Model Rewind: The Jetta, MK3

We’re a few weeks away from seeing Volkswagen’s most important model for the North American market: the entirely new MQB-based Mk7 Jetta. We’ve already covered the MK1 and MK2 models, so let’s take a look at the third generation Jetta: the Mk3.

While the first-gen model introduced North America to the small German sedan, and the second gen Jetta caught more buyer’s eyes, the third generation shall go down in history as the car that kept Volkswagen from leaving the market entirely. The late 80s and early 90s were difficult for the company. The MK2 Jetta, while successful, was quite old. A mild update in 1990 couldn’t hide the aging architecture. Its competition had continued to advance and the little sedan could not keep up. Exchange rates at the time didn’t help either. Sales dipped to a low not seen since the 1950s. The car company that had introduced Americans to high quality, low-cost foreign cars was now barely staying afloat.

When Volkswagen introduced the MK3 Jetta in 1993, buyers took notice. The styling was fresh and modern, yet easily identified as a Jetta. It was the first and only Jetta that wore its generation right on its trunk: JettaIII. The more rounded exterior still had upright and formal proportions, giving the car a more upscale design that avoided the “used bar of soap” styling of the era. Much like the exterior, the inside of the car had a fresh design with high-quality plastics, premium seat upholstery, and optional leather. The large windows and traditional upright seating position made for a bright and airy cabin.

The Jetta had three available engines: the standard 2.0L inline four-cylinder, the 1.9L turbo diesel, and the powerful 2.8L VR6 engine. The standard engine was more than adequate in the lightweight (by today’s standards) car. The turbo diesel returned phenomenal fuel economy. But the car that got the most attention was the all-new narrow-angle V6 engine. The Jetta GLX replaced the GLI as Volkswagen’s entry-level sports sedan. Magazines praised the power and the luxurious appointments of the GLX. All Jettas received compliments on their lively handling and buttoned-down German feel.

The MK3 Jetta also moved the model forward in technology and safety. Volkswagen made the car more environmentally friendly: non-CFC refrigerant for the A/C system, paint free of heavy metals, and recycled plastics. One other big change for 1993: airbags were finally installed. The addition of these life-saving devices did come with a price: the elimination of the glove compartment. While a glove compartment was added later (it was integrated into the knee bar), the lack of a proper glovebox was a typical complaint. There is one more new Jetta feature Americans especially loved: cupholders.

Volkswagen was also able to bring down the price on the Jetta. It moved production from Germany to Puebla Mexico. This shift in location had three benefits: lower labor expenses, lessened exchange rate issues, and reduced transportation costs. This shift was not without growing pains: some early production issues caused delays in delivery of early cars. And some owners had increased service visits because of various issues.

During its five year run, the JettaIII spawned a number of limited edition models. There was a sporty GT model with styling elements from the GLX, but with the 2.0L engine. The Jetta Trek came with a roof rack and Volkswagen-badged Trek mountain bike. There was also a high-content Wolfsburg edition.

The MK3 Jetta was a turning point for Volkswagen. It not only cemented the popularity of the model, it also cemented Volkswagen’s place in our market. So whether you like the Jetta or not, if you’re a Volkswagen enthusiast, raise your glass to the model that helped keep the company on our shores.

Join us after the Holidays when we take a look at the generation that changed everything for the Jetta: the MK4.