By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff
What changes will make the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta different?
Nothing significant is likely – although we would urge Volkswagen to match top competitors and make key safety features, particularly autonomous emergency braking, standard on every 2021 Jetta.
If it doesn’t, the next noteworthy updates to this compact sedan aren’t likely before model-year 2023, and then they’ll be mostly cosmetic. The 2021 Jetta will continue as a roomy front-wheel-drive four-door available in mainstream 1.4T form or in sportier GLI guise. It was last fully redesigned for model-year 2019 and today’s sixth-generation version won’t be all new again until model-year 2026 or so.
The ’21 Jetta will again share its underskin architecture with VW’s outgoing seventh-generation Golf compact hatchback, although the Jetta’s iteration is slightly longer and only the GLI model fully matches the sophisticated suspension found on every Golf. It’ll also share with all Volkswagens two years of complimentary maintenance as part of the 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. That coverage came online for model-year 2020, replacing VW’s industry-best 6-year/70,000-mile warranty (with no free maintenance). Both approaches reflect the automaker’s efforts to address its spotty record for reliability and a reputation for high cost of ownership.
It’s part of a broad approach that, combined with appealing new products, such as the seven-passenger Atlas midsize crossover, helped boost VW sales 6 percent through the first half of 2019. The Jetta has played a major role in the increase, with demand up a healthy 48 percent, even as the compact-car segment declined 12 percent.
Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?
Buy a 2020. VW will probably hold the line on major style or content updates until Jetta’s midcycle freshening. Buying a ’20 will also save you a few bucks since the virtually unchanged ’21 will likely cost more due to year-over-year price inflation.
Expect the 2021 Jetta lineup to repeat that of the ’20. Named for their turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the 1.4T models should again come in S, SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium trim levels. Look for the sporty Jetta GLI to return S and Autobahn configurations with a 2.0-liter turbo four. Most models will again come with automatic transmission, but the 1.4T S and R-Line and the GLI should again be available with a manual gearbox.
Will the styling be different?
No, although there could be a new color choice or two. Otherwise, the ’21 Jetta will continue with the styling introduced with the 2019 redesign. It’s a conservative look, with restrained, Germanic design language that’s appealing in its own right. The R-Line has its own sporty vibe, with a gloss-black grille, black mirror caps, a more aggressive rear bumper with stylized dual exhaust outlets, and R-Line badging. The GLI will again stand out with its unique honeycomb grille, signature red accent stripe, aggressive wheels, and dual exhaust outlets.
The sixth-generation Jetta grew in most dimensions, becoming longer and wider, though only a fraction of an inch taller than the 2011-2018 model. Despite gaining 1.3 inches in wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles), however, Jetta lost a little legroom. Other interior dimensions did increase slightly, though, and overall, this VW remains among the roomiest, most accommodating entries in its competitive set.
Orderly and understated will again describe the Jetta’s interior. The infotainment screen will remain embedded in the middle of the dashboard, rather than sit atop it, tablet-style, as is today’s trend. Front passengers might feel a little neglected by the screen’s cant toward the driver, but no one is likely to complain about how intuitive the system is to use. The touchscreen detects when your finger nears and expands some menu icons so you don’t need to be so precise with your finger taps – an advantage on bumpy roads. Every ’21 Jetta will again include support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto and have WiFi hotspot capability. Expect SEL, SEL Premium, and GLI Autobahn models to again come with wireless smartphone charging.
For 2021, we’d urge VW to make imbedded navigation available on models other than the SEL Premium, which has thus far been the only Jetta to feature GPS mapping that doesn’t require a connected smartphone. And adding dynamic guidelines that turn with the steering wheel to the standard rearview camera would make parallel parking or backing into a space less challenging.
Expect the ’21 SEL, SEL Premium, and GLI Autobahn to again include VW’s Digital Cockpit, which replaces the conventional analog instrumentation with a driver-configurable 10-1/4-inch LCD display. It’s a conversation piece, but in our tests doesn’t add real value or enhance the driving experience.
VW ought to also consider upgrading the 2021 Jetta’s cabin materials. The upholstery – cloth on the S, leather on the SEL Premium and GLI Autobahn, sturdy leatherette on the others – is fine. But the interior surfaces are mostly covered in hard plastic and budget-grade vinyl, so even the upper-trim models don’t feel very special. Expect the R-Line and GLI to again have a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel, with the GLI getting red contrast stitching and piping throughout the cabin.
Interior storage will remain a high point, with a spacious glovebox and center console, along with very generously sized door pockets. Trunk volume will again be an impressive 14.1 cubic feet, although the lid hinges probably will remain exposed and intrusive, ready to crush bags or boxes if you’re not mindful how you pack.
Any mechanical changes?
No. The 2021 Jetta 1.4T models will reprise a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that’ll again combine a middling 147 horsepower with a class-competitive 184 pound-feet of torque. Thankfully, the ’21 Jetta 1.4Ts should remain relatively light for the class, with a curb weight under 3,000 pounds. With peak torque available at a relatively low 1,400 rpm, they should again furnish decent acceleration off the line but pine for power as engine speeds rise.
The smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission provides a welcome measure of interaction and lets you tap into this little engine’s power pockets. It should remain standard on the S and R-Line. Optional on those grades and standard on the other 1.4T models would be an eight-speed automatic. Prior-model-year test examples with the automatic transmission frustrated with occasionally harsh upshifts and delayed downshifts. We’d advise VW to consider resolving these issues with a software update for model-year ‘21.
VW’s answer to similarly powered sporty compact sedans such as the Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Elantra Sport, the 2021 Jetta GLI will again borrow its drivetrain from the Golf GTI hatchback. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder will return with 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Transmission options will include a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Our 2019 GLI Autobahn review sample with the dual-clutch automatic was very well behaved around town and on the highway. Power delivery was smooth and strong, with little perceptible turbo lag (delay in throttle response before the turbocharger kicks in). The available Sport mode pumped up the fun factor by sharpening throttle and transmission response.
Jetta moved to Volkswagen’s modular “MQB” underskin platform as part of its model-year ’19 redesign. This architecture also underpins the Golf hatchback, Atlas and Tiguan SUVs, and several models from VW’s premium Audi division. A well-engineered chassis harmonizes with VW’s wise use of tall-profile 16-inch tires on SE and SE models and 17s on the other Jetta 1.4Ts. The happy result is a smooth, quiet ride that’ll carry over for 2021.
Indeed, comfort, not sharp road manners, will remain the Jetta 1.4T line’s primary mission. The modest wheels and tires combined with a cost-cutting solid-rear axle suspension and somewhat vague steering will again result in road manners that don’t match those of comparable Civic or Mazda 3 sedans — or of VW’s own 1.4-liter Golfs.
It’s worth noting that halfway through the fifth-generation Jetta’s run, Volkswagen extended the GLI’s more sophisticated independent rear suspension to all Jetta models. That could be the plan for this generation, too, but whether it would occur for model-year 2021, only VW and its accountants know for sure.
What’s certain is that the ’21 GLI’s wider 18-inch wheels and tires, a sophisticated independent rear suspension, and sport-tuned steering will again give it much tighter handling than the 1.4T models have exhibited — and without exacting a significant toll on ride quality. Its extra power and better handling will again make the GLI the best overall choice in a ’21 Jetta.
While enthusiasts will naturally gravitate to the GLI, we’d suggest those with an eye for value consider an R-Line with manual transmission. Our 2020 test example was a simple delight: solid and maneuverable and with all the virtues of Jetta’s brilliant packaging. Taking full advantage of the manual to exploit the engine’s reliance on turbo boost, it in no way felt lethargic. Inn fact, it exemplified the joys of driving a slow car fast. In Tornado Red with the two-tone interior, it was sporty looking. And optioned with the laudably comprehensive Cold WeatherPackage, it stickered for an eminently affordable $24,115 including destination buy before any of the readily available discounts.
Will fuel economy improve?
With no mechanical changes, expect 2021 Jetta EPA ratings to match those of the 2020. Look for the 1.4T models to again rate 30/40/34 mpg city/highway/combined with both the manual and automatic transmissions. Our 2019 R-Line review sample averaged a frugal 33.9 mpg in a suburban test loop.
Likewise, the 2021 GLI should again rate 25/32/28 mpg with either transmission. Our dual-clutch test car averaged 27.8 mpg, quite good for a fun-to-drive compact sedan.
All ’21 Jetta models will again employ a system designed to conserve gas by automatically shutting off the engine at a stop (leaving accessories running) then restarting it when the driver released the brake pedal. We’d advocate that VW come up with a smoother implementation: our and GLI review samples suffered from noticeable shudder when shutting down and restarting. The 1.4T models will again be tuned to run on regular-grade 87-octane gasoline but expect VW to continue to recommend premium-grade 91-octane for best performance on the GLI.
Will there be new features?
New features are unlikely, but VW would act responsibly by making autonomous emergency braking and associated safety systems standard on the 2021 Jetta S model. Every version of such rivals as the Civic, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte come with this important driver assist.
Heretofore, autonomous braking has been available on the Jetta S only as part of the albeit reasonably priced Driver Assistance Package. The package cost $450 for 2020 and brought the S model abreast of other Jettas by adding autonomous braking designed to automatically stop the car to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian; forward collision warning; blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection; and heated mirrors.
Expect VW to again reserve for the ‘21 SEL and Premium models standard automatic high-beam headlights and lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction.
All ’21 Jetta models should again include as standard full LED exterior lighting, CarPlay, Android Auto, and WiFi hotspot. Look for the SE and R-Line to again come with leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, and keyless access with pushbutton engine start. The R-Line would also include specific exterior styling cues.
Continuing as standard on the SEL and SEL Premium would be multi-color ambient interior lighting, an 8-inch infotainment screen (up from 6.5 inches on other models), extra USB charging port, upgraded audio system, Digital Cockpit, heated steering wheel, heated outboard rear seats, heated windshield washer nozzles, and remote engine start.
Expect 2021 SEL Premium models to again have a power driver’s seat with memory positioning, ventilated sport bucket front seats, genuine leather upholstery, and imbedded navigation.
As in model-year 2020, the ’21 GLI S should largely mirror the Jetta SE for features while the GLE Autobahn would mostly build on the SEL Premium kit but with a panoramic sunroof, wireless phone charging, and adaptive suspension dampers. Making imbedded navigation available, at least on the Autobahn model, would be a worthwhile change.
Will 2021 prices be different?
They’ll likely be higher, mostly due to year-over-year inflation. Base-price estimates include the manufacturer’s destination fee; figure around $950 for model-year ‘21.
Estimated starting price for the 2021 Jetta S is $20,00 with manual transmission and $21,000 with automatic. With the automatic as standard, estimated base prices for the balance of the 1.4T line are $24,000 for the SE $25,000 for the R-Line, $26,500 for the SEL, and $29,000 for the SEL Premium.
Estimated base prices for the 2021 Jetta GLI with manual transmission is $27,500 for the S and $31,000 for the Autobahn; expect the dual-clutch automatic to again cost another $800.
Option packages should again be few in number. Look for the SE and SE-R to reprise a Cold Weather Package (about $500) with heated outboard rear seats and steering wheel, heated washer nozzles, and remote engine start. The main extra for ’21 GLI models should again be summer-only performance tires at no extra charge.
When does it come out?
Look for the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta release date in the fall of 2020.