2020 Volkswagen Jetta review: Spacious and mature, but hardly exciting
Cars don't get much more middle-of-the-road than the Volkswagen Jetta. Mature looking and spacious inside, it's as sensible as a pair of sweatpants, if not quite as comfortable.
The Jetta migrated to VW's ubiquitous MQB architecture last year, a platform that underpins a huge range of vehicles in the Volkswagen Group automotive empire, from the Golf hatchback to various Audis, Seats, Škodas and more. This foundational shift allowed engineers to give the car a longer wheelbase, plus increase its width and height, all while reducing the front overhang for more attractive proportions, though the grille… yeah, it's got a lot of grille.
Aside from better looks, these changes also increased cabin space. Passenger volume now clocks in at 94.7 cubic feet, while the trunk measures a generous 14.1. This means the Jetta is roomier than the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 sedan, though the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra are slightly more capacious according to the spec sheets, but in normal use you're not likely to notice a difference.
There's plenty of room for legs and heads in this car's backseat, plus the lower cushion and backrest are both comfortably angled. When lowered, the fold-down center armrest is also at the same level as the door-panel armrests, a thoughtful touch that further enhances comfort.
Heated outboard rear seats are another nice amenity, one that's standard on SEL and SEL Premium models, but optional on SE and R-Line variants. Curiously, my top-of-the-line tester still lacks air vents for passengers in steerage despite there being an obvious place for them. Like an off-putting but hard-to-trace odor emanating from some forgotten corner of your refrigerator, there are other little whiffs of cost-cutting in the Jetta. There's only a single seatback storage pocket, for instance. The car also lacks a capless fuel filler, there's no latch on the front center armrest, nor does it ratchet and lock in different positions like they used to in older Volkswagens. Even the volume knob looks like the result of one too many pinched pennies, its on/off graphic turning so it's almost never aligned perfectly, something that will drive detail-oriented people nuts.
Similarly, some of the Jetta's secondary controls feel flimsier than a mud hovel in a hurricane, like the climate-control dials and headlight switch. Still, other buttons are super nice, like the rock-solid ignition switch and the drive-mode selector.
The Jetta's front seats are flat and broad, far too sprawling for someone as emaciated as me, though most people will probably find them quite accommodating. In my SEL Premium Jetta, leather is standard. It looks great and feels nice to boot, though most models in the range feature leatherette seating surfaces, while the entry-level S variant comes with cloth. My car's front chairs are heated and ventilated, too, making the Jetta an appealing choice every season of the year. The steering wheel will also keep your hands warm at the push of a button.
Complimenting the handsome leather is a smattering of soft plastics. Upper portions of the Jetta's dashboard and front door panels are nicely textured and plush when you prod them. Some of the interior's rigid polymers aren't quite as attractive, but you can't expect Kobe beef on a bologna budget.
The star of this Vee-Dub's cabin is the infotainment tech. SEL Premium models feature a standard Discover Media system with an 8-inch touchscreen and integrated navigation. (Lesser models come with a 6.5-inch screen, though all feature standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.) This infotainment offering is snappy and intuitive. Swipe through its various screens and everything responds promptly. Pinch-to-zoom on the map works reasonably well, too. It's not the fastest or smoothest, but neither is it like photo enhancing in the movie Blade Runner. Overall, this infotainment system is better than what Honda and Toyota are doing these days, and it's at least as good as Hyundai and Kia 's latest offerings.
In addition to that touch-enabled panel, Volkswagen Digital Cockpit is included on SEL Premium Jettas as well, which replaces traditional instruments with a reconfigurable 10.25-inch screen. Clear, crisp and surprisingly free of glare, this is one of the nicer offerings of its type available today, certainly in the Jetta's class.
If you can swing the monthly payment, SE models and above come with some standard kit you're sure to love, features like dual-zone climate control, keyless entry with pushbutton start and a sunroof. SEL and SEL Premium variants are also graced with a Beats Audio system and ambient interior lighting, among other things.
Forward-collision warning and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert are standard across the range, save for the base model, where it's optional. A responsive and smooth adaptive cruise control system, plus lane-keeping assist and automatic high beams are standard on the top two trims.
If the Jetta's sterile exterior styling weren't enough warning that it's a no-fun zone, what's under the hood will broadcast that loud and clear. All versions of this car are propelled by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. With a turbocharger, direct fuel injection and a cleverly designed air-to-water intercooler built right into the intake manifold, it delivers a modest 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.
Two transmissions are available. In the entry-level S and midrange R-Line models, a six-speed stick is standard for three-pedal fun. If you'd rather not row your own, simply shell out an additional $800 for the available eight-speed automatic. That's just one Ben Franklin per forward gear, an exceedingly reasonable price.
Naturally, my SEL Premium tester comes standard with that auto-magic gearbox. It's mild-mannered and prompt, leaving little to complain about. It does what it needs to without drawing attention to itself.
Mostly smooth, the Jetta's engine operates in hushed tones. This car is by no means a rocket, but low-speed acceleration is quite good thanks to a generous slathering of torque that's all-in at just 1,400 rpm. Unfortunately, it gets pretty winded at speeds past about 50 mph. Overtaking on the highway or even on secondary roads is slower than I'd like. If you want real performance, go get a Jetta GLI . It's powered by a lovely 2.0-liter engine with 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.
On multiple occasions while driving, I notice a slight stumble or sag. It happens when the car is just barely moving and it feels like the engine is cutting out for a split second, which is quite undesirable. At least the Jetta's real-world fuel economy is stellar. In mixed driving it's returned better than 38 miles per gallon without even trying. According to the EPA, it's only supposed to average 34, a figure derived from its city rating of 30 mpg and its highway score of 40. Around town, engine stop-start undoubtedly helps goose those numbers. This feature is both smooth and swift, so there's nothing to complain about here.
The Jetta's steering is pretty forgettable. It evinces no bad habits but neither does it wow you with telepathic crispness. The car's ride is a bit stiffer than I expected, too. It's not harsh or clopping, rather, a dense feeling, kind of like the wheels are made of concrete.
The 2020 Volkswagen Jetta is offered in five grades: S, SE, R-Line, SEL and SEL Premium. An optionless entry-level variant with a six-speed manual transmission goes for a little less than $20,000, including $920 in destination fees. That should make it the most affordable VW offered in America. My zenith-trim model checks out for $28,865, a not-unreasonable figure for a generously sized sedan with some pretty appealing features. Further enticing value-minded drivers, it comes with a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty and free scheduled maintenance for the first two years or 20,000 miles.
The Jetta is a good car, but I don't get the impression VW is swinging for the fences with this product. Sure, it's spacious and wrapped in grown-up styling, but in some ways it feels unremarkable. I'd take one over the Toyota Corolla or Subaru Impreza, but it's not quite as comprehensively excellent as a Honda Civic or Mazda3.