It’s the numbers that beckon: 318 turns on an uninterrupted 11-mile stretch of road called the Tail of the Dragon that starts at the Tennessee border with North Carolina. Officially designated US 129 in 1931, the route dates back centuries, created first by animals taking the path of least resistance through this section of the Great Smoky Mountains. Native Americans, British settlers and bandits widened the path into a two-lane road but never tamed it. It’s still dangerous. At Deals Gap (a border trading post that dates to the 18th century and marks the beginning of the run) there is a “tree of shame” festooned with bits of vehicles that haven’t survived the journey.
The Tail of the Dragon would make any driver a little twitchy, but the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI has a calming effect. As a compact four-door sports sedan, the car is ideally sized for roads where the average SUV or pickup truck would prove unwieldy and a ground-hugging supercar would likely bottom out on the many dips.
The Jetta is no stranger to American byways—as the first version of the car dates to 1984—but the 2019 Jetta GLI (which starts at $25,995) has some new tricks up its sleeve. The 2.0 liter, turbocharged engine, borrowed from the very sporty Golf GTI, offers 228 horsepower (that’s 18 more than the previous model). At Deals Gap—where the elevation is 1,955 feet and the road runs mostly downhill until Parson’s Curve where there is a steep, twisty climb to Copperhead Corner—that extra power is welcome. The road is resplendent with colorfully named sections like The Little Whip, Brake or Bust Bend, and Revenuer’s Straight near the very end. The engine is managed by either a six-speed manual or seven-speed performance-oriented, dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The bulked-up powertrain is reflected in the design cues that differentiate the GLI from a standard Jetta. These include a slightly lower front bumper, larger air intakes, a wider grille with a red accent stripe and lower side-skirts. Overall, the exterior of Jetta GLI is easy on the eyes, as is a black interior with sporty red stitching highlights. Instruments are easy to read and angled toward the very comfortable driver’s seat. There are a range of safety and driver assist features, the most helpful in this instance being the blind spot detector that alerts the driver about encroaching motorcyclists and bicyclists.
Uphill or down, the Jetta GLI stays firmly planted on a road intending to make most vehicles do otherwise. That’s largely thanks to a MacPherson strut suspension mated to a multi-link independent rear suspension that is unique to the Jetta GLI. The Tail of the Dragon is a road that makes you think about a car’s technical abilities as well as your own: quick hands are rewarded with a smooth ride, but the car helps a lot.
The Jetta GLI is very responsive through what can be a disorienting volume of turns. The task is made easier thanks to a power steering system (also unique to the Jetta) that makes the car very agile. Still, the Jetta GLI doesn’t take the driver out of the equation. If the Tail of the Dragon offers any lesson, it’s the value of being able to live solely in the moment, focused on the turn you’re in and the next one to come.
Images courtesy of Volkswagen