Originally billed as a “Rabbit with a trunk,” the first-generation Volkswagen Jetta was designed for the growing number of buyers worldwide who wanted extra cargo space and the style of a sedan in a compact car. Shortly after its US introduction in 1980, the Jetta became the best-selling German model in America, with more than 3.2 million models sold since.
Comparing the original generation of the Jetta, as represented by a 1982 version recently acquired and restored by Volkswagen Group of America, to the all-new 2019 Jetta demonstrates just how far the VW brand has advanced in nearly four decades and what traits have remained true since its introduction.
When it first hit American roads, the compact Jetta defined a new segment for Volkswagen. The brand had considerable success with the subcompact Rabbit in the late 1970s, following the end of Beetle sales in the United States. Built off the Golf platform and named for the German word for “jet stream,” the Jetta two- and four-door versions were the sixth models in the VW lineup for 1980, along with the Rabbit, Dasher, Scirocco, Vanagon and VW Pickup.
For its era, the Jetta offered a standard amount of power – 76 horsepower from a 1.6-litre inline 4-cylinder engine. More important was its handling prowess, tuned to offer a tighter road feel than the other compact vehicles of its era.
It had a healthy list of standard features, from power-assisted brakes and AM/FM cassette-player combo, to cut-pile carpet and intermittent wipers. The only options were a 3-speed automatic transmission (in place of the standard 5-speed manual), air-conditioning, sunroof, tinted glass, and aluminum-alloy wheels.
At first glance, the biggest difference between 39 years of automotive development isn’t just size or an extra seating position. While the 2019 Jetta is larger in every exterior dimension, its technology drives the most striking evolutions.
LEDs were still only for calculators in 1980 – today, the latest Jetta uses LED headlights and tail-lights along with LED Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) that create a light “signature.” In addition, a 10-colour interior LED ambient lighting system is available.
Driver-assistance features in the first-generation Jetta included such touches as a driver’s side view mirror that you could adjust without rolling down the window. The side mirror on the 2019 Jetta is electrically adjustable, and can offer the Blind Spot Warning system that alerts drivers to vehicles they might not see otherwise. A rear view camera is standard as well.
Other available driver-assistance technology available on the newest Jetta – like Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking (Front Assist), High Beam Control (Light Assist) and Lane Departure Warning (Lane Assist) – weren’t available on any vehicle in the 1980s. And where the original Jetta did not have cruise control, available Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) on the 2019 Jetta can work in stop-and-go traffic to resume speeds when traffic clears.
Of course, technology has also made the interior of the Jetta a much more pleasant place to spend time. Music in the original Jetta came from AM/FM radio or a cassette tape player. AM/FM radio has stood the test of time, while cassettes have given way to satellite radio and music streaming.
The 2019 Jetta has a touchscreen infotainment system with standard Volkswagen Car-Net App-Connect technology that offers compatible smartphone integration with the three major platforms – Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink. The new Jetta is the also the first Volkswagen in the US to offer the available eight-speaker BeatsAudio system.
And despite its increased size, greater safety and far longer list of features, the 2019 Jetta has significantly better fuel economy than its ancestor.