Model Rewind: The Jetta, MK4

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, MK2, and MK3 models, so let’s take a look at the fourth generation: the MK4.

By the end of the MK3 era, Volkswagen’s sales in North America started to improve. As we noted in the last installment, the third iteration of this humble sedan really started to change VW’s fortunes here in the states. While past versions of the Jetta played it relatively safe with each redesign, the fourth iteration is pretty radical by Volkswagen standards. This departure rests on the shoulders of the Volkswagen Group Chairman of the Board, Ferdinand Piech. In 1993 he took on a company months away from declaring bankruptcy. As Chairman, he made two key decision that ensured the Jetta’s continued success: move Volkswagen (and Audi) upmarket, and build a key vehicle, the New Beetle.

The all-new, front engine, front wheel drive New Beetle premiered in 1998 and was an instant hit. The New Beetle brought people in to dealerships, and they drove off in Jettas, Passats, and Golfs. When it premiered in 1999, the bauhaus-inspired styling of the MK4 Jetta was crisp and modern. The interiors were plush and luxurious. Engineers peppered the car with Piech’s “surprise and delight” features. Items like full size spare tires, dampened grab handles and glove box doors, blue and red interior lights, and “soft touch” plastics helped elevate the Jetta to something a little more special than entry level.

Clearly the new sedan was a step up from the old one. The fourth gen model also started to step away from its platform sibling, the Golf. The sedan no longer shared rear doors with the hatchback and the car was entirely different from the B-pillar back. The front fascia of the Jetta was entirely different as well, moving the two models further apart.

The MK4 model was available in numerous trim and engine combinations. Buyers could choose from the 2.0L four cylinder engine, the turbo diesel four cylinder, the narrow-angle VR6, and later the 1.8L turbo (the “nevah-lose”). Trim levels ran from standard Jetta, Jetta GL, Jetta GLS, up to the Jetta GLX. The various trim levels could be had with a selection of the different engines, so a customer could buy a GLS with either the 2.0L, the TDI, or the 1.8T.

As with the other generations, Volkswagen also offered the performance oriented Jetta GLI. Through the bulk of the model run, the GLI had the torquey VR6 engine mated to a manual six speed transmission. In 2004, the MK4 Jetta’s last model year, Volkswagen brought out an entirely refreshed Jetta GLI. The MK4.5 GLI, as it came to be known, had a whole slew of new equipment: the 1.8T engine was standard and mated to the six speed manual. Outside the GLI had 18″ genuine BBS wheels, sport springs, lower body kit, red “GLI” badging, and new paint colors. Inside there were new Recaro seats, additional stainless steel dash trim, and a black headliner. It is quite the looker.

While the Jetta helped VW reach new sales records, it wasn’t without complications. The “upscale” Jettas were not without their problems. The electrical systems could be finicky: light bulbs would blow, key fobs that stopped working, and trunk lids that wouldn’t pop open. The “soft touch” plastics were especially fragile: interior door handles began peeling within months of purchase. And let’s not forget the forever failing window regulators. Many service departments weren’t ready to handle the new repair volume, leaving customers without their car for days (or even weeks). Sadly, the MK4 Jetta brought many people into the brand, but the repair issues also turned them away from it.

Fortunately, Volkswagen had an all-new, greatly improved Jetta waiting in the wings. Next week we’ll cover the MK5 model.