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It took Volkswagen 81 years to sell more than 23 million Beetles worldwide. In half the time, the German auto manufacturer has sold more than 17 million Jettas.
The Jetta is also VW’s biggest seller ever in the U.S., and kept its number one annual ranking in this country through much of the SUV boom, surrendering the crown to the Tiguan just last year, says Kyle Larsen, sales manager for International Autos Volkswagen of Menomonee Falls.
“The Tiguan is first,” he says, “but the Jetta is right behind it because, for the price point, you get a really nice car with great gas mileage and all the tech that everyone expects these days.”
Dave Juma, sales adviser for Umansky Volkswagen of Milwaukee North, adds that Jetta always has been – and remains – a great first car because the tech and passenger room and comfort give you “lots of bang for your buck if you’re looking for a car in its class.”
Autoguide.com writer Benjamin Hunting says that the Jetta was an instant hit when it landed in America in 1979, especially with first-time and budget shoppers.
“When the small sedan segment started to grow in the United States,” he writes, “Volkswagen realized it had nothing to offer entry-level buyers aside from the hatchback Golf. The quick and easy solution was to borrow the Golf’s platform, slap on a trunk, and offer it as a coupe and a four-door sedan. Very few evolutionary leaps in the automotive world have ever been that enormous, before or since.”
Larsen and Juma note that Jetta, which has a base price below $20,000, is still popular with first-time buyers, especially recent college grads who take advantage of VW’s financing program for people who haven’t yet established credit buy or lease. The most expensive Jetta, the sporty GLI, tops out at less than $32,000.
The original “Golf with a trunk” Jetta featured velour-upholstered seats, rectangular sealed beam head lamps, 13.3 cubic feet of luggage capacity and a four-cylinder, 74 hp gas or 50 hp diesel engine.
And seated four.
VW made the Jetta big enough for five passengers in 1984 while also jacking the horses all the way up to 85. That year also saw the debut of the GLI, or Grand Luxury Injection, version, with an engine that produced 90 hp. Jetta
“Volkswagen rolled out the second generation to considerable acclaim, outselling every other European car until it was retired after the 1992 model year,” Hunting says. “Bigger than the original in almost every dimension, the Jetta continued to combine a low price with respectable practicality and affordable fuel mileage.”
It also lost some of the sharp angles that defined its appearance at the outset. Two-door, hatchback, station wagon and gas/electric hybrid versions have come and gone, but the Jetta has continued to be a fave among American drivers, with U.S. sales exceeding 100,000 per annum for years – including 2019.
Hunting credits Jetta with preventing VW from abandoning the U.S. during the 1990s, a time when “tuners” started customizing small, modestly priced cars while enhancing their engines and suspensions to turn them into street-legal racecars. One of the main attractions to tuners, Hunting says, was Jetta’s 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that put out 177 hp.
Jetta entered its current generation in 2019 with some well-reviewed updates. According to Autolist.com, the 2021 model is the largest Jetta ever, offering more interior room than any Jetta before it and featuring luxe appointments such as heated front seats and customizable ambient lighting.
One popular feature that Larsen and Juma say many buyers love is VW’s “Digital Cockpit,” which replaces analog instruments with a digital display that the driver can change by pressing icons or swiping a dash-mounted screen. One highly-touted benefit is that it’s possible to move navigation, communications and infotainment to a screen in front of the steering wheel, directly in the driver’s line of sight.
Road Show video reviewer Antuan Goodwin gives Digital Dashboard, which is based on a similar feature that first appeared on Audis, thumbs up for being is easy to use and coming loaded with apps that make it easy to stream music and infotainment services or play them using a phone.
“Apple Car Play and Android Auto are standard, so you don’t have to go to the highest trim level to get compatability,” Juma says.
On the other hand, the base-level Jetta S comes with a manual transmission that gets high marks from reviewers. While most buyers opt for automatic, Juma says some younger buyers go with stick because “it makes it like they’re buying their poster car,” while some older buyers “are happy they can still buy a car that lets them drive with a six-speed manual, ‘the way you’re supposed to.’”