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. What better time than now to take a look back at the history of the most popular model in VW's lineup?

Before we get into the history of the Jetta, it may be a good idea to talk about where the Jetta lands in the bigger automotive picture. As we skid into 2018, SUVs rule the land. While the simple and economical entry-level sedan is VW's highest volume model, there's evidence that the all-new Tiguan and an upcoming smaller-than-Tiguan trucklet could overtake the Jetta in the near future as the volume leader. But for now, VW has a lot riding on this all-new sedan.

While it has never been as popular elsewhere in the world, North American buyers gobble up this sensible car with European roots. Recently Volkswagen's German execs have stated that the Jetta is 'the cool car for young Americans.' This mention could be telling: their quiet pride could foreshadow an exciting new chapter for this popular model. We'll see in mid-January when the car is unveiled in Detroit. Until then, enjoy this series on the history of the Volkswagen Jetta.

MKI Jetta 1979 - 1984
The 1970s were a tumultuous time for the automobile. The oil crisis of 1973 had manufacturers scrambling to make more efficient cars. The gas shortage coupled with emissions restrictions caused all automakers to completely revamp their product lines. The land barges and muscle cars of earlier times were soon to be extinct as smaller imported cars became more popular. Cars like the VW Golf--or, as it was known here, the Rabbit. This front wheel drive hatchback brought Volkswagen into the modern era. Buyers snatched them up for their economy, quality, practicality, and lively driving experience.

With the successful launch of the Rabbit, Volkswagen wanted to expand its lineup to attract additional buyers. It turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Italian designer who created the Golf, to also come up with a sensible sedan. His solution was simple: weld a trunk onto the back of the Golf. The Jetta was born. Production of this upscale model started in 1979.


The MKI Jetta and its hatchback sibling shared almost all parts from the C pillar forward: doors, fenders, hood, engine and mechanicals, and all interior bits. Some sedan-specific bits included the four sealed-beam headlights, unique grille, and some body trim. Inside, the Jetta was more luxurious than the Golf: it came standard with cloth interior and full carpeting. And don't forget, it had a large trunk . This first generation Jetta came in both a 2 door and 4 door sedan, and both gas and diesel engines were available.

In 1984 Volkswagen introduced the Jetta GLI ; a GTI with a trunk. The GLI was perfect for buyers who wanted performance, but also needed four doors. This little sports sedan had many of the same features of the hatchback; the more powerful 1.8L 90 HP engine, sport-tuned suspension, wide alloy wheels with upgraded tires, a standard 5-speed close-ratio manual transmission, and a number of other bits. It was a lively little bugger.

While the MKI Golf sold like gangbusters, its sedan sibling wasn't quite as popular. That could be blamed on hatchbacks being the fashionable car of the time, or it could be because the Jetta was only on the market for four years so it was a 'new' model in most people's eyes. For whatever the reason, the North American market didn't sit up and take notice of this car in its first iteration. That would come with the all-new, larger, 1985 model.

And you can read all about that model next week when we take a look back at the Mk2 Jetta.