The cars we loved.
The Jetta had gradually become VW’s most successful car sense its introduction in 1979. Boxy, disjointed looking and ugly, the Jetta had evolved into a proper mid-sized 5 passenger sedan by the introduction of the 4th generation car in late 1998. As with the previous generation, quality control snags delayed the all out distribution of the car in North America. Volkswagen’s plant in Mexico was the culprit. The old angular “three box” design gave way to a flowing and more aerodynamic shape that had fat a, b and c pillars, making the car appear simple, but substantial. A wagon was offered late in the model run in 2001, but there was never a two door as had been the case with earlier Jettas. The new public was receptive and the Jetta’s sales continued on an upward rise, despite being the most expensive car in the entry/mid level compact sedan segment. For the price, the Jetta offered such luxuries as rain sensing wipers, moon roofs, 17” rims (on VR6 and 1.8T models) and a comfortable upscale interior with leather seats and power everything.
Buyers had no other options if they wanted a small German (or in our case Mexican) built sports sedan. The automotive press seemed to approve as well, calling the Jetta a comfortable and competent handler. How competent depended on which of the four trim levels you chose. There were no less than four engine and transmission options available. The most economical (although its gas mileage was surprisingly low) was the base with VW’s tried and true 2.0 L 4. The most interesting of these were 1.8T and VR6 powered cars.
The 1.8 L turbocharged four made 150 hp and offered a good compromise between power and efficiency. The car was praised for its low end torque and lack of turbo lag (the most low end torque was available in the Turbo Diesel). The suspension was a little on the soft side, as with many Jettas from this generation. The VR6 engine, available in GLX and GLX trim levels used one of VW’s most advanced 6 cylinder engines with a V configuration, especially designed for the transverse front wheel drive configuration of the Jetta (and other VWs). At 2.8 L, the high revving VR6 produced 174 hp at the expense of fuel economy. All VR6 endowed models featured a firmer sports suspension and often had sportier leather interiors.
Volkswagen tried staying true to its roots of producing fun to drive sporty and efficient cars, but the 4 generation Jetta marked a departure from that basic premises. With quality being still being an issue and sales beginning to decline as Japanese compact sedans stepped up their game and desirability, the Jetta suddenly had to work harder to command its higher price. A larger and more refined fifth generation car was introduced in 2001, while the previous car was still in production in some parts of the world where it was enormously popular like Mexico and China. In fact, a version of the Jetta called the Bora was China’s bestselling car for years until it was dethroned recently by a Buick – yeah a Buick of all cars.
If you’re interested in finding a good 99-01 Jetta, start with the 1.8T models. They offer the best overall compromise between performance and economy, but may be difficult to find un- molested by would be tuners. The VR6 is a less commonly available choice, but it too can be the victim of tuners (if a strictly stock car is what you’re looking for), but it’s high as new price may have prevented all but the most well heeled modifiers from spoiling it yet. Jettas of this era were not immune to quality control issues, so insist on one with repair and maintance records, otherwise you might be sorry later, as most German cars are not as forgiving with maintained issues as their Japanese and to some extent American counterparts.