2020 Volkswagen Jetta Review: All Pumpkin, No Spice

Volkswagen deserves applause for offering the Jetta in this fun shade.

It’s called Habanero Orange. That sort of picante paint might make more sense on the hotter Jetta GLI sport sedan, but more colorful options on the cooking models is the right move as far as AutoGuide is concerned. Besides, Volkswagen was ahead of the curve here: Nissan added an orange to the 2020 Sentra lineup, and Honda debuted the next-gen Civic in the same bright hue.

For better or worse, that color is about as dramatic as the 2020 Jetta gets. This compact sedan is a calculated, conservative attack on the class, never topping the charts in any one discipline, but never bringing up the rear either. Forget hot peppers; if the Jetta is spicy at all, it’s more what you’d find at Starbucks than at a chili cook-off. If you value comfort though, and find the styling of the competition too outlandish, the Jetta might be just what the barista ordered.

Leave some room

Like the Golf, the Jetta sits atop the VW Group’s MQB platform. Underpinning myriad models from Audi, VW, Skoda, and Seat, it offers thoroughly modern refinement levels and ample space. Longer and wider than the previous model, it feels spacious up front, if not quite at the level of the afore-mentioned Sentra, or the 2021 Hyundai Elantra. Unless you’re waiting for a callback from the Raptors though, you should fit just fine. The leather seats are early high points when the snow starts falling: they’re heated and ventilated, and prove supremely comfy over longer distances. Even rear-seat riders get heated buns, too.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Nissan Sentra Review: Big Car Feel, Small Car Price

Second-row accommodations are about what you’d expect for the class. Volkswagen avoided the fashionable swept-back roofline, affording the Jetta a healthy 37.2 inches (945 mm) of headroom—roughly a hair’s width away from the class-leading Hyundai. The rear door panels are heavily scalloped, carving out extra width, and a fold-down central armrest adds yet more comfort. Lighter-colored pillars and headliner further the impression of space.

That’s a good move, because the rest of the Jetta’s interior is almost uniformly black. You can spec lighter options, but if you do, say goodbye to that sweet exterior paint. Boo.

At least the cabin layout hits all the right notes. The entire center stack is canted towards the driver, with a clear, easy-to-understand layout. The big swath of plastic around the cupholders feels particularly brittle, but the rest of the dashboard is suitably soft to the touch.

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Digital order

If some cabin materials feel too penny-pinching, the Jetta makes up for it with a terrific tech suite. Our top-shelf tester nets not only the larger 8.0-inch central touchscreen, but a fully configurable digital instrument panel as well. It’s as clear as you’d expect from the Germans (read: very), and allows you to tailor the display to your needs. The digital IP isn’t just nice for this class, it’s a good example across all segments.

The central screen is similar easy to use, and its clean graphics put it well above the systems you find in the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Response times aren’t quite as snappy as the best in the class, but it’s not far off. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are both standard, satisfying either camp with seamless integration.

It’s the Jetta’s digital features that keep it feeling a level above the other mainstream compact sedans.

On the driver assist front, you’ll find blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward-collision warning on every trim in the US, except on the base model, where it’ll cost you $500 for the bundle. It’s a bit more complicated in Canada: the base trim offers none of those things, nor the option to add them in. The mid-trim adds the first two features, but you’ll need to splurge for the top trim like this one for the full suite. Similarly, adaptive cruise control, including lane-keep assist, is the exclusive domain of the top two trims in America, and the top one in Canada. It’s a well-done system, keeping the Jetta in its lane with little ping-ponging, and adjusting speed smoothly. Adaptive headlights are another great perk for those in more rural settings.

Take it to go

Around town, the Jetta is like the right font in a good book: it fades into the background, letting you get to the task at hand with minimal fuss. The turbo engine provides plenty of torque, scooting the VW from stoplight to stoplight in a way few cars in the class can match. The eight-speed auto rarely sets a foot wrong, shifting quickly to keep the little 1.4-liter right in the heart of its powerband. A manual is also available depending on trim (or across the board in Canada), but for the minimal extra outlay, I’d recommend the auto. Save the stick for the GLI.

It’s out on the highway that the little engine starts to feel strained. The Jetta’s a commendably light sedan, but even still, 147 hp can only do so much. You’ll want to plot out passes ahead of time, and any such maneuvers will reveal a coarse note from the engine as it moves into the upper half of its rev range.

At least fuel efficiency is great. VW quotes 34 mpg combined (7.0 L/100 km), and for much of my time with the Jetta, it was soundly beating that figure. When it didn’t, it was due to a confluence of causes, like an unexpected snowfall suddenly slowing traffic across the city. Every year, people are surprised…

The Jetta rides with a calm, fluid nature. It’s not even close to sporty—no, not even in “Sport” mode—but that’s to be expected. There’s a thin layer of brittleness over rougher surfaces, but beyond that the Jetta is a smooth operator. The Jetta’s flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good to the touch, though you won’t get much in the way of feedback out of it. It points the car where it needs to go, no more, no less.

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Verdict: 2020 Volkswagen Jetta Review

2020 Jetta pricing starts under $20,000, including destination ($22,930 CAD). Top-trim levels like my tester inch close to 50-percent more than that though, ringing in at $29,335 ($31,580 CAD). The Jetta’s infotainment and premium amenities go some way to justifying that price, but it’s still a serious chunk of change.

The Jetta is a good, solid compact car, but lacks the depth of character of the Civic or Mazda3. It’s just a little too mature for its own good, never really providing the sort of excitement or ingenuity that can make a car truly memorable. Yes, even in a color as good as Habanero Orange.

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