Driven: VW Jetta — Once-playful teen has grown up to be a responsible adult

But Volkswagen’s compact sedan is still fun to drive

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2020 Jetta
The 2020 Volkswagen Jetta SEL Premium is a compact luxury car that can be fun to drive | Larry Edsall photos

I guess I should have read the fine print, but I got all excited when the notice arrived that indicated — I thought — that the car I’d be driving for a week was the base model of the 2020 Jetta, the one with the $18,895 price tag and a 6-speed manual transmission. 

I even called my daughter in Michigan to let her know, because back when she was a graduating from nurses training, her first new car was a manually shifted Jetta, dark blue with a sun roof and heated cloth seats, as I recall. She was so proud of that car and of how she’d overcome the dealership’s “what color do you want?” greeting.

Since then, and especially as a working mom, she’s had a minivan and a crossover utility and she still misses her Jetta with its manually manipulated gearbox.

The Jetta in front of the entrance to Shiloh Ranch, established by actor Tony Curtis and currently for sale for $1.65 million
Shiloh Ranch includes 40 fenced acres with two houses, an 8-stall barn, 3 riding arenas, private runway and other facilities on the northern edge of the Mohave National Preserve near the Nevada/California state line

So, you might imagine my disappointment when I looked into the cabin of the 2020 Jetta sitting in my driveway and saw a shift lever that moves forward and back rather than in an H pattern. Yep, what I got for a week was the fancy schmancy SEL Premium version of the car, base price nearly $10K more than the entry-level car and, sadly, equipped with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

Actually, when I checked my schedule, I had been told the car coming was the SEL Premium, but that later email confirming the loan got me excited. Bummer.

Nonetheless, I vowed to give the car a fair shake, even if it wasn’t what I had hoped for. 

First impressions: The Jetta has put on some size and weight since my daughter bought hers nearly 20 years ago. It’s also gotten more luxurious, at least in SEL Premium guise. However, the engine is still a 4-banger, but turbocharged, and yet rated at only 147 horsepower. 

But even at 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, it’s enough that, should you get aggressive, say, needing to make a left turn into a busy four-lane road, you need to be prepared for an experience that used to be common for front-wheel-drive cars — torque steer.

That’s right. Pay attention if you’re the driver because there’s enough power that when you turn and accelerate at the same time, you’ll squeal the front tires, and the wheels on which they are mounted will take on minds of their own, preferring a straighter course than the one you’re steering. 

Torque steer used to be common in front-drive vehicles, and I thought automotive engineers across the board had pretty much overcome it. I thought incorrectly. 

There could be several factors involved in what I experienced, among them turbo response, the fact I had planted my right foot to the floor and was asking for full power, and the tires, in this case a set of 205/55-aspect Falken Sinceras mounted on 17-inch wheels. Turns out Falken’s Sincera is an all-season tire and when I checked TireRack.com‘s customer survey section, the tires received only a 3.7 or poor rating. Of 56 “Grand Touring All-Season Tires” rated by customers, Falken’s Sincera was only 31st on the list.

I few days later, I repeated that same maneuver at that same intersection. The first time I heard a lot of tire squeal but was too busy trying to steer around the corner. This time I paid closer attention to the specifics of what was happening and realized that instead of gripping the road, the left front tire simply spun and made noise, leaving the right front to try to do all the steering. 

Whatever, the torque steer or tire spin or turbo shock took me by surprise, in part because my favorite aspect of driving this Jetta was its steering (which VW describes as “electro-mechanical power steering with variable assistance”). Except for my torque-steer adventures, whether driving on mountain-road curves or urban intersections, turn-in was immediate and delightfully responsive. 

The 2020 VW Jetta is available in five trim levels — S, SE, R-Line, SEL and SEL Premium. New technology for the car includes “next-generation Car-Net telematics system and in-car Wi-Fi capability when you subscribe to a data plan,” according to Volkswagen of America, which also notes that the SEL and SEL Premium have standard wireless charging for smartphones.

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Also new in some versions is a Cold Weather Package with heated steering wheel, rear seats, heated parking places for the windshield wipers and heated washer nozzles. 

The SEL Premium I drove came completely outfitted with top-of-the-line standard equipment, no options. It had Pure White exterior paint and Titan black leather interior, and even the 8-speed automatic with Tiptronic toggle lever was standard. If you want to manually shift for yourself, you have to buy your Jetta in the S or R-Line configurations.

Also standard on the SEL Premium is an array of safety technologies, as well as fog lamps, customizable digital dashboard, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate controls, heated and ventilated front Sport seats, heated outboard positions for those in the second row, 10-color interior lighting, BeatsAudio, KESSY, and more. 

KESSY is VWspeak for keyless access and push-button start, but with a bonus. Approach the car with the keys somewhere on your person (or purse), touch the sensor on the door handle and the car unlocks. Touch the sensor as you leave the car and the car automatically locks. And if you left the windows or sunroof open, a long press on the sensor will close them.

Among the “more” is power tilting and sliding panoramic sunroof. I’m not a fan of sunroofs; if I want to drive open to the sky, I want a convertible, and I particularly dislike the VW setup which has a semi-transparent sliding sunroof cover instead of one that blocks out the light.

One of the huge prospector statues at the entrance to Terrible’s hotel and casino at Jean, Nevada appears to have struck it Jetta rich

By the way, if you have any doubt that the auto industry is a global undertaking, check out the parts content information section of the Jetta’s Monroney pricing sheet: Major sources of parts for the car, which is assembled in Mexico, are Mexico, 32 percent; Brazil, 16 percent (including the engine); and only 6 percent is U.S. or Canadian produced. The transmission is from Japan and it appears that less 16 percent of this German car was produced in its “home” country.

In case you’d forgotten or perhaps didn’t know, the car takes its name — as did a succession of Volkswagens — from various winds, in this case from Jetta, the German term for “jet stream,” in this case the one crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Obviously, not much of the car had crossed that ocean, but I found it a worthy package for crossing part of Nevada’s Spring Mountains range and then on across the Mesquite Mountains and the Mojave National Preserve in California before returning via I-15 to the Las Vegas valley. 

And yes, I used the 8-speed’s Tiptronic feature to govern downhill speed both on mountain roads and on long downhill stretches of interstate, where California and Nevada state troopers were keeping close watch. It works, but it’s just not the same as having a manual gearbox.

The 2020 VW Jetta was quick and nimble, and a rather luxurious alternative to the crossover utilities that have come to overpopulate our roads. And just imagine how much more fun it would be if you got to shift for yourself.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4 SEL Premium

Vehicle type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan, front-wheel drive

Base price: $27,945 Price as tested: $28,865

Engine: Turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder, 147 horsepower @ 5,000 rpm, 184 pound-feet of torque @ 1,400 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches Overall length/width: 185.1 inches / 57.4 inches

Curb weight: 2,967 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 30 city / 40 highway / 34 combined

Assembled in: Puebla, Mexico

For more information: www.volkswagen.com

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice write up and you are correct about the peppy nature, feature, and handling of this car. But, it is well known amongst Jetta owners and dealers and VW corporate that the torque converter makes a grinding and rattling sound in 5th and 7th gears when at 1500 to 2000 rpm. Not one automotive journalist has mentioned or noticed this issue even though VW acknowledges but refuses to address. They acknowledge the stator clutch programmming at low torque situations causes the rattle.

    Any thoughts? Loyal VW fans and Jetta owners are getting the shaft by VW and the fact the not one journalist mentions it makes us suspicious about the press cars they give out. Not like that haven’t retuned cars in the past for various reasons. Was this a VW provided car?

  2. Yes, this vehicle was provided by VW and I did not notice the issue you mention regarding ‘grinding and rattling sound’ in that rev range.

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