Clash of the hot compact sedans

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Volkswagen has finally given its Jetta sedan for North America the power, exclusivity, and extra sporting edge that some enthusiasts felt were missing from the package. The new 2020 Jetta GLI has addressed all those concerns and is now a model with enough brawn and sophistication to go head to head with all the sporty sedans in its size and price brackets. If you’re into fast driving, then you will be happy to note the new Jetta GLI gets the exact same engine as the (Golf) GTI, a standard limited-slip differential, and a snappy six-speed stick shift.

One of the new Jetta GLI’s main rivals is the2019 Honda Civic Si sedan, a very hard contender indeed. The Civic Si has a smaller displacement engine than the Jetta GLI, and has less power, but it is also quite a light car, one renowned for its excellent handling and road manners. It also looks somewhat sportier than the Jetta too, especially if you see its trunk lid-mounted wing, the center exhaust, and the aggressive overall design and stance.

If this were purely a visual comparison to discover which car looked more aggressive, that distinction would automatically go to the Civic Si. But it’s not all about the visuals, especially since the Jetta is more powerful than the Civic and it also has a more sophisticated independent rear suspension that VW doesn’t offer on any other Jetta model.

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic SI Exterior

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If you put the two vehicles side by side, it is not hard to see that even with the sporty makeover the 2020 VW Jetta has received in GLI guise, it’s still the more restrained and understated of the two. It really looks like a mini Audi A4 with red accents, and I think that it’s a look that thoroughly suits it; to my mind it was a much more successful overall design than the larger US-spec Passat to begin with and, with the sporty tweaks (complete with slightly lower suspension,) it’s even better.

By contrast, the Civic Si appears to have been designed by a group of overly-excited teens who just wanted to give the car as many vents/intakes and as pronounced a wedge shape as possible (even though it’s a sedan).

The result is not bad (the design does start to grow on you after a while), but it’s certainly far more polarizing than the subtle, subdued Jetta.

My main issue with it is the sheer amount of real estate dedicated to fake vents in the front and rear, and in my mind, it would have been even more successful had it been a bit more restrained. Even if its designers would have tried to stick to only as much vent space as was needed - none of this ridiculous fakery that’s really visible on the rear bumper where it just looks off.

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There is just more going on with the Civic from whichever angle you want to view it and, while I again feel the need to stress that it doesn’t look bad, I’m really looking forward to the refreshed, facelifted model due in the next couple of years . I hope that will bring some much-needed refinement to this design.

The Jetta GLI, on the other hand, is a car you don’t have to make excuses for - whoever sees you in one will have a much better idea of why you bought it.

Of course, if they aren’t an enthusiast, they won’t really know that you are indeed driving a performance car.

It’s also worth stressing that the 2020 Jetta GLI looks more different to less exclusive variants in the range than the Civic Si; the latter, had it not been for the wing on the back and the Si badges, could pass by unnoticed as just another Civic Sedan. However, the base Civic sedan is certainly sportier looking than the base Jetta, so there is a balance in their respective formulas.

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan Exterior
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The Honda Civic Si sedan is a fraction shorter overall than the VW Jette GLI, but it has a longer wheelbase - this means its overhangs are shorter and has more of a ‘wheel-at-each-corner’ look to it. The Honda is also not as tall as the VW and wider at the same time, further reinforcing it as the sportier looking one of the two.

Volkswagen Jetta GLI Honda Civic SI
Length: 4.7 meters / 185.1 inches 4.64 meters / 182.5 inches
Wheelbase: 2.68 meters / 105.7 inches 2.7 meters / 106.3 inches
Height: 1.46 meters / 57.4 inches 1.42 meters / 55.75 inches
Width (no mirrors): 1.79 meters / 70.8 inches 1.88 meters / 73.9 inches

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic SI Interior

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan Interior
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Inside the two vehicles, there’s no question as to which one feels the most premium: it’s the Jetta GLE.

The best compliment that can be paid to the Civic in the Jetta’s company is that it looks durable and that it’s very well put together.

But in terms of materials and perceived quality, there is no contest.

The VW is also more advanced inside, with a fully-digital gauge cluster, an infotainment system that is about a decade ahead in terms of look and feel. The Jetta’s interior, especially the GLI’s with all the bells and whistles, just looks like an Audi interior, something befitting of an S3. The Jetta also has a ten-color mood lighting setup (that you might as well just leave in red to match the theme of the car) that the Civic doesn’t have.

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan
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In terms of design, the Civic is certainly the more daring of the two. Like the Civic’s exterior, its interior feels more sporty as do the seats that are probably going to be better than the VW’s especially in terms of comfort. I really like the basic seats you get in the Si - they look like nice, honest, body-hugging, hot-hatch seats with the subtle Si script hinting that this is indeed no ordinary Civic.

The seats in the Jetta GLI just look and feel harder and less comfortable and, if other sporty VW seats are anything to go by, they probably won’t match the Civic’s for long-distance comfort.

When it comes to steering wheel designs, the VW Jetta GLI’s wheel wins hands down - it’s got nice subtle metal details, red stitching, buttons for essential functions, and the obligatory flat bottom. Holding onto it is a pleasant tactile experience, very similar to what you might feel in a much more expensive car.

The Civic Si’s wheel certainly looks more futuristic, and it too has plenty of well-integrated buttons and sporty red contrasting stitching, but it just looks and feels cheaper than what you get in the VW. My two main gripes with it in this company are the quality of the plastic airbag cover and the buttons themselves. Not to mention the fact that it isn’t a flat-bottom steering wheel.

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan Interior
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Both cars come with six-speed manual gearboxes, but it’s the Civic’s shifter that not only looks better but especially feels better than the Jetta’s. It’s a short, stubby thing with quite a big knob on top (for its size) and it has to be one of the single most rewarding six-speed sticks to use in the entire industry. It’s the kind of car in which you want to shift gears just for the sake of it, to experience that slick and pleasantly notchy shift action.


In terms of space inside, the Civic translates its extra width into genuinely more shoulder room inside (for both front and rear occupants). Headroom up front is better in the Civic too, but the Jetta has more of it in the rear. Both are tied for rear legroom. Volkswagen has not released trunk capacity information for the Jetta GLI, but if it’s the same as the rest of the range, then it just beats the Civic Si in this category (it’s worth noting that the Civic Si has less trunk volume than, say, a Civic EX).

Volkswagen Jetta GLI Honda Civic SI
Headroom front 978 mm / 38.5 inches 997 mm / 39.2 inches
Headroom rear 945 mm / 37.2 inches 942 mm / 37 inches
Legroom rear 950 mm / 37.4 inches 950 mm / 37.4 inches
Shoulder room front 1,420 mm / 55.9 inches 1,447 mm / 56.9 inches
Shoulder room rear 1,372 mm / 54 inches 1,397 mm / 54.6 inches
Luggage volume 399 liters / 14.1 cubic feet 379 liters / 13.4 cubic feet

2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic SI Drivetrain and Performance

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI emerges with extra power, clever suspension
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The 2020 Jetta GLI has the upper hand when it comes to displacement, power and acceleration time.

Plus the Civic Si can only be had with the manual gearbox option, whereas the Jetta does offer an automatic option, thereby broadening its array prospective buyers.

Had Honda offered the Civic Si with the only automatic transmission it has (of the continuously variable variety), it definitely would have ruined its sporty edge, while on the other hand, the Jetta GLI is still fun to drive even if you opt for the automatic.

The 2019 Civic Si is powered by a 1.5-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder with 205 horsepower that peaks at 5,700 rpm. If you’re used to older hot Hondas, then its quite low 6,500 rpm redline might surprise you; the engine really does run out of puff not long after that - you have to shift below 6,000 to make the most of its performance.

2018 Honda Civic Si Sedan
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Torque is rated at 260 Nm or 192 pound-feet, and it makes the car feel quite spritely since it is delivered flat between 2,100 - 5,000 rpm. This broad spread of torque makes the car feel more muscular than the numbers suggest and occasionally having to shift down for more acceleration is never a chore in the Civic Si as it has one of the single best feelings shifters in the business. As far as its sprint time to sixty goes, the Civic Si sedan can do it in just under 7 seconds.

The 2020 Jetta GLI runs a bigger, 2.0-liter, turbo, four-pot with 228 horsepower and as much torque in foot-pounds as the Civic’s engine in Newton meters...

Twist in the Jetta GLI is rated at 350 Nm or 258 pound-feet, and it should provide noticeably more in gear punch than the Honda.

As standard, the car comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, but a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch DSG is optionally available.

Volkswagen hasn’t quoted the 2020 Jetta GLI’s sprint time to sixty, but it’s probably somewhere in the low six-second range.

Volkswagen Jetta GLI Honda Civic Si
Engine 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injection EA888 TSI® 1.5-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder
Horsepower 228 HP 205 HP @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 258 LB-FT 192 LB-FT @ 2,100-5,000 RPM

Final thoughts

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan Exterior
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The Honda Civic Si sedan and new VW Jetta GLI offer two quite different answers to the same question and each have plus points and bad marks. They cater to different audiences in that the Jetta is aimed at more mature buyers who want to drive a factory sleeper which the new GLI really is, especially if you go for the regular model (not the 35th anniversary special edition that has the bigger wheels and spoiler).

On a windy stretch of road, it’s quite possible that the lighter, more nimble Honda would pull ahead (although this is just pure guesswork at this point) and the more powerful VW would claw its way back on the straights. The Jetta GLI undeniably handles fine with its lowered suspension and higher performance tires, but the Civic Si has quicker steering, nice pedal placement for heel and toe, and that glorious gear shifter.

The Honda is the more noticeable car, yet the VW is the more understated, slightly more powerful, and more expensive alternative. If it’s all about the interior for you, then you can just ignore the Civic Si altogether and just go straight for the Jetta GLI with its premium-level interior ambiance and the more serious, grown up look. If interior quality isn’t your prime concern, then you may actually like the Honda more thanks to its more alive handling and generally sharper, sportier feel.

It also boils down to price when looking at direct rivals from different manufacturers. VW has not announced pricing for the 2020 Jetta GLI, but it should start from just over $30,000 (if the current model is anything to go by; it starts from $30,440). The 2019 Honda Civic Si sedan starts from $24,300, so the difference is quite significant and, if you look at both cars with this in mind, the Honda probably starts to make more and more sense.

But we’ll obviously have to wait for the Jetta GLI to officially debut and have it tested head to head against its rivals. Maybe it will be an unexpected revelation to drive or have some other tricks hidden up its sleeve that will make the higher asking price seem more palatable.

Further reading

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta GLI.

2020 VW Jetta GLI vs 2019 Honda Civic Si Sedan
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Read our full review on the 2019 Honda Civic Si.

Andrei Nedelea
Andrei Nedelea
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