Comparing the 1980 Jetta to the New One Shows How Far Cars Have Come in 40 Years

The Jetta has received many updates through the years. But in some cases the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Manufacturers are dropping sedans like hot potatoes these days. But back in the day, American consumers wouldn't accept anything besides the then-traditional three-box design. It's interesting to compare the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, one of the last sedans lingering on the market these days, to the original 1980s version, a car invented specifically to help VW break into the American sedan market that was booming at the time.

In the late 1970s, Volkswagen was seeing some success with its hatchback Rabbit but wanted a bigger piece of the American pie. The solution was the introduction of the Jetta, which VW literally advertised as a "Rabbit with a trunk." In fact, my next door neighbor in high school had one of these original Jettas, though he drove it much more like the original GTI in VW's ads.

The plan worked, and today the Jetta still remains VW's most popular model in the U.S. Although the modern Jetta is a great car, its continued popularity is more because of VW's utter lack of affordable SUVs until recently than the Jetta's own merits. Still, with the Jetta now entering its eighth generation over a nearly 40-year lifespan, it's interesting to compare the new and the old—and, thanks to my Smyth Ute donor, the in between as well.

Volkswagen

Volkswagen recently acquired and restored an Mk1 Jetta survivor for its heritage collection. It sports the optional three-speed automatic transmission rather than the standard five-speed manual—a far cry from the new Jetta's eight-speed automatic. It's two inches shorter than the new Jetta, seven inches narrower, and nearly a foot shorter in length. Surprisingly, though, trunk space is the same in both models, 14.1 cubic feet.

Volkswagen

Power and torque have approximately doubled over the years, going from 76 to 147 horsepower and 83 to 185 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is up, too, from 21 to 34 mpg. The AM-FM tape deck has transformed into a modern infotainment system consisting mostly of features that hadn't been invented when the original Jetta was built. Similarly, LEDs were primarily used in calculator displays in 1980, but now provide the new Jetta's exterior lighting quite effectively. The new Jetta has gained airbags, armrests, and cupholders, but lost cigarette lighters and ashtrays.

Justin Hughes

Let's ignore the fact that I turned a 2003 Jetta into a ute and focus on the donor car's original form, which was a good example of the Jetta from the middle of its production run. Not surprisingly, its exterior dimensions were right in the middle of the range. Its base model 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine made 115 horsepower, though more powerful engines were available (my 1.8T engine makes 180). Mine has a five-speed manual transmission like the original, though the new Jetta adds a gear. Trunk space was actually down to 13 cubic feet, though mine has been modified to provide slightly more. After two generations of the Golf and Jetta sharing the same nose, the Mk4 Jetta changed to a more squared off design than the rounder Golf. This has led to Golf and Jetta owners giving their cars more unique appearances by mixing and matching parts for the other car.

All in all, there has never been anything particularly revolutionary about the Jetta. But that's not a bad thing. Americans have traditionally liked their sedans to be quite similar from one generation to the next. Having experienced the first five generations of the Jetta myself, I can say that VW hit the nail on the head, with subtle evolutionary changes from each model to the next. The 2019 Jetta appears to be no exception and a fine example of the dying sedan breed. But I wonder how much longer the Jetta will last, amid VW's big SUV push with the new Atlas and Tiguan, plus a variety of new electric models on the way.