Driving the first-generation Volkswagen Jetta with its 2019 successor

The 1980 model year was a big one for Volkswagen of America. Known at the time mostly for the Rabbit hatchback, VW brought out four new models that year – the Rabbit convertible, the Rabbit-based Pickup, the then-new Vanagon (including its hip camper variant) and an all-new sedan named after the German word for “jet stream:” the Jetta.

It was not many years later that the Jetta became the best-selling German model in America, with more than 3.2 million models sold since. With the new 2019 Jetta hitting dealers now, we put a first-generation example side-by-side with the modern Jetta to show off just how much has changed in nearly four decades.

The Mk1 Jetta here is a 1982 model acquired and restored by Volkswagen of America last year to good driving condition that belies its 180,000-mile odometer reading. Designed to provide space and openness in a Rabbit-based package, sitting in the Jetta feels upright by today’s standards. In front of the driver lies the traditional VW analog dash in a minor symphony of brown and beige shades, from the chocolate-covered dash to the latte-colored cut-pile carpet.

By the standards of 1980, the Jetta offered enough power for a subcompact sedan – 76 horsepower from its 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Acceleration was not rapid, especially with the optional three-speed automatic in place of the standard five-speed manual, but the Jetta’s handling and road feel were better than expected for the segment in the era. So too were the space for four, the sizable trunk and decent fuel economy for its competitive set.

Driving the 1982 edition today reminds you of how much vehicles have grown. Riding on 13-inch wheels, the Jetta feels diminutive in traffic, but also wonderfully connected with the road. The unassisted steering can be a bit tough in a parking spot, but once at speed it’s easy to see what made the original Jetta attractive to drivers in its era.

1982 Volkswagen Jetta

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Switching from one to the other, you’re instantly struck by how much more the 2019 Jetta brings to the driver’s comfort, from cupholders (eight total, versus none in the Mk1) to the standard infotainment system with App-Connect, Bluetooth and a number of ways to stream music. (The original Jetta did come with two ashtrays; the 2019 Jetta makes no such provision.) Much like the wind eroding the face of a cliff, the Mk1 Jetta’s upright, squared-off lines have been refined for better aerodynamics over the years into the slippery shape of the 2019 edition.

The Jetta has also grown over the years to hold five passengers and their luggage, with markedly better performance and fuel economy. Where road noise thrums into the Mk1 Jetta, it’s in the background of the 2019 edition. And the new Jetta offers a menu of standard safety features — like eight airbags and post-collision emergency braking — along with several available driver-assist technologies, like lane departure warning and automatic cruise control, which were only concepts in 1980.

For all these dramatic changes, the biggest one may be the least obvious: how much the Jetta’s value has grown. The 2019 Jetta’s MSRP starts at $18,545, before destination charges, a price cut from its previous generation, and comes with a long list of standard features. At its launch, the 1980 Jetta base sticker price was $7,650, excluding extra-cost options such as alloy wheels or air conditioning. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $23,000 in today’s money.

What the first-generation Jetta and its 2019 counterpart share is the philosophy that an affordable compact car doesn’t have to sacrifice performance or comfort. That will be true no matter how many more decades the Jetta rolls through America.

1980 Jetta 2019 Jetta
Height 55.5 inches 57.4 inches
Width 63.4 inches 70.8 inches
Length 167.8 inches 185.1 inches
Wheelbase 94.4 inches 105.5 inches
Trunk space 14.1 cu. ft. 14.1 cu. ft.
Horsepower 76 147
Torque (lb-ft) 83 185
Transmissions Five-speed manual, three-speed automatic Six-speed manual, eight-speed automatic
EPA-estimated Fuel Economy (automatic) 28 mpg combined* 34 mpg combined**
Colors Alpine White, Diamond Silver, Black, Indiana Red, Mexico Beige, Inari Silver Pure White, Tornado Red, Black, Deep Black Pearl, White Silver, Platinum Grey, Sage Green, Silk Blue, Habanero Orange
Cruise Control Unavailable Standard; optional Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)
Lights Dual sealed-beam headlights, bulb taillights LED headlights & taillights; LED Daytime Running Lights; automatic on/off
Infotainment AM/FM cassette stereo AM/FM/SAT with touchscreen and standard Volkswagen Car-Net® App-Connect, Bluetooth® and USB; optional 8-speaker BeatsAudio® and navigation
Air Conditioning Optional Standard; optional dual-zone Climatronic® automatic climate control
Seats 4 5, optional heated and cooled front seats, power driver’s seat, and heated rear seats
USB ports Not yet invented 1 or 2, dependent on trim
Ashtrays 2 0
Cigarette Lighter 1 0
Armrests 0 2
Cupholders 0 8
Airbags 0 6
*Due to regulatory changes, the EPA estimate was subsequently revised downward.
**30 city/40 highway mpg 2019 VW Jetta automatic. EPA estimates. Your mileage will vary and depends on several factors including your driving habits and vehicle condition.