2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI — Just plaid seats shy of excellent

By Jim Prueter

(October 28, 2019) Last year, Volkswagen redesigned its popular compact Jetta sedan, now in its seventh-generation. Jetta first arrived on the scene back in 1979 as the sibling to the Rabbit/Golf hatchback and immediately became a favorite for those buyers who long for the look, performance and driving feel of German engineered vehicles without spending the big bucks for the likes of a Mercedes-Benz, Audi or BMW premium sedan.

Jetta’s popularity is evidenced by its sales success with more than 17.5 million models sold worldwide since it was first introduced. More than 3.2 million of those were sold in the United States alone. Jetta remains Volkswagen’s best-selling car, a position it’s held since 2011.

For 2020, the Jetta is a carryover vehicle after a complete redo last year and is available in six trim levels: S, SE, R-Line, SEL, SEL Premium, and the sporty GLI. The GLI differentiates itself with two separate trim levels: S and Autobahn. For this review we drove and tested the GLI S model.

When the GLI first debuted in 1984, it was dubbed a “GTI with a trunk” with a mission to deliver an affordable German performance sedan. The GLI is the less popular mechanical twin of Volkswagen’s smaller GTI hatchback and, by most accounts, isn’t as good looking, either.

Under the hood, the GLI packs the same 2.0-liter, 228-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder as the GTI, with power delivered to the front wheels via a standard six-speed manual transmission or an available seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, which came with our test car. That transmission adds an additional $800 to the price.

Stylewise, the GLI differentiates itself from the standard Jetta with its unique and aggressively styled front end that includes an exclusive honeycomb grille pattern that’s horizontally split with a telltale lipstick red stripe, similar to the GTI. There are also unique black accents, along with the red block GTI badge that sets it apart and adds to its performance look. The GLI also adds 18-inch black aluminum-alloy wheels, a black roof, black mirror caps, and a black lip spoiler atop the trunk lid. 

Both GLI models get LED headlamps along with LED daytime running light surrounds.

The overall exterior look is sporty, attractive and hints at performance with the added styling cues. The GLI has a sport suspension and sits a little more than a half inch lower than a standard Jetta. Lower side skirts and a rear bumper featuring LED taillights and dual chrome exhaust tips also add to the more aggressive look.

Inside, the all black interior lends a definite austere German austere. There’s ample use of red stitching on the steering wheel, shifter, armrests, floormats as well as the seats. We much prefer the look of the eye-catching Scottish plaid cloth seat material – known as “Clark Plaid” – as a staple design element in the GTI models. Black leather upholstery is available as an option and is standard on the Autobahn trim level. There’s faux carbon fiber trim on the instrument panel and door trim, aluminum trim on the pedals, and a flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters that’s identical to that in the GTI.

As with all compact sedans in this segment, back seat headroom is limited because of the swept-back roofline styling. If more headroom is needed, you might want to consider the roomier GTI, given its boxy roofline style.

Overall, the interior is much improved over the heavily criticized interior of the previous generation Jetta, but it won’t wow you. It’s rather nice with some soft-touch materials, but the hard plastics detract from the overall appearance.

Standard tech features include the MIB II infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touch screen, four speakers, a USB port, Bluetooth, and VW Car-Net App-Connect, which includes connectivity options like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink. The system is user friendly with an ample amount of smartphone connectivity technology and a responsive, easy-to-see touchscreen

We especially liked the button and knob operating controls for audio and HVAC that are smartly arranged, intuitive and easy to use.

Additional available features include a sunroof, an eight-speaker BeatsAudio sound system, HD Radio, satellite radio, and an upgraded infotainment system with an eight-inch touch screen, navigation, additional VW Car-Net services, and an additional USB port.

Behind the wheel, the driving experience, especially handling and steering, isn’t as precise as that of the GTI but it still handled decently on the twisty canyon roads we drove when testing. There’s some body roll around turns, but it generally rode smoothly with a quiet cabin.

Power and acceleration snaps to attention quickly and we clocked a zero to 60-mph time of a quick 5.5 seconds, very similar to the GTI driving experience, especially when selecting the high-effort Sport setting. Piped-in intake sound is adjustable and the driver can choose from normal to neighborhood-annoying Sport. We thought the DSG transmission was excellent and the highlight of the drivetrain. 

Overall there’s a lot to love about the GLI and and it’s easy choice for those who want an affordable compact sporty sedan. Its only competitors are the Honda Civic Si or the Subaru WRX and we easily give the nod to the GLI. We just wish it had the classic style and better looking interior that comes in the GTI.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $27,045
Price as Tested: $27,985
Powertrain: 2.0-liter 228-hp turbocharged four-cylinder with a 7-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 25-mpg city, 32-mpg highway, 28-mpg combined
Seating: 5

Crash Test Results: Overall highest possible 5-stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and “Good” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Where Built: Mexico

Competes With:
Honda Civic Si
Subaru WRX

Fab Features:
Engagingly fun to drive
Refined engine and transmission
Outstanding and easy to use technology and infotainment