2020 Volkswagen Jettas Review by Thom Cannell
By Thom Cannell
Senior Editor and Technology Guru
The Auto Channel
Bullet Points—Brief observations based on many decade’s experience.I’ve got two Jetta’s—and I love them each the same.
Mary Wells made famous a song—Two Lovers—comparing her feelings about nearly identical souls. One love was sweet and kind, fulfilling warm-and-fuzzy expectations, the other a badass—which is how I feel about “identical”, yet very different Volkswagen sedans, Jetta and the Jetta GLI.
Two years ago Volkswagen Jettas expanded incrementally in every dimension thanks to use of their MQB or modular design system, which underpins the production of eleven platforms from Audi’s A1 to the Volkswagen Atlas 7-seat SUV. Jetta has become longer, wider and with shorter overhang in front, has a greater variety of standard equipment and increased passenger space, with (for 2020) a four-year or 50,000 mile warranty including two years of maintenance.
The Jetta four-door sedan exterior is designed with a trapezoidal face, highly emphasized hood lines and sculpted side panels that enhance its length. Visually, it’s more a coupe than sedan thanks to dark paint surrounding the side windows, and a shadow line at hip height. Its deck lid provides a small aero spoiler at the trailing end and all Jetta use LED taillights.
So, how are these siblings different in performance, comfort, and ability as their bodies are similar—other than dedicated front fascia and wheels.
At the root of each Jetta is its direct-injected turbocharged engine that Volkswagen calls TSI, a 1.4-liter TSI four-cylinder for the Jetta and a 2.0-liter TSI for the GLI, making them fraternal twins. This seemingly small variation in displacement cascades into important differences in price, performance, and ride and handling.
The first Jetta I drove was equipped with the 1.4-liter engine. That’s 1400 cc, not wildly dissimilar from some motorcycles, though Jetta’s obviously heavier and with greater passenger capacity. Frankly, I was stunned by the performance of this tiny powerhouse. Equipped with a six-speed manual (an eight-speed automatic is available), it possessed all the acceleration I needed to rapidly join traffic or pass on two-lane roads. However I never loaded it to capacity with passengers and their luggage. That may have made a noticeable performance difference.
Inside, seated on comfortable manually operated cloth seats, all controls presented themselves in an orderly and useful fashion. The interior was, of course, primarily constructed of engineered polymers, which were well chosen for color harmony and texture. It was a pleasing space for everyone, and the bright silver accents enriched the cabin without creating distraction. HVAC controls were simple rotary dials and, lacking pricy automatic temperature control, still kept me cool or warm as needed. Instruments within the cluster couldn’t have been clearer or more easily understood. Buttons for cruise control and audio controls mounted within the steering wheel were abundant and easy to use, plus they controlled a Driver Information Center display with choices of speed, economy, and other vehicle data.
Surprisingly for the $18,745 base price (which was the MSRP for my test car), voice control was included as a part of Volkswagen’s signature Car-Net telematics. Jetta also included unexpected features, like trunk-mounted controls to release the rear 60/40 seatbacks for more cargo capacity and a fully lined trunk space.
At that point I’d accumulated 458 miles and had 85 miles of fuel remaining according to the DIC. Overall economy was computed as 44.6 miles per gallon in mixed driving, that from a car that will very comfortably seat four, five in a pinch.
So, a Jetta delivers plenty of power, is comfortable for driver and passengers, has stout infotainment goodies, and from my point of view is a handsome and desirable vehicle.
Now we must discuss intangibles, the feelings and emotions that control purchase decisions. It was there that my love affair faltered. Oh, it wasn’t because of power, comfort or style, but because of ride and handling.
In order to produce a lower-cost car something has to change. For Jetta it is the suspension system. Smaller steel wheels and a torsion beam rear axle are fitted instead of independent rear suspension and alloy wheels. Which meant there was, for me, something lacking in the way Jetta drove, a shortfall in cornering and in chassis response.
There was one other thing that exposed a personal bias, the easy-shifting manual transmission. Not its operation, but its gearing. Every gear, other than first, was chosen to maximize miles-per-gallon so even fourth gear was an overdrive gear. Which makes second and third very long gears and incredibly useful for most in-town driving. I found myself shifting into second gear, and then using either into fourth or fifth gear. Sixth gear was reserved for the freeway.
With the optional eight-speed automatic (which I did not test drive) only 7th and 8th are overdrive gears, which might make it a bit more fun, a bit punchier and responsive. Another place I found less delight was steering response, as it was a bit vague, though direct. What surprised me was susceptibility to cross winds on blustering days, which I attribute to the rear suspension. All that said, at its price and with feature-rich componentry, it's a car you would have for many years, sharing it within the family and never regretting its purchase.
Then I drove a Jetta GLI, specifically a 35th anniversary Edition, and the change was dramatic thanks to its completely independent suspension, larger and lighter alloy wheels, wider tires, and the far more powerful 2.0-liter engine.
The Jetta GLI has long been called “a Golf GTI with a trunk”, which is a fitting explanation. Truly, if you long for the sportiness of a GTI, but need a sedan, Jetta GLI is it.
The GLI's independent suspension pacified my personal concerns about ride and handling, though it (and the other upgrades) arrived at a price. Versus the Jetta's MSRP of $18,795 (including destination), that GLI booked at $28,690 (including destination), $800 of that the always-wonderful seven-speed DSG automated manual transmission with paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Thus, depending on how and where you drive, your perception of the added value of more power and more-agile handling, there’s a significant cost-difference decision only you can make.
I picked up that vehicle at Southwest Florida International Airport. It had the same extreme red paint, though with a black roof and black mirror caps, plus the interior was fitted with trendier Titan Black cloth seating. Controls were the same as Jetta, though the GLI featured fully automatic temperature control.
Externally, GLI was identified by 18-inch 5-spoke gray-painted alloy wheels with a nifty red accent stripe. That black roof increased the look of a coupe, delivering a very sleek and striking car. There’s also more under the infotainment hood and changeable lighting.
Another feature not found on a Jetta is what VW calls DCC, their name for an adaptive chassis control system. Dynamic Chassis Control, also known as Adaptive Chassis Control. Because it modifies the suspension reaction at each wheel, in real time, it responds to road conditions, how you brake or accelerate. DCC also modifies steering response and offers Sport, with greater stiffness and more-direct steering, Comfort which is smoother for bad roads or long trips, or Normal, a middle ground that may be your daily choice.
Which is for you? My thoughts are based on geography and use. In congested areas like Fort Myers where the battle is with stoplights and poor driving skills, and if a solid car at a reasonable price is paramount, a Jetta would make a good choice. Few would lament the lack of fully independent adjustable suspension. Somewhere out there where there are corners to conquer, where twisting roads are the norm, where power and agility deliver smiles is where the GLI should roam freely. But, as always, cost may dictate your choice.