2020 VW Jetta GLI Autobahn by Ben Lewis

We recently tested the all-new 2020 Kia Forte and came away impressed. It’s the latest of the new-class of fun-to-drive sedans that are taking the fight to the small crossover/SUV market. And one of the most exciting members of that new class is the VW Jetta GLI. For a long time, the GLI has been the hot-tach GTI’s poor relation – nice, and fun, but no GTI.

Well, all that changed last year with the introduction of the new Jetta, which included a new GLI. And VW did enthusiasts a solid – giving us the same running gear of the GTI, but in a less-expensive and less ritzy Jetta package. For 2020, VW has stepped up its game, giving the GLI some added goodies. Is it a head-on competitor to the GTI? And how does it stack up against its own sedan competition? Let’s find out.

Coolly Conservative

The Jetta is a German sedan, and it chooses to play the respectable businessperson. Which is not to say it is plain – the lines are crisp and modern. It’s larger than the previous model, with a 1.3-inch longer wheelbase, and a body that’s almost an inch wider.

Riding on a sport suspension lowers the GLI 0.6 inches closer to the ground than the garden variety Jetta, and you get a nice upgrade in trim, with a lower front spoiler, with a larger air intake. There’s a nice honeycomb grille with a red accent stripe and LED projector headlight and daytime running lights.

The coupe-like profile is handsome, with special side skirts, and meaty 18-inch alloys with a diamond-turned surface, rolling on 225/45 tires. Peeking behind the rims are front brakes from the Golf R with sporty-looking red calipers. Out back, an aggressive bumper, finned diffusor and chrome exhaust tips finish the sporty presentation. We particularly like the LED taillights – the beveled design and bright accent lighting look particularly wicked.

All the goodness is partially hidden in our tester’s Pure Gray exterior. A soft, subtle color that doesn’t call too much attentions to itself. Stealthy.  If you want to stand out in the crowd, we’d go for another color – Tornado Red or Pure Red sounds good, and you can also opt for the Black Package, which includes black wheels, roof, mirror caps and spoiler.

Friendly and Functional

Inside, The Jetta’s conservative demeanor stays true to the course. It’s also where you see the biggest differences with the GTI hatchback. Yeah having a hatchback is nice, but the Jetta’s rear legroom is much better, and the trunk is huge. The folding rear seats and generous pass through means longer items can come along too.

The GTI isn’t down for the count, though. While the quality of the materials on hatch approaches Audi goodness, there are a lot of hard scratchy plastics on the Jetta that bring the ambiance down. It some places, it looks just plain cheap.

Sharing parts with other Jetta trims may bring on the low-rent stuff, but VW does its best to make things better in the GLI. You get a nice pop of color with red stitching on the seats, steering wheel, shifter armrest and floor mats. There’s also sporty Diamond flag décor trim, a black headliner, stainless steel pedal caps, leather-wrapped steering wheel and paddle shifters on DSG equipped models.

Speaking of brightening things up, every GLI gets a cool 10-color LED ambient lighting system. Working with the drive mode, you get white light in Normal, red (what else?) in Sport, and Blue in Eco mode. Not to your taste? The driver can choose any of 10 colors in Manual or Custom mode. We’re kind of suckers for the red lighting, ourselves..

GLI seduction continues with standard keyless entry, pushbutton start, auto-dimming rearview mirror, dual-zone climate control and heated front seats.

Our tester was the upscale Autobahn model, and trust us, it’s worth it. It starts with leather seats, heated and cooled in the front, with power lumbar and memory for the driver seat. With a standard remote start, you can also warm up or cool down your GLI before you get in.

Let the Show Begin

Once you’re seated in the Autobahn’s comfy cowhides, VW throws a bunch of tech at you. The most notable is the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, with a large 10.25-inch screen replacing the instrument panel. It’s also customizable, from a “Classic” display, or you can dial up your choice of gear, speed, fuel economy, range, compass, audio, acceleration, even elevation. It will also display telephone contact images and CD covers. This is the kind of stuff you’re seeing on all the new Audis, BMW’s, and Mercedes. In an affordable vehicle like the Jetta, it’s a showstopper.

The feast for the eyes continues with an 8-inch touchscreen display that’s crisp and clear – a perfect partner for the Digital Cockpit. You can swipe and pinch-zoom it like a tablet, and the system is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible, so we happily ran our WAZE app. Wireless charging for your compatible smartphone is the icing on the cake.

So your ears won’t feel left out there’s a powerful 12-channel, 400-watt, 8-speaker und subwoofer BeatsAudio system. We love how VW brings in labels like BeatsAudio and Fender to the automotive world. Fun!

An Autobahn for the Autobahn

All this stuff is nice, but where the new GLI shines is in the driving department. Where previous generations were watered down performance-wise compared to the GTI, the Jetta is now on equal footing.

Pop the hood, and you’ll see the GTI’s engine, and it’s a sweetheart, a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo with a strong 228 horsepower and a rich 258 lb.-ft of torque coming in barely off idle at just 1,700 rpm. Combined with the optional 7-speed dual clutch automatic, and the Jetta flies off the line, snaps off the shifts, gives a nice “braaaap” on downshifts, and basically turns you into a hooligan on the road. With the drive mode selection, you might be able to tame your enthusiasm by going in ECO mode, but we spent a little bit of time in Normal, and most in Sport. A standard Limited slip makes sure the power gets to wheels yet, torque steer – front wheel drive cars tend to pull to one side or the other under power – is notably absent.

The suspension is what European sedans do best – perfectly tuned, finding an ideal balance of smooth ride and grippy, responsive handling. On the Autobahn, the DCC driver-adjustable adaptive dampers (standard for 2020!) let you fine tune your ride, and it’s impressive in Comfort it really is smooth and compliant, while Sport firms things up for twisty fun. Aiding that is exceptionally tactile steering – the Jetta talks to you through the wheel, and yes, it has a German accent!

Worth noting, with the great power, awesome handling, and fly-below the radar looks, great brakes need to be part of the package. The GLI, gets the same massive stoppers as the Golf R, and they work superbly, and give excellent feel through the pedal.

Need a Friend at Deutsche Bank to Buy?

Hey, it’s a VW. It’s affordable. While your most basic Jetta 1.4T S model starts at $18,895. But we’re talking GLI here, and that starts at $26,245 for the GLI S. With all the basic performance goodies, a standard 6-speed manual (the DCT is a reasonable $800 more) and standard forward collision warning with auto emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, it’s a bargain for those wanting true European performance at affordable pricing.

Just do yourself a favor. Don’t check out the Autobahn. You’ll be seduced like us, the leather seats, the digital dash, high-end audio, panoramic sunroof, ventilated front seats and adjustable dampers, it just takes the GLI to the next level. You’ll pay for it though, the Autobahn DCT starts at $30,745 which is actually great value for what you get. On our tester, the Pure Gray paint was $295, and with $920 for destination, we totaled out at $31,960.

Competitors include the VW GTI Autobahn, comparably equipped it’s $38,215. Suddenly we don’t mind the Jetta’s slightly less attractive interior trim! We recently tested and loved the Kia Forte GT, it came in at $26,445. It’s probably more of a GLI S competitor, but a great choice as well. The Mazda 3 sedan is also excellent, comparable at $27,645 very Audi like, but it doesn’t have the turbo punch of the Jetta, that said, AWD is optional, and it’s interior feels much more upscale than the GLI. Honda’s Civic Si is also fun, and at $26, 155 great fun. Alas, it’s manual transmission only, which could be a stumbling block.

Handsome, affordable and full of Euro-tuned goodness, the 2020 VW Jetta GLI is a great vehicle and a true performance sedan.