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2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Review: an Economical Sports Car, or a Sporty Economy Car?

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Auto123 reviews the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI.

When you think of a VW-badged small sports car at an attractive price, chances are your first thought is of the Golf GTI; those with deeper pockets might point to the Golf R.

Meanwhile, in the lineup sits the Jetta GLI, very often forgotten. Admittedly, it's not as sexy as its hatchbacked siblings, but it has the merit of being more spacious and comfortable than the GTI, in addition to having a real trunk. Other than that, though, the similarities are unavoidable.

In fact, the GLI is just as agile, aggressive and athletic as the GTI. The 228-hp engine under the hood of the Jetta GLI is as powerful as the GTI’s, and the DSG transmission is a real treat. No doubt, purists will go for the GTI, but the older (and more tamed) among us will choose the GLI without hesitation because of its versatility, room and comfort on board and especially the trunk, which is better suited to a small family.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, profile
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, profile

Plus, let's face it, what other fun and powerful car is available on the market for $31,945? However, a crucial choice will have to be made: a 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed DSG? Our GLI tester for the week came equipped with the DSG transmission.

What's new this year
First, the 2020 model gets a few additional changes compared to the 2019 edition. Car-Net, VW’s latest infotainment software, is installed on each model. There’s also wi-fi access with subscription for those who might be interested. The adaptive DCC shock absorbers allow for the driver to adjust them to the road conditions and especially to them driving style, for example staying in Comfort mode on the motorway, Sport mode in mountain bends or in Eco mode for when you’re feeling socially responsible.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, interior
Photo: Volkswagen
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, interior

As a general rule, life is pretty good inside a VW, and this is a case in point. The digital dashboard is properly functional and you can display information in different ways according to your preferences. Just like in Audi, if you use the car's GPS system, you can display the road map in full screen in front of the driver. In the middle is an 8-inch touchscreen that accommodates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are buttons around the radio for quick access to certain functions of the radio, GPS or various settings.

What's more, in a great practical touch, as soon as you put your hand near the screen, additional functions such as station channels are displayed so you can make quick choices. An ingenious system!

Below the radio is the climate control system with seat heating and air conditioning buttons.  Here again, it takes only a few seconds to figure it all out, and it’s very easy to use day in day out... unlike in certain other models where you have to, for example, enter the menus to activate or deactivate the seat heating, the rear de-fog system or raise or lower the temperature in the cabin.

One element we were surprised not to find in the vehicle is the heated steering wheel feature. In 2020, in Canada, VW chose not to offer it? It's almost a standard feature on many vehicles. Volkswagen does make up for it with a good-sized sunroof that comes standard.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, front
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, front

The only option you can get besides the gearbox is an advanced driver assistance system, costing an extra for $1,005. This optional package gives you blind spot detection with rear traffic warning, automatic high beams, power-assisted front brakes with independent emergency braking and, most importantly, adaptive cruise control with Stop & Go. Frankly, this last function alone is well worth the extra cost, especially if you're often condemned to crawl in heavy traffic.

Under the bonnet
As mentioned, the GLI uses the Golf GTI's 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. This mill offers 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, and gives lively accelerations (we came back more often than not in Sport mode) on all levels. Regardless of driving style, the engine, with the help of the superb DSG gearbox, answered the right foot's request without any hesitation.

The GLI benefits as well from a limited-slip, electronically-controlled VAQ torque-controlled differential, which is also shared with other Volkswagen performance models. It hydraulically varies the torque on each front wheel, working in tandem with the XDS electronic differential lock to reduce understeer and limit slippage.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, three-quarters rear
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, three-quarters rear

On the suspension front, high-performance front and rear stabilizer bars and electronically controlled shock absorbers give the Jetta GLI confidence-inspiring stability during tight corners or when entering and exiting highways.

In these corners, the GLI's specially tuned suspension, with the help of a good set of tires, helps make this Jetta the athletic equal of its hatchback counterpart.

Braking power is provided by 13-inch front and 11-inch rear vented red discs that come directly from the Golf R's system.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, headlight
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, headlight

The 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI is a pleasant-to-drive and economical car; as to the latter quality, we point to our average of only 8.5L/100 km, acquired mainly in Sport mode and on city streets roughly 70 percent of the time. What's more, for the price, the car comes packed with features (except for that heated steering wheel feature, which is an unforgivable or at least incomprehensible oversight on VW's part) and offers an elevated driving experience. The only car that could, for the same price, overshadow the GLI would be the Subaru Impreza WRX, which is just as nervous, has only a manual transmission and comes with 4WD as well as a long track record in rally racing.

We like

Good ride
Engine power
Responsiveness of the DSG transmission
Powerful brakes
Lots of standard equipment

We like less

No heated steering wheel
Seats a little less sporty than the Golf GTI
Lack of colour in the passenger compartment

The competition

Subaru WRX
Honda Civic Si
Golf GTI
Hyundai Elantra Sport

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, rear
2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, rear

Road Tests and Reviews

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