Compact with some compromise. Compact sedans are all about balancing value, design, and features, leading to some compromise. The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta is no exception to this rule.

It has plenty of endearing qualities, including a timeless exterior design, spacey interior, decent technology features, plenty of options, and a wild side in its GLI model. However, its questionable finishing touches, boring interior design, and lack of standard safety gear commonly found in this class may turn off some buyers.

Capable base engine, but GLI is where the fun’s at. The entire non-GLI Jetta lineup comes standard with a 147-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. While the ponies are a little low, its 184 pound-feet of torque from 1,800 revs gives it a low-end jolt that makes it feel quicker than it is. That feeling quickly fades in the higher revs, though.

While it’s unexciting, low base power is the name of the game in this class. All the Jetta’s key rivals are start at 160 hp or lower, with the lowest being the 139-hp base Toyota Corolla. Plus, these are all naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines that lack the torquey low-end boost the Jetta’s turbocharger adds to the mix.

For those seeking a peppy compact sedan, the Jetta GLI offers a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder with 228 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque, resulting in a high-five-second 0-60 mph time. The GLI also adds a multi-link rear suspension, stickier and wider rubber, and more to deliver legit performance in the corners.

The GLI’s upgrades put it in a nearly untouchable niche, for now. The Mazda Mazda3 offers a new-for-2021 2.5-liter turbo-four with 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Yet, since it’s not a true performance model, it lacks the Jetta’s chassis updates. The Kia Forte GT and Hyundai Elantra N-Line share a 1.6-liter engine with 201 hp, but their upgraded multi-link rear suspensions gives them grippiness similar to the GLI.

The only true competition the Jetta GLI has is the 306-hp Honda Civic Type R, but it’s a hatchback and starts at over $38,000. In the future, though, the GLI will have the Civic Si (paused for 2021 model year) and the Elantra N (production planned for 2021) to fend off.

Volkswagen Jetta

Good fuel economy, but no hybrid. The VW Jetta with the 1.4-liter engine and automatic transmission delivers 29 miles per gallon city, 39 mpg highway, and 33 combined, which is right in the range of its key competitors.

However, the Jetta lacks a hybrid option, so it lags behind the Hyundai Elantra Hybrid’s estimated 50 mpg combined, and the 52-mpg-combined Corolla Hybrid and Honda Insight.

Comfortable and well equipped, but lacks style and class. The Jetta’s cabin has plenty of space for four adults – five will fit in a pinch. Its rear seats have 37.4 inches of leg room, beating the Civic (36 inches), Corolla (34.8 inches), and Forte (35.7 inches). Plus, it’s 14.1-cubic-foot trunk is about average in the class.

While it’s large and relatively comfortable, the Jetta’s cabin is lacking in style and refinement. Its cabin’s highlights are the touchscreen, which ranges from 6.5 to 8 inches, an optional 10.3-inch digital gauge cluster, and flat-bottom steering wheel.Otherwise, nothing is exciting about its interior.

Adding to its woes inside is its lack of fit and finish. If the Jetta doesn't have an option, Volkswagen slaps a blank plastic piece in the space where the controls for that feature would be. This leads to these unsightly blanks littering shifter and other areas in lower trims – a constant reminder that you couldn’t afford that feature.

Making up for the drab cabin is standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The inside is also a safe space, as the Jetta received “Good” ratings in all IIHS crash tests, though its “Marginal”-at-best headlights knocked it out of contention for Top Safety Pick classification.

The Jetta is one of the few compact sedans lacking standard automatic emergency braking. If this is a must-have feature, it’s available in a $500 package that includes blind-spot monitoring.

Final thoughts. Though the 2021 VW Jetta takes a few hits with its drab interior, lack of standard automatic emergency braking, and nonexistent hybrid model, it plays in a class where buyers are used to compromising.

The Jetta shines in areas where it matters most for buyers in this class, including interior space, fuel economy, available tech, and crash safety. Plus, the Jetta GLI leads the compact class in affordable performance – for now.

Buyers seeking a more exciting design inside and out will find this in the Mazda3 or Hyundai Elantra. And those who prefer not to pay extra for advanced safety tech can walk into almost any competing dealership and get at least standard automatic emergency braking.

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