The American market has clearly different tastes when it comes to cars and there are idiosyncrasies that for me at least, don’t make sense. Europeans love the Golf, hatchbacks are cool, the Americans apparently don’t like hatchbacks and instead buy crossovers (which incidentally have hatchbacks) instead. The Europeans didn’t like the Jetta at all, so much so, VW discontinued them at the end of 2019.
The Jetta, however, sells very well over here and VW has discontinued the Golf base models to leave only the upcoming 8th gen GTI and R, which apparently, they love. Confused? Me too.
For me, the Golf GTI is one of the best all-round cars available for the money on the market today and in fact for as long as it has been around. It’s point-to-point quick, economical, and has a versatile hatchback configuration and best of all it’s a hoot to drive. The Jetta meanwhile, serves as the new entry-level aimed at more economy-conscious buyers.
VW has a Jetta GLI, now in its second year and I have in my hands on a Pure Gray 2020 VW Jetta GLI 2.0T Autobahn edition with black leather seats. Sitting on the MQB chassis the Jetta has the beating heart and soul of the GTI and has the performance add-ons to prove it and a lower price to boot.
What makes it go?
Along with sportier looks, revised suspension tuning, and brake components borrowed from the Golf R, the GLI has the familiar turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. As in the GTI, this engine makes 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode.
The Jetta comes in only 2 flavors now, a base S, and the Autobahn. With the Autobahn you get leather seats and you get the adaptive suspension (DCC) which allows the driver to select different drive options, Normal, Comfort, Sport, and Custom. Custom mode lets you go one step further and you can select the drive modes to your individual taste, including exhaust, steering and throttle response. Playing around with this option does require you to be standing still since it won’t let you adjust this when you’re on the move.
To help the GLI stand out from the standard, Volkswagen fitted the sedan with 18-inch aluminum wheels, good-looking unique front and rear fascia’s, red brake calipers, a black grille with honeycomb inserts, a rear spoiler, and dual exhaust outlets.
On my typical road course, which consisted of some deserted back-roads East of San Diego the GLI is incredibly impressive for a front-wheel-drive car, thanks to the front diff and setting it in Sport/Individual mode it resolutely held its line and refused to under-steer. Just as in its GTI sibling, torque steer has been virtually eliminated. It simply bites into the corner, gets its power down early, and powers out, ready for the next one.
I am sure the 18-inch tires help a lot, and especially with the Dunlop Max Sport tires my tester had, it’s hard not to be utterly impressed with this car. 0-60 is identical to the GTI in a rapid 5.6 seconds, but it’s the torque that really makes this car shine.
In Sport mode, uneven pavement can cause some jarring, but I was grinning too much to notice. Of course, I kept it in Sport mode with everything dialed and only steering in Normal. Steering is also the best I have come across, with a great sense of feel of what the front wheels are doing and extremely direct.
What defines the GTI is it point-to-point pace and the capacity to engage the driver, it simply doesn’t beg for more power such is the composure it offers. Even in Sport mode there is some suppleness, and the car is always superbly stable and settled. Weird cambers, sharp corners it takes every single one in its stride. The chassis is so capable it simply filters all this kind of stuff away so you can drive one of the most well balanced and confidence-inspiring cars on the market today. It’s simply grin-inducing.
The interior will be familiar to Golf GTI owners, having that typically Teutonic style, slightly somber but with all the controls in the right place. My tester had the configurable 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster and the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, which allows the driver to display the Classic profile or set options manually, including gear, speed, estimated fuel economy, distance, travel time, assistance systems, estimated range, compass, elevation, audio, and acceleration.
Fit and finish are very good, and it seems very well put together, my only gripe is I wish the GLI had the GTI’s iconic plaid seats, which provide better bolstering and are more comfortable. Some of the lower dash and door panels are not up to GTI quality, there’s some cost-cutting going on here but the GLI does come in at a lower cost.
The cabin is spacious with lots of room for front and rear passengers, and the seats, although covered in a rough somewhat low rent material are comfortable and have adequate bolstering.
You’re not going to fit as much in here as you can in a GTI, but the Jetta’s trunk is quite large offering a generous 14.1 cubic feet of trunk space.
New for 2020 Autobahn models add standard wireless charging and the aforementioned DCC® adaptive damping system for the 2020 model year, along with an optional Black Package which includes 18-inch black aluminum-alloy wheels, a black roof, black mirror caps, and a black spoiler.
I loved the Beats Audio system, it produces a great sound and has a 12-channel, 400-watt amplifier, digital signal processing, and eight speakers and a subwoofer.
The GLI’s closest competition comes from Honda in the form of the Civic Si sedan but this is the more engaging car to drive and even the reduced warranty of 4 years, 50,000 from six-year, 72,000-mile is great at this price point.
My personal preference would be to buy the GTI but for folks who like sports sedans and want to pay less than this is the way to go.
2020 Jetta GLI Autobahn Numbers
BASE PRICE: $30,745
AS TESTED PRICE: $31,960
VEHICLE LAYOUT: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
ENGINE: Turbocharged and inter-cooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4,
POWER: 228 hp @ 5,000 rpm
TORQUE: 258 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode
CURB WEIGHT: 3,217 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.6 sec
EPA COMB/ CITY/HWY: 28/25/32 mpg
OUR OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 24.2 MPG
PROS: Gutsy and torquey engine, ride and handling, superb fun,
CONS: Some cheaper cabin materials, needs GTI seats