The first Jetta arrived in the U.S. in 1980 and it joined Volkswagen’s lineup back then that included the Dasher, Rabbit, Scirocco, Vanagon, and Pickup.
VW’s Dasher was a durable wagon, the little Rabbit was a hoot to drive, the Scirocco was seriously bad ass in its day, the Vanagon perfect for family road trips, and the Volkswagen Pickup still looks great today.
Aside from the Jetta, we haven’t seen them all on our shores for quite some time—but the little two- and four-door sedan still rocks and rolls. VW has since sold more than 3.2 million Jettas.
Jetta means “jet stream” in German and the sedan was marketed as a Rabbit with a trunk—which, if you measured the trunk space of 1980 and 2019 models—the only thing that remains the same is they both hold exactly 14.1 cubic feet.
In 1980, our magazine’s founder, David E. Davis, who was at Car & Driver back then, said “the big trunk, the roomy, comfortable interior, and the remarkable quiet at 75 miles per hour make the Jetta a lovely car for the serious driver.”
VW recently acquired and restored a 1982 Jetta and we had an opportunity to see it earlier this year in Chicago during a VW Design Workshop—it looks even better in person.
When you compare it with a 2019 model, you can really see how far it has come in nearly four decades. The family resemblance is still there, but the cars themselves are worlds apart.
The first-gen Jetta is noticeably smaller, boxier, and measures 55.5 x 63.4 x 167.8 inches (H x W x L) versus 57.4 x 70.8 x 185.1 inches of the seventh-generation car.
Under the hood, the 1982 model packed a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that delivered a whopping 76 hp and 83 lb-ft of torque. The four was mated to a standard five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. The 2019 version has a 1.4-liter turbo-four with 147 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. Get the manual.
First-gen Jettas offered power-assisted brakes, an AM/FM cassette player, and intermittent wipers—air conditioning, sunroof, tinted glass, and aluminum-alloy wheels were its only options—other than the automatic transmission. Stick with the stick.
Today’s Jetta is packed full of driver-assistance gizmos like a blind spot warning system, digital cockpit, rearview camera, and one or two USB ports depending on trim.
The 1980’s model didn’t have anything like that, but we can still appreciate it for its bargain basement charms and price tag to match—the original base price for a 1980 Jetta was $7,650. A 2019 Volkswagen Jetta starts at $19,395 and will arrive at dealers just in time for summer.