2020 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T R-Line
By Mitchell Weitzman
How many new cars can you buy today with a manual transmission? Without looking it up and cheating, I struggle to name more than a dozen. Here's one of them: the Volkswagen Jetta. Bravo to Volkswagen then for continuing to offer vehicles like the Golf and Jetta with a do-it-yourself stick and clutch pedal. Who would have thought that a manual transmission could transform a popular mundane millennial transportation device into a fun and economical pocket rocket? And yes, I mean economical by the way of this—fully equipped, Jetta's as-tested price of only $24,115, and the fact it gets 50 (!!) MPG on the freeway. Economical in every sense of the word.
On the outside, you still have the same handsome Audi-trickle-down effect of an exterior as other VWs, which is no bad trait. It may look unexciting next to other rival offerings, but tidily tailored and attractive like a well-fitting cardigan, it's something that will never go out of style. The fact it does resemble one of its costly Audi brethren pays dividends as this affordable Volkswagen simply looks like a more expensive car. I also approve of the Tornado Red paint, and not every car can pull off red. R-Line guise helps further with purposeful yet tasteful black accents and stylish wheels.
Inside, Volkswagen had me fooled. The first time I opened the door I had the thought, "Gosh, this car better not cost over $30k.” Luckily, it was when I found the Monroney sticker on the passenger seat that my fears were relieved. Even more telling was when the next thought rang something more like, "Wow, this is pretty nice for 24K." Sure, this is far removed from a luxury car, but the materials and build quality throughout the cabin were a pleasant surprise. The imitation leather seats even were a rung above other similar materials I've experienced before in other cars. It's very easy for an affordable car's interior to have a squishy “rubber effect,” where components and padded areas are soft at the expense of having a peculiar rubbery feel and texture to them. The Jetta in this case balances this rather nicely to avoid feeling like Play-Doh.
Bonus points go to the equipment level, mainly the active safety systems including blind-spot monitoring. The infotainment system for the radio is on the smaller side dimensionally, but it works easily enough to control your Spotify or Pandora streams over Bluetooth. I like the fact that the seats come in a color besides black and nasty tan, though the chairs could have more shape to them being slightly too akin to a bench. But no bother, nobody could possibly be disappointed with this car's interior nor comfort for the asking price. In addition, the steering wheel is wrapped in actual leather and is comfortable in your grasp.
On paper, a diminutive 1.4L engine sounds weak, but the presence of forced induction on the Jetta helps it punch above its featherlight weight class. With only 150-peak horsepower, it's the 184 pounds of torque at a low 1,400 RPM that does most of the motivation (big torque at low RPMs equates to usable horsepower ready to work). And with at least 2,000 RPM in any of the first four gears and with the boost ready for work, the little Jetta has surprising pep to it. 0-60 MPH was done in 7.5 seconds and 50-70 in 4 seconds flat. Compared to a more powerful Corolla SE with its naturally aspirated inline-4, the Jetta feels miles faster in the real world and was quicker in acceleration testing. In fact, if you do some math, at that same 2,000 RPM, the Jetta produces about double the horsepower available for work than the Corolla SE. Above 5,000 RPM, the Jetta does run out of steam, as I would expect from a big boosted little engine, but the midrange is where you'll live 98% of the time, and it's a tasty main course.
The 6-speed manual transmission, with that mystery third “millennial anti-theft” pedal, is hilariously easy to use. Clutch effort is light and unchallenging to modulate. The gearstick action is similarly light and slides into each gear with decent precision. I remember a few-year-old Honda Civic manual I drove felt like a toy to shift, whereas the Jetta is light and easy, but never feels juvenile either. Personally, I do wish that both components had more heft for my liking, but it's a manual that literally anyone could drive. The gearing, though, is a little too tall, meaning the maximum speed available in each gear is too much for the whimsical little engine. A shorter and closer ratio set of gears would increase acceleration among other aspects that will be further discussed below.
The 1.4 turbocharged engine is radically refined for a cheap four-cylinder, being smooth in operation at all revs and emitting a decent sound. Oftentimes engines like this can be buzzy and coarse, but Volkswagen continues to be a leader in the refinement of small-capacity motors. However, there is the rather big deal about turbo lag that has to be made. Anyone who tells you (especially any spokesperson from a manufacturer) that turbo lag is a thing of the past or, my favorite, "has been virtually eliminated," hasn't driven a turbocharged car with a manual transmission—automatics only disguise the presence of lag by shuffling gears to mask it. The long gearing helps exacerbate the lag as well, as these tall ratios necessitate more work for the motor to do. Here's an example of this tall gearing: My Nissan 370Z manual spins 3,000 RPM at about 28 MPH in third gear. The Jetta will do 40 MPH at 3,000 RPM in third gear. Yes, tall gears, but it does torque its way through once you have boost pressure built. The key is to not be gentle with the throttle pedal. I wasn't gentle and still averaged scarcely unbelievable fuel economy numbers.
Turbo lag ought to be seen as a detriment, and in many ways it is. If you suddenly fully depress the accelerator at 40 MPH in fourth gear, there will be a solid full second before anything actually happens. Once boost pressure fills the intake though, that's when the Jetta begins to surge with a pronounced and unexpected authority. So yes, it hinders the drivability, but it's this same lag that makes the Jetta enjoyable and fun to drive. Every time you get back into that boost, it livens up the experience and rewards in ways that account for a unique and engaging driving experience. How do you spell boost? Like this: booOOST. It's also nostalgic in ways that remind us of some beloved ’80s turbocharged classics like the Saab 900 Turbo or Porsche and JDM classics. The Ferrari F40 has crazy amounts of turbo lag and yet it's regarded by many as the greatest road car of all time. Call it character and personality then, and once you learn how to work the boost, it becomes huge fun.
That tall gearing does reap some tremendous benefits in terms of fuel economy, though. In my normal driving, I averaged a superb 37 MPG and on a level freeway at 70, it reached an astounding 50 MPG. That's as much as most hybrid commuters that lack any form of pizzazz in the experience. Seriously, 50 MPG is outrageously good and obliterates the EPA rating estimate of 40 MPG.
Also a recipient of compliments is the handling. Volkswagen has known how to produce good driving front-wheel drive cars for decades with their popular Golf hatchbacks. The fact the Jetta serves up similar driving dynamics in corners had me unsurprised. The steering is a tad too light at low speeds (in the quest for making the car appealing to a large audience), but once on the go and with some speed, the weighting increases coupled with response. The best happens on tight twisting sections of tarmac. On my local Forni Road playground in Placerville, the Jetta turned in with eagerness and resisted understeer even with the power on through corner exit. With the engine fully lit in its sweet spot of 3,000 RPM and the throttle down hard, the front wheels should push hard into the adjacent tree; this was not to be in the Volkswagen.
Instead, the front wheels just grip and pull you through the corner. Credit must be mostly given to whatever trickery the engineers came up with for the front differential (they call it XDS Cross Differential System) and its uncanny ability to distribute power wisely and transfer it to the road for optimum grip. I didn't even see the traction control light flash through these sections of road, such is the efficiency of the front suspension and differential. The ride is comfortable over most all surfaces and yet the body was not out of control on these winding roads, retaining composure and giving confidence. Torque steer is largely dialed out, too. This is an example of a front-wheel drive car done absolutely right.
There's not much to dislike about the Jetta. In this R-Line guise it's attractive in a simplistic sense with incredible mileage, it provides the almost-forgotten joys of changing gears yourself and working an engine. I found the last Jetta with an automatic I drove underwhelming as it was just, well, a car, and lacking in encouragement to find this same level of engagement. Having the chance to exercise a turbocharged engine with both your hands and feet elevate it to a newfound sense of fun and personality. For an affordable sedan below $25,000, it's an entirely convincing argument.
2020 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T R-Line
As-Tested Price: $24,115.
The Road Beat Rating: 4.5/5.
Pros: Fun to drive, manual, affordable, and exceptional mileage.
Cons: Tall gearing, and that's it.
Verdict: An economy car that also knows how to play.
Mitchell Weitzman is a resident of El Dorado County and UC Santa Barbara graduate. He’s been around cars his whole life and loves racing, such as Le Mans and Formula 1. Mitchell is also a seasoned driver with experience at Laguna Seca and Circuit of the Americas. He loves being able to tell a story through his words and pictures.
Photos by Mitchell Weitzman