In 1979, Volkswagen found a niche that they needed to fill above the firm’s hit Golf hatchback. A small family car built on the same platform. Small enough to be sporty and large enough to fit a small family. It has been marketed over six generations with variations in name and style, depending on the country where it was sold – – Atlantic, Fox, Vento, Bora, City Jetta, GLI, Jetta, Clasico, Voyage and Sagitar.
The Jetta was originally adapted by adding a conventional trunk to the Golf hatchback, and some distinctive styling (usually the front end, and sometimes slight interior changes). It has been offered in two- and four-door sedan, and five-door station wagon versions – all as four or five-seaters. Since the original version, the car has grown in size and power with each successive generation.
First generation (MK1/A1, 1979–1984)
Although the Golf had considerable success in the North American markets, VW found that the hatchback body style lacked some of the appeal to those who preferred a typical sedan configuration.
The car was available as a two-door and four-door sedan. In order to distinguish from the Golf, there were minor differences in the facia and the interior was made more upscale with velour seating and color coordinated sill to sill carpeting.
Engine choices varied considerably depending on the market. Most were based on 827 engines of the era. Choices in gasoline engines ranged from a 1.1L four-cylinder engine producing 50hp, to a 1.8-litre I4 which made 110hp. Some cars were equipped with carburetors, while others were fuel-injected using K or KE Jetronic supplied by Bosch. Diesel engine choices included a 1.6L making 50hp and a turbocharged version of the same engine which produced 68hp and 96ft-lb of torque.
The GLI is a sport version of the Jetta. In 1984 Volkswagen offered the Jetta GLI in the US and Canada, adding many of the drivetrain features and improvements of the 1983–1984 GTI, including the fuel-injected 90hp engine, close-ratio 5-speed manual transmission, sport suspension, front and rear anti-sway bars, and ventilated front disc brakes. Externally, the Jetta GLI was distinguished by wide body-side moldings, a black airfoil on the driver’s-side windshield wiper, black plastic trim panel between the rear taillights and GLI badging. The interior of the car sported leather 4-spoke steering wheel and shift knob, three additional gauges in the center console, sport seats similar to those in the GTI, and distinctive upholstery and interior trim. The GLI was offered to the US in Sedan only where Canada got the Sedan and Coupe.
The first generation Jetta was met with generally positive reviews. Precise handling and brakes that worked well for a car of the day. It had a tight and firm ride with large bumps being absorbed well. This provided the owners with a comfortable and practical sedan.
Second generation (MK2/A2, 1984-1992)
The Mark 2 Jetta is the longest running generation thus far. It was based on the second generation Golf, was larger, heavier, could seat five people instead of four and proved to be a sales success for Volkswagen.
The suspension was basically unchanged, although slightly refined with a subframe and better bushings for noise isolation. Better aerodynamics helped with the fuel efficiency and a larger interior with more luggage space bumped it from an EPA class of sub-compact to compact.
Being the longest running generation also gave the firm time to experiment with many different four-cylinder 8-valve engine variations. 1.3, 1.6 or 1.8L with carbs, diesel, and fuel injected variations were available through the years. With a 1.8 or 2.0 16-valve available for the sportier GLI trim.
In 2007, Volkswagen of America held a contest to find the diesel powered Volkswagen with the highest distance traveled on the original engine. The winning car was a 1986 Jetta Turbodiesel found in Blue Rock, Ohio which had 562,000 miles. A local dealer verified the odometer reading. Notable on this particular car was that it also had the original muffler despite being located in an area subject to road salt in the winter.
Third generation (MK3/A3, 1992-1999)
Because of the success of the second generation in North America, Volkswagen decided to keep the Jetta nameplate; however, in Europe the car was given a new name – Vento – to appeal to a younger market.
The two-door model was dropped, aerodynamics were again improved and the design included a new structure which met worldwide crash standards. The suspension continued in an evolutionary direction and was refined with a wider track and was even backwards compatible with older models.
The reviews were generally positive with this generation, with praise given again to the crisp handling and comfortable ride; however, some noted that the sporty suspension tuning found in some trims made the car bouncy. The manual transmission was crisp, but the automatic reduced acceleration considerably.
It had some quirks, like a nonexistent glovebox on many airbag equipped models or one only big enough to hold the owner’s manual. The lack of cupholders was a common complaint in earlier models and if equipped with power windows, the front switches were on the door, while the rear window switches were on the center console.
The 1994 through 1996 models of the Jetta had some electrical issues causing the car not to start and shorting to occur in some of the electrical devices. This was due to the plastic piece underneath the windshield, which was added in later models to divert rain water flowing to the electrical box.
Under the hood, you could find an 8-valve gasoline engine with 1.6L, 1.8L, or 2.0-Liters. The diesels were 1.9-Liters and many were Turbocharged. Volkswagen also added the option of a 2.8L 12-valve VR6 for the first time.
Fourth generation (MK4/A4, 1999-2006)
A rounded shape and arched roofline served as the new Volkswagen styling trademark, abandoning traditional sharp creases for more curved corners. It was shortened slightly and given a longer wheelbase, which added to the comfort of the fourth-generation.
This Jetta saw some advanced options, with rain sensor controlled wipers and automatic climate control; however, these were expensive options and not found on all of the vehicles.
Some of the engine and drivetrain options carried over from the previous model with a 24-valve VR6 being added, but they also included two new engines that were used across the Volkswagen and Audi lineup. The 1.8L Turbo often referred to as the 1.8T and the VR5 that was available in some markets. This generation also saw a 6-speed manual transmission offered in the GLI.
This was the first time the Jetta was offered in a wagon version in North America. It offered a whopping 52 cubic-feet of space with the rear seats folded down.
Also new in this generation was Volkswagen’s signature blue and red instrument lighting which became standard in all models in 1999.
Safety on the fourth generation cars was a high priority for Volkswagen. The car was built using advanced processes, improved measuring techniques, and laser welding on the roof. In crash tests, the fourth generation car received very good marks. Side curtain airbags became standard in the 2001 model year. Some other added safety features included anti-lock brakes and anti-slip regulation.
Injury, collision, and theft losses were low for a car of this class.
Fifth generation (MK5/A5, 2005-2011)
The body of the fifth generation uses extensive high strength steel, and laser welding is up from 5% to 35% of body parts. This results in double-digit increases in both dynamic and torsional rigidity. Other body innovations include an impact-absorbing front bumper which yields slightly in the event of a collision with a pedestrian, reducing the chance of injury. A new door design allows just the outer panel to be removed and replaced if damaged, rather than the entire door.
Safety was again enhanced with many active and passive features available or standard. These included side curtain airbags, seat-mounted rear side airbags, new generation Electronic Stability Program with Anti-Slip Regulation and Brake assist, as well as active head restraints. Additionally, an available dual-zone automatic climate control, and electro-mechanical power steering were new innovations.
Multiple four and five-star ratings as well as “Top Safety Pick” distinctions were awarded. This and its Golf counterpart have been ranked among the top cars in independent reviews of resale value.
The fifth generation has a totally redesigned electrical system. Control modules are used for everything from the radio to the powertrain, transmitting over Controller Area Network (CAN) buses. Transmission of signals is done digitally at 500kb/second, which reduces the number of wires needed, and thus reduces the chance for faults. In most of the world, the rear lights use LEDs.
This Jetta saw some new engine and drivetrain options. The FSI (Fuel Stratified Injection) 2.0-turbo and a Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission were added and offer a very quick vehicle with low fuel consumption, but the VR6 engine was no longer available.
Europe saw an innovative option known as the ‘Twincharger’. This 1.4L combines turbo and supercharging to make a small, but powerful engine with low fuel consumption. The Jetta available in the US is powered by a 2.5L 5-cylinder 20-valve engine in most trims. Interestingly, this engine shares its cylinder head design with the V10 found in the Lamborghini Gallardo.
The diesel TDI 2.0 and 1.9 engines were carried over and continued to offer exceptional fuel economy.
A wagon was offered, dubbed the SportWagen, it offers 67 cubic/feet of cargo space with the rear seats down, but was not offered until 2009.
Sixth generation (MK6/A6, 2011-Present)
Although no longer sharing any body panels with the Golf and having a longer wheelbase, this model is partly based on the same platform.
Engines from the MK5 Jetta carried over include the 170hp 2.5L five-cylinder as well as the economy-minded 140hp 2.0 TDI diesel engine.
A Turbo Hybrid, 150hp 1.4L TSI turbocharged engine mated with a 27hp electric motor providing a combined 170hp and 184lb·ft torque became available in 2013, due to Hybrid popularity in North America. Additionally, the SEL Premium model retains the upscale soft touch interior, as well as the multi-link independent rear suspension found on the GLI, though softened for a more comfortable ride. It also has as standard a 7-speed automatic manual DSG gearbox, with Sport and Tiptronic modes.
The base model fifth generation Jetta in the US receives a 2.0L 8-valve with 115hp and 125ft-lb of torque, while achieving an EPA rating of 25 MPG city and 36 highway.
The GLI version uses the 2.0 TSI 210hp engine and a fully independent suspension, as well as the European Jetta’s soft touch materials. A black honeycomb grill, aggressive lower intakes, side adorning fog-lights, smoked taillights, dual tailpipes, red painted calipers, and red stitching are all elements to separate it from its run-of-the-mill Jetta counterpart. The GLI, as well as the Jetta TDI, are the only two trims to receive Volkswagen’s 6-speed manual transmission as well as the optional 6-speed DSG gearbox.
In 2014 VW offered a Jetta GLI “Edition 30” – to celebrate 30 years of the GLI in the US. Changes include 18-Inch “Laguna” wheels, red trim on the front grill, a trunk-lid spoiler, Edition 30 badging, Bi-Xenon headlights, navigation, and leatherette upholstry trimmed with red stitching.