Model Rewind: The Jetta, MKV

We’re less than a week 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, MK3, and MK4 models, so let’s take a look at the fifth generation: the MK5.

Volkswagen was faced with a problem in the early 2000’s. Their model lineup was the envy of the industry. It was regarded as one of the hippest automotive brands in North America. Not only was the sheet metal fresh, distinctive, and upscale, their marketing was some of the most inventive and memorable. But the durability of their cars, however, was a bit lacking. Young buyers raised on bulletproof Japanese sedans weren’t prepared for the higher maintenance costs of a German car. When their loans were up, they moved on to new marques. Hopes were high when the MK5 Jetta premiered at the North American International Auto Show in 2005 (only the second VW to make its world debut in Detroit, the first being the New Beetle) that the sedan would change the company’s direction.

The fifth generation Jetta is almost a 180-degree departure from the fourth gen. It continues the basic lineage of the model: a front engine, front wheel drive, five-passenger sensible European sedan. But it also takes more than a couple radical departures from the previous generations. If each generation had a personality, the MK5 Jetta would be “the mature one.” If the MK4 was young and hip, the MK5 is the ready-to-settle-down-and-start-a-family model. The commercials have the appropriate tagline “The new Jetta: all grown up. Sort of.” The intent was that the Jetta could grow and mature with the young buyers. An interesting concept.

The mature MK5 has many welcome improvements. The entire electrical system is brand-new and much less prone to failure. For the first time, a fully independent multi-link suspension is added to all Jettas, regardless of price. The new suspension greatly improved the fun-to-drive factor that all Jettas have been praised for. The interior materials are improved, as are interior fit and finish. The stretched wheelbase gives the car a much roomier backseat. Electro-mechanical steering that uses electric motors replaces the hydraulic systems. And the standard 5 cylinder engine kicks the underpowered 2.0 engine to the curb.

Engineers worked hard to ensure excellent crash safety. The Jetta has a 5-star side-impact rating from NHTSA. Volkswagen used these facts in the popular “Safe Happens” ad campaign. The MK5 even brings some tech from Volkswagen’s Phaeton uber-sedan: cooled glove compartments and center armrest bins, rubber lined trays, silicon-damped switches, and even a simplified version of the ‘draft free’ HVAC system where the air could be pushed out the upper section of the center console.

In addition to the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine, an all-new direct injection 2.0 turbocharged engine is available, and later a 1.9-liter turbo diesel, then a 2.0-liter turbodiesel found their way into the cars. The 2.0T was a gamechanger for Volkswagen. This engine replaces the VR6 in the top of the line cars. It also powers the GLI sports sedan, which premiered in 2006. In addition to the blown engine, the GLI features a sports suspension, larger roll bars, a six speed manual or an all-new twin-clutch DSG transmission, blacked out grille, lower body kit, large alloy wheels, heavily bolstered sports seats, and an incredible flat-bottom steering wheel. For all intents and purposes, the GLI is a poor man’s Audi A4 FrontTrak. Oh, and the GLI marked the return of the red stripe in the grille; a nice nod to tradition.

Despite all this, the Jetta was met with a fair amount of criticism. Fans lamented the styling. The MK5 abandoned the taut and purposeful Bauhaus-like styling in favor of something a bit more…Japanese. The MK5 is a much more curvaceous design, and many fans pointed out similarities between it and a certain Toyota sedan. The new Jetta also had a lot more chrome brightwork, most notable being the shield grille. The available paint colors were a bit sedate: “White, five shades of grey, black, and a dark blue” was more than once mentioned in our forums. Finally, the five-cylinder engine is just a little too quirky for American buyers. Yes, the VW group has offered a form of the five-cylinder engine since the ’80s, but mainstream buyers find it a bit coarse, and a tad thirsty.

So while the pendulum swung towards durability and quality with this model, it swung away from stylish and youthful. This is not a bad trade-off. During its model run through 2011, Volkswagen played around quite a bit with the MK5. In addition to the GLI, they offered a limited edition bright yellow “Fahrenheit” GLI, a Jetta TDI Street Cup limited edition, and a slew of Wolfsburg Edition models, some with a blacked out front grille. Not to mention the Jetta Sportwagen that arrived in 2009.

In their pursuit of moving the brand upmarket, the MK5 is a major piece in that puzzle. But the MK5 proved expensive to build, and the car didn’t sell in the volumes that would make Volkswagen a major competitor in North America. To get the brand where they wanted, the Jetta pendulum was about to swing again. This time in a more extreme direction.