Volkswagen's Jetta launched in 1979 as something of an afterthought: a Golf with a conventional trunk tacked on, and bespoke front-end styling. Raising the trunk for the Mk2 model in 1984 made the Jetta seem more of a model in its own right. VW, which studiously ignored domestic cars in its product comparisons, pitched it as something of a budget BMW for the import-oriented: German feel for less money, and a fun alternative to the Japanese.
Through the '90s, Jetta became a very popular car among young drivers, helped along by a GLX model whose VR6 engine gave it snappy throttle response and sixty miles per hour from rest in seven seconds. In a well-timed co-branding effort, the 1996 Jetta Trek came with a 21-speed, limited-edition Trek mountain bike and an all-purpose roof rack.
Legions of Gen Y drivers flocked to Volkswagen, lured by the fun image the company projected in its cheeky "Drivers Wanted" advertising. Although Volkswagen did not market directly to teens, many of its models from this era wound up being bought later by teens after getting their driver's license.
Marketing tactics that work with Generation Y are funny, unpretentious, and often confusing to older customers. Gen Y gravitates toward ads that are irreverent, creative, and involved in the generation's lifestyle. Volkswagen nailed it with "Da Da Da" (1997), in which two guys drive around aimlessly in a Jetta to background music of the German new wave band Trio.
As with Seinfeld, there was a certain novelty about a commercial that, despite its humor, went nowhere. That the song dated to 1982 proved no obstacle.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to Americans, many Europeans considered (and still consider) the Jetta a car for senior citizens. In Europe, the trunk is a symbol of stodginess; a hatchback is more hip. The Jetta has alternately been called Vento and Bora in Europe, where Volkswagen has repeatedly tried to reinvigorate the car's image.
Jetta Mk4, introduced in late 1998, refined the car with class-leading interior materials and a cluster bathed in blue and red light. Bolstered by the image boost of the New Beetle, it remained Volkswagen's top seller in the U.S.
By 2005, however, the Jetta was proving too small for many twenty- and thirtysomething car buyers who had shifted from single life to parenthood. Reviewers faulted Jetta Mk5 for its loss of German character, particularly in its less distinctive design.
Today, Volkswagen likes to say that there has never been a Jetta so large or independent. Indeed, Jetta Mk6 shares no panels with the Golf on which it is based. It is, however, quite conservative; perhaps even bland. Volkswagen may have bet that younger buyers are not looking to be hip or cutting edge; they just want to look a little more grown up.
Roll on Jetta Mk7, due soon.