Model Rewind: The Jetta, MK6

Here it is folks, the final installment. We’re only days away from seeing Volkswagen’s most important model for the North American market: the entirely new MQB-based MK7 Jetta. We’ve now covered the MK1, MK2, MK3, MK4, and MK5 models, so let’s take a look at the current generation: the MK6.

As we’ve documented in this series, the pendulum of change has swung widely for the Jetta. The MK1 was German simplicity and efficiency in a sedan shape. The MK2 brought the car into the compact category and buyers took notice. The MK3 was the German alternative to small Japanese cars. The MK4 was the stylish and youthful model. The MK5 was upscale and refined. But with the sixth generation, the pendulum swung wildly yet again. This one is the “mainstream” Jetta.

When it debuted in 2011, it was quickly apparent that Volkswagen had abandoned their march upmarket. Their new goal: volume. While they are Europe’s most popular manufacturer, they lag well behind others in North America. The MK6 Jetta and the B7 Passat aimed to change all that. Designed with American car buyer’s tastes in mind, the engineers and product planners took aim squarely at the key players in this segment: the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic. The MK6 attacks both these models in a few key ways: price, space, and features.

To compete with the Japanese on price, Volkswagen made a more basic Jetta. To start, it was engineered to be assembled faster, which reduces manufacturing and labor costs. Expensive parts were simplified or eliminated entirely. The most noticeable in the early models was the return of the torsion beam rear suspension (the multi-link suspension came back later). It should be noted that most car magazine’s found the torsion beam to be more than acceptable in the MK6 Jetta. Enthusiasts, however, wailed at the change. Oddly enough, the torsion beam rear is returning on the MK7; it’s the zombie suspension that won’t die.

Engineers virtually eliminated the soft-touch plastics in the MK6 to save additional money. When talking about the dashboard, Car and Driver noted “the new model has hard plastic that wouldn’t look too out of place in a Chrysler Sebring.” Oof. It’s interesting to note that Volkswagen’s lead the market in interior finishes and caused the entire industry to improve. With the new Jetta, they took a major step back in interior quality.

One last item that must be noted in the search for increased volume was the return of the “2.slow” engine. This little workhorse of a motor, the nearly indestructible 2.0L four cylinder with its 115 horsepower, became the base engine once again. We could continue with other downgrades (rear drum brakes on base models, gooseneck trunk hinges, the bordering-on-generic styling, etc.), but there are some real bright spots to counter all this “mainstream-ness.”

First, there’s price. The 2011 Jetta started at $15,995; quite aggressive in the compact category. Very well equipped SEL models rang in around $25,000. Buyers could option MK5 models into the $30,000’s, so the lower prices brought in a lot more buyers. Another bright spot: manual transmissions. While many manufacturers move away from clutched transmissions, Volkswagen knows there are buyers that want to row their own. They’ve even stated the MK7 will be available in a manual right from the start. Power is a bright spot too: both the 5 cylinder and 1.8T engines got generous marks for torque from journalists. One last bright spot: room. The MK6 Jetta rides on a long wheelbase and the back seat is gigantic. Young families praise the ability to easily fit a car seat in the back.

Volkswagen tweaked the MK6 many times between 2011 and today. They dropped the 2.5L 5 cylinder engine and replaced it with an all-new 1.8 liter turbocharged motor. A new 1.4L TSI engine became the base engine; reviewers praise its smooth power delivery and generous torque. Most recently, the front and rear fascias got a small facelift that added a bit of style. Apple CarPlay is standard on most Jetta trim levels. The GLI sports sedan with the 2.0T engine continues to be the halo model of Jetta lineup. Volkswagen even offered a Jetta Hybrid for a few years as well as TDI models. From all the changes, the current Jetta is a vastly different car than the first MK6 models.

But the biggest bright spot for the MK6 Jetta was the thing Volkswagen wanted all along: sales. The Jetta was the 17th most popular vehicle in the United States in 2011. Year-over-year sales improved nearly 44% over the MK5. The MK6 outsold the Ford Focus, the Chevy Silverado, and even the Toyota RAV4. And while they didn’t reach Civic (#12 with 221,235 cars sold) or Corolla (#9, 240,259 sold) volume, they made a huge leap forward. Remember: high volume equals high profit, and high profit means funds for cool projects. Like more R models, for instance.

So in a matter of hours, we’ll see how pendulum swings for the next Jetta. Early reports indicate this could be the “technology” Jetta with features like the digital cockpit and a large touchscreen in the dash. From spy shots and camoflaged preproduction models, it appears style will make a comeback with the new model as well. And VW North America Region CEO Hinrich Woebcken has promised VWVortex directly that we’ll see manual transmissions right from the start, and an all-new GLI within a year.

You can watch the reveal of the MK7 Jetta on Sunday, January 14, at 8pm EST, HERE.