Introduction – Find the best Volkswagen deals!
Compact cars aren’t all that small anymore. Case in point: the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta, which has a roomy interior for four people (five when necessary) and a sizable 14.1 cubic-foot trunk at an affordable price. Among sedans of any size, this is a car that will fulfill most of your transportation requirements most of the time while returning good gas mileage.
Volkswagen last redesigned the Jetta for 2019. For 2020, VW offers the car in S, SE, R-Line, SEL, SEL Premium, GLI, and GLI Autobahn trim levels. All but the GLI offer a sensible turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 147 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.
Jetta owners, as we will see below, rate the Jetta’s engine and transmission mid-pack among their favorite things about this car. That’s where the GLI versions are likely to provide greater satisfaction. Tuned for performance, the Jetta GLI is equipped with many of the go-fast goodies that make a Volkswagen Golf GTI so much fun to drive. And you get these upgrades for $3,550 more than the Jetta R-Line, which is the sporty (looking) version of the standard Jetta.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
The GLI comes in standard and Autobahn trim. For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Jetta GLI Autobahn equipped with extra-cost Pure Gray paint and a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The price came to $31,960, including the $920 destination charge.
What Owners Say… – Find the best Volkswagen deals!
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Jetta, it is helpful to understand who buys this compact car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
J.D. Power data shows that 60% of Jetta owners are male (vs. 57% for the segment), the median age of a Jetta owner is 47 years (vs. 49), and Jetta owners earn a median annual household income of $89,483 (vs. $71,751).
Jetta owners are less likely to strongly agree that they avoid vehicles they think will have high maintenance costs (60% vs. 67% for the segment), and they are less likely to strongly agree that a first consideration when choosing a vehicle is reliability (57% vs. 64%). Owners of the VW are also less likely to agree that a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle is fuel economy (71% vs. 78%).
The data also shows that 57% of Jetta owners disagree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (vs. 46% for the segment), while 91% of Jetta owners agree that they like a vehicle that offers responsive handling and powerful acceleration (vs. 86%). Additionally, 78% of Jetta owners agree that they will pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (vs. 73%).
Owners say their favorite things about the Jetta are (in descending order) the fuel economy, interior design, exterior styling and driving dynamics (in a tie), and visibility and safety. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Jetta are (in descending order) the engine/transmission, storage and space, seats, infotainment system, and climate control system.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Jetta ranked 2nd out of 16 compact cars.
What Our Expert Says… – Find the best Volkswagen deals!
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Jetta owners are happy with the way the car looks. Personally, I dislike the high headlights and drooping grille, but otherwise find the Jetta’s crisp, angular design appealing.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
In GLI specification, the car receives 18-inch aluminum wheels, more aggressive bumper designs, a red band across the black grille, red-painted brake calipers, a red GLI badge on each front fender, a lip spoiler, and round exhaust outlets. The changes are subtle, a nod to the GLI’s mission of supplying performance without attracting undue notice from the authorities.
Metallic pedal covers, a sport steering wheel, unique instrumentation, sport-bolstered seats with red contrast stitching, and red accent lighting give the Jetta GLI a proper place from which an enthusiastic driver can perform the business at hand.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Cloth upholstery is standard, with leather included in Autobahn trim. The Autobahn version also has Volkswagen Digital Cockpit gauges and more sophisticated touchscreen infotainment system for a high-tech look.
Materials reflect the Jetta’s status as an affordable compact car, but with low levels of surface gloss and complementary textures delivering a properly Germanic appearance and sense of quality. The test car emitted a low-speed, low frequency noise from somewhere on the passenger’s side of the car, most noticeable as the vehicle came to a stop. Extra stereo volume eradicated it.
Drivers should have no trouble getting comfortable behind the Jetta GLI’s thick-rimmed steering wheel. From excellent seat support to an optimized driving position, the GLI makes it clear what this unassuming 4-door sedan’s purpose is. However, the cushions are firm rather than soft, so if your preference is to settle into a seat, the Jetta might prove disappointing.
Front passengers are not as lucky as the driver because Volkswagen does not provide a height adjuster for that person. Even a manual adjuster, similar to what is found in VW’s Tiguan SUV, would make a big difference here.
Rear-seat passengers will be happier with their seat assignment thanks to proper thigh support, a comfortable backrest angle, and good space for legs and feet. What would make things even better? Air conditioning vents and USB charging ports.
Climate Control System
In Southern California, there is a weather phenomenon known as “June gloom.” It’s a persistent marine layer that results in gray skies and cool temperatures, and it was hanging around for most of the week I spent with the Jetta GLI.
As such, and in combination with the Autobahn trim’s ventilated front seats, I have no complaints to report about air conditioning effectiveness. And, of course, heat is rarely required in this region of the country.
The climate system controls – a collection of knobs and buttons arranged with utmost efficiency and precision – are mounted a little low but otherwise couldn’t be easier to operate.
With Autobahn trim, the GLI’s standard 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system is swapped out for an 8-inch display with a flush glass touchscreen. It looks much more sophisticated, especially when paired with this trim level’s digital instrumentation.
In terms of layout, controls, and graphics, the system looks good and works well. It includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, and Car-Net connected services with free trial periods to remote access functions and a Wi-Fi hotspot. The GLI Autobahn also has a wireless smartphone charger and a BeatsAudio sound system that made me wish VW had partnered with Fender for this car’s audio components.
Storage and Space
Thanks to large door panel bins, a sizable tray forward of the transmission shifter, a generously proportioned glove box, and a decently roomy bin underneath the center console armrest, the Jetta offers good storage for a compact car.
Open the Jetta’s 14.1 cubic-foot trunk, and you’ll find plenty of luggage space plus grips to grab to swing the lid shut after you’ve loaded the car. The rear seat folds down in a 60/40-split design, adding to the Jetta’s versatility.
Visibility and Safety
With its compact dimensions and excellent outward visibility, the Jetta GLI is easy to place when parking or when driving the car in the manner for which it is intended. A standard reversing camera, heated side mirrors, and rain-sensing wipers also aid visibility.
Every 2020 Jetta GLI is equipped with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic warning systems.
Additionally, Car-Net Remote Access is free for five years, and includes Family Guardian Alert, which is perfect for when teen drivers are in the household. Parents can receive smartphone alerts related to vehicle speed, geographic location, and curfew times. With a paid subscription, Car-Net Safe & Secure equips the car with automatic collision notification and an SOS emergency assist function.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Jetta top marks in all crash-protection tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Jetta a 5-star overall rating, but in terms of frontal-impact protection the car earns 4-star ratings.
If a standard Jetta’s turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder doesn’t supply enough oomph for you, I strongly recommend giving the GLI’s delightful turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder a try. With 228 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it supplies plenty of forward thrust for the 3,225-pound Jetta.
A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard in the GLI, but the test car had the optional 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with a sport mode and paddle shifters. It’s well-suited to the turbo four, and in manual shifting mode the paddles are satisfying enough that you might not miss rowing your own gears. Drivers can choose between Eco, Normal, Sport, and Custom driving modes, too.
In combination with the GLI’s limited-slip front differential lock, the powertrain provides all of the speed you need on public roads. Though this version of the Jetta isn’t outright fast, it certainly is quick enough that you shouldn’t have any complaints about its ability to keep you entertained.
Plus, the Jetta excels at preserving forward momentum with its brilliantly tuned steering, suspension, and brakes, always helpful when threading the car down a favorite back road.
According to the EPA, a Jetta GLI with the 7-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission should get 28 mpg in combined driving. On my testing loop, the car effortlessly returned 27.3 mpg, and that result reflects liberal use of Sport mode, paddle shifters, and the GLI’s delightful torque curve.
While running all of the backroads from my home in the northwestern Los Angeles suburbs to Santa Barbara on a quiet Sunday evening with minimal traffic, the Jetta GLI was clearly in its element. This is not a straight-line acceleration kind of a car. This is not a track-ready lap-timing kind of a car. It’s meant for rapid travel on public roads less traveled.
Hardware upgrades over a standard Jetta include progressive variable-ratio steering, performance brakes, and a sport-tuned suspension with a multi-link rear design instead of the standard twist-beam axle setup. Autobahn trim adds adaptive dampers to the mix. The end result is a fun car that won’t beat you up on the daily commute and loves to play on weekends.
Fast and precise steering, effective brakes, and impressive grip combine with the lively powertrain and limited-slip front differential to make the Jetta GLI downright tossable in spite of its front-drive configuration. The car effectively shrugs when presented with off-camber curves, mid-corner pavement heaves, and decreasing-radius turns, and blasts down straightaways like any good German sport sedan should. Plus, due to its size, you can make maximum use of narrow lanes, preserving forward momentum while providing a small margin for error.
When you’re not seeking a thrill ride, the Jetta GLI performs dutifully in urban and suburban situations. The quick steering makes parking a snap, the adaptive suspension flattens the speed humps on the street where my daughter’s elementary school is located, and the car is soft enough to filter bumps and holes in the road without suffocating communication from the surface. And when the situation calls for it, you can set the cruise control and just motor down the freeway with the stereo turned up a bit to drown out the road and wind noise.
Final Impressions – Find the best Volkswagen deals!
Needless to say, I had a blast driving the Volkswagen Jetta GLI, and I think you will, too.
Even if you have no interest in the GLI’s performance capabilities, there is no denying that the mechanical upgrades resolve many of my complaints about the standard Jetta. From acceleration and braking to ride and handling, the GLI’s driving experience is superior to what you get with the Jetta R-Line, or any of the more popular versions of the car.
But the improvements do come at a cost.
Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.
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