the death of its manual transmission, is a trend happening across the automotive sphere. Less people have the desire to use, or know or how to use, a manual, especially with the ease of operation afforded by an automatic. Additionally, modern automatics have, across the board, become superior operators in most aspects to their manual brethren. They can be programmed to be faster, smoother, more efficient, and more flexible for more driving styles. This is especially true of Volkswagen, a brand renowned for it’s quick-shifting DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission.

So, will driving a GLI with a DIY transmission make the stick shift advocate despondent about its timely death? It’s time to drive the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta GLI in an unusual, but apt, setting to find out.

My unusual location was Willow Springs International Raceway, A.K.A. Big Willow. Volkswagen was one of several manufacturers who teamed up with the Motor Press Guild to bring the GLI out to the annual MPG Track Days event at Big Willow.

Driving the DIY VW GLI on the track

Willow Springs is an unusual location for a Volkswagen Jetta GLI to be simply because the race track is the last place a GLI should be driven on. The tires aren’t particularly grippy or heat tolerant, and the suspension is best suited for long stretches of freeway driving. The seats lack the ability to support the driver’s body through hard cornering. This results in busted knees when they get jammed into the door panels going around the corners. Additionally, by the time I got to the GLI, the brake pedal was soft, and I had to go deep into the pedal to get any stopping power. The brake fluid had long since boiled over and called it quits. 2017 2018 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Death of a Manual Transmission Save the Manuals

Sure, the GLI defaults to terminal, unending understeer, but it’s not all doom and gloom here. Big Willow is also an apt place for the GLI, simply because it’s a high-speed race track that allows one to row through the gears. This is the last manual transmission GLI, after all. The shifter is light, which matches the wispy clutch pedal. There is no feel, or sensation, of operating a transmission. That said, it is a very easy car to drive. Everything about driving the GLI is geared towards comfort and ease of use. From the suspension, to the sneeze-too-hard-and-you-will-change-gears transmission, and the torquey, smooth engine, it’s a very comfy package.

But that brings up the philosophical question.

If all you’re looking for is a comfortable, easy to drive car, why would you get one with a manual transmission in the first place? Surely, if ease of operation is the number one goal, which it must be if you’re even considering a GLI over it’s more sporty counterparts, then you would want the automatic transmission. If you want the same, great turbocharged 2.0T engine with a more engaging driving experience, the GTI is there. It’s sportier suspension tuning combined with the 6-speed manual gearbox makes great sense for a practical enthusiasts’ car.

So the manual transmission Volkswagen Jetta GLI is a thing of the past, but that’s okay. The GTI carries on the torch, and does a better job of it, anyway. Let’s not lament the death of another manual transmission car, because the alternative is a much better choice in the first place.

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