By on January 21, 2013

Did you see an instant classic at last week’s Detroit Auto Show?  Maybe that new Stingray. And hearing that the first C7 Vette was on the auction block to support the College for Creative Studies made me a little proud of my former school, too.  But, aside from the always nerve-racking bus ride between CCS and Cobo Hall, my “instant classic” moment from the (1999) NAIAS was the introduction of the MK IV Jetta.  All of a sudden I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Jettas, especially a silver one in the lower hall of Cobo. And time hasn’t changed my opinion…aside from making it more extreme.


14 years later, the MK IV Jetta is still the best looking of the breed.  I sampled this from our old friend Captain Mike Solo, who apparently has a thing for VAG products.   Driving this Jetta around made me feel far superior to the current (MK VI) Jetta, and like a God among Men compared to the MK V. Just park one of these next to one of those.

How many cut lines do you see?  Not many. Because so many cut lines originate from the headlights and most are parallel to the strong grille lines, there might as well be none.  Well, at least compared to so many busy designs from the past 20 years.


The MK IV Jetta has a certain “1970s-80s clean wedge” theme about it…without being a boring wedge. Utilizing “modern” plastic casting technology for the bumpers and headlights, there is the ability to add a flair of curves and circles not seen back then.  But real subtle, never showy. This is perhaps the best of both worlds: a specific design aesthetic adapted to make a new look for a new era.


Note how the base of the headlight sweeps upward, complementing the shape of the bumper, forming the beginning of the fenders and the end of the hood’s horizontal cut line.  The “J” theme presented here is certainly the most distinctive element of the MK IV Jetta.  And damn, it’s so frickin’ beautiful.


Transposed “J” theme.  The body color grille doesn’t take away from the theme, and the power bulge in the hood is a natural extension: filling out the “shelf” of the bumper in the center. There’s another important design concept presented here: surface tension.  Never flabby or overwrought, the Jetta has acres of surface tension in its mid-sized body.


I like round headlight themes confined to square-ish headlights.  It adds excitement, without making a front end look like some sort of goofy creature with roundish, amoeba-ish eyes.  If it had the MK V’s cool VW logo in the headlight’s reflector cap, it would make the MK V Corolla Jetta a wholly extraneous design in the history of the Jetta.  Well, maybe not.


I never liked the emblem butting into the hood’s cut line.  I always wanted it straight up there, doing that with the bumper instead.  This looks like a wart, while my suggestion would be cute and cheeky.  But VW certainly doesn’t agree: this theme continued into the next two generations.  Oh well, can’t win ’em all. Or any of them.


What do you think of the hood’s little circle of discontent? But the grille slats are very Mercedes SL like. Which is cool.


The strong parallel lines are most obvious down below. But even more surprising, the grilles look surprisingly multi-layered and expensive.  Not like the cheapy one piece units found on many cheap sedans…or the fog light assembly of the Cadillac CTS-V coupe.



The clean lines continue all the way to the front wheel. I like how the flat black lower trim visually thins the bumper.


The clean, parallel rub strip incorporates a marker light that bends and ends as a perfect compliment to the rub strip. Clean.


The “J” theme looks fantastic as you walk around the fender.  While Saturn already did this with the 1996 SL, the bumper’s cut line and gap size makes this a far nicer implementation.  And Ford aped this with their 2005 Focus…and failed.  The Jetta’s tight panel gaps and bullet like shaping trumps ’em both.


Acres of surface tension on the hood. Note the warpage of the building’s reflection on the domed hood.  Combined with the neatly tucked away plastic cowl trim, this is such a beautifully modern and minimal design.


The base wheels are a snooze, especially how the plump spokes meet the rim.  The double-5 spoke 17″ wheels available from this era (on the VR6 model?) really added punch to the entire design.


The complex reflector design of the side marker light is hip and Euro: no wonder so many moderately aspirational people (i.e. Sorority Girls) flocked to the design.


This quirky mirror mount proves the Germans have a good sense of humor.  Not that I am laughing, I merely applaud a good zinger within a subtle statement.  Well done.


Functional and nicely tucked away door handles.  The negative area doesn’t try to impart a sense of style, it just does the job.  Which is beautiful in itself.


Wrap around door pillars need to make a comeback, even if they are harder to seal or assemble…or something.  With it, the fender, hood and A-pillar blend seamlessly (well, except for the two modest cut lines) into a green house with no non-functional plastic triangle of DLO FAIL. (daylight opening) Instead of the FAIL, there’s a cute little footprint for a sleek side view mirror. While the newest Jetta is by no means hideous from this angle, it isn’t this beautiful.

This car is a modern classic, people.  Stop and stare at one soon.


While this shot exaggerates the size of the greenhouse, there’s so much unfettered space here.  It’s delightful considering the submarine stance of most new sedans, even the latest Jetta.


Such a clean and strong B-pillar. The canted cut line looks both fast and solid at the same time.  And while newer Jettas try to hide this pillar with blackout trim, the MK IV makes it a significant styling statement.  It’s refreshing, because it doesn’t look cheap…even if it is.

Sometimes less is more…see???


The fixed rear window is necessary on the rear door, but VW wisely made the black trim hiding the runner (for the not-fixed window) as small as possible.  Apparently it needs to be a touch wider at the bottom.  Instead of fattening up the whole part, there’s a clever line added to keep your eyes on the slim and tall part, not the fatter part at the bottom.  It works, even though I have mixed feelings about that line…maybe the runner would look slender enough without it.


That’s a lot of glass.  And there’s no fake window/black plastic triangle giving the illusion that the Jetta is sleeker.  Instead, a big ass fixed window.  It looks fantastic.  Any day without the triangle of DLO FAIL is a good day.


I adore a rear door (get it?) that wraps up and over the area above the wheel arch.  It looks curvy, like the hip of a beautiful woman.  Problem is, it makes for a gigantic fixed window (or aforementioned DLO FAIL) as the moving window can’t roll down into the tire. And some people think this design makes it difficult to get in/out of a car.


I beg to differ.  While this vintage Jetta’s door is smaller than the “less sleek door” of the current model, one must remember to aim their head for the center of the interior, even if there’s a temptation to slide towards the back?  And the door makes for a good weapon, as it’s far “pointier” than a blocky door. Which isn’t a problem on the new model, but it’s also stodgy…and this is sleek.


This is just a gorgeous family sedan.  Perfect front-wheel drive proportioning and enough space for 5 non-American adults. Every line in its place, simple and pure.  Also note the low belt line where the glass and sheet metal meet.  This means that visibility is quite good in the Jetta…even with that tall and blocky butt.


Even the door molding is thin and sleek.  More parallel lines to boot.  Just a pretty design!


As mentioned two pictures ago, the green house is low and provides fantastic views of your world.  It’s in stark contrast to the short and fast rear window, which is commonplace in today’s vehicles.  This dichotomy is a blend of past and present.  It’s a fantastic transition, I believe it shows the evolution of passenger car design.  And, for the love of all that’s right with car design, it needs to come back to we can have our visibility again!


More clean cut lines around back, and there’s something unique about the tail light texture.  More on that later.


While everything is sleek and rakish elsewhere, the Jetta’s rear is tall and blocky.  Not a bad thing, if you actually use a sedan to carry people and their crap. There is still, like the front end, plenty of surface tension on this boxy butt: the crease above the license plate, the gentle curves of the bumper and the top of the trunk.  And, as always, the normal looking rub strip on the bumper is much appreciated.  Two things are still outstanding: the tail lights…and something else? Yup, the lack of a flashy tail pipe.  Who cares about pipes on a family sedan with such nice lines?  Much like the butt of the (C4) 1984 Corvette, the turn-down pipes make the exhaust essentially invisible to the casual observer, which is very cool for some designs.  Designs with C4 or MK IV Jetta levels of cleanliness deserve turn-down exhausts.


The extra trunk line (of surface tension) starts logically where the signal lights (within the entire lighting cluster) end.  There is plenty of tumblehome in the roofline, making the Jetta’s body look quite sleek for a small-ish sedan.

The MK IV’s trademark rooftop whip antenna is adorable and annoying at the same time.  Like Mr. T’s mohawk, this is an authoritative statement that also leaves the body sides uncluttered. According to the Wikipedia article on this car, there are aerodynamic advantages here too.  Which makes sense, even if I dropped out of Fluid Dynamics in college…to pursue a car design degree at CCS.  Oh boy, let’s move on to a new subject.


Okay, here’s the big thing about the taillights.  As Capt. Mike mentioned, VW went waaay out of their way to blend all the lighting elements into one form.  The yellow signal lights?  They are striped with red bands. The back up lights?  Tinted a purple-ish color.  Added to this car’s red paint, and the lenses are essentially invisible.

Which is so damn cool.  And musta cost a pretty penny too.  Too bad these tail lights didn’t make it to term with the rest of the MK IV Jetta: the clear bits added to the later lenses are likely a cost-cutting measure masked as a “product redesign.”  Or maybe I’m too much of a cynic.  Whatever.


Another cool detail: dat trunk lock cylinder.  Not resorting to an expensive sliding cover, the MK IV Jetta simply slides the lock within a perfectly sized Vee-Dub logo with black paint in the negative areas.  Damn son…THAT IS SHARP.



While not the MK IV Jetta’s finishing touch, the gas cap is a good ending to this article.  It has a logical location and remains relatively flat (not smeared on a fender flare) and purely functional.  Good design never dies, it only gets better.

The sad reality is these Jettas are far from good cars as they age: expensive and difficult to repair when fully depreciated. And now I see far too many of them in the junkyard.  Which saddens me, much like my shattered dreams as a CCS student dreaming of his career at the NAIAS many moons ago.  But that’s life, and that’s Vellum Venom.

Thank you for reading, I hope you have a wonderful week.

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74 Comments on “Vellum Venom: 2003 Volkswagen Jetta (MK IV)...”

  • avatar

    You made me miss my Mk IV 1.8T Wagon all over again. They have their issues to be sure, but I always thought these were good looking cars,especially in the higher trim levels. Not a ground breaking design, but certainly one of the more attractive cars, inside and out, when they appeared in 99.

    The 5 spoke wheels were available on with the Sport package, I think. I know because my car had every option, except I bought it used and the previous owner kept the wheels, leaving me with steelies and snow tires. Which worked for me. A quick trip to Tire Rack and I found some alloys that looked pretty close to the base wheels pictured, with a bit more flair and decent tires.

  • avatar

    Hmmmm, mentions C7 to draw me in.
    Clever ploy.

    The modern styling of this care reminds me of (dare I say it) the Dodge Stratus, which I also admire. If you squint at the profile shot on this Jetta, you can see the cloud car appear.

  • avatar

    I had one of these back in the day. A Wolfsburg Edition. Which, as near as I can remember, meant that it sported a badge proclaiming as much, plus a set of expensive wheels. Back then, VW offered a half dozen wheel options for each model. It was what the people wanted.

    I seem to recall a model that came with a bicycle on the roof. I won’t make any jokes about what that one was about.

    • 0 avatar
      A Caving Ape

      I had one of these too! The wheels were sharp, and I’m pretty sure that it came with slightly stiffer suspension. I drove a TDI the other day and it was much more floppy than I remember mine being. Could have just been the weight of that diesel, though.

  • avatar

    IMHO, the MKIV Jetta was just a poor-mans copy of the B5 Passat (which preceded that Jetta by a couple of years.) The Passat put essentially that same fine styling on top of a stretched Audi A4. (vs. shoehorning it onto a Golf.)

    The Passats had their own issues, but weren’t quite as bad, reliability-wise, as the MKIV Jetta. But really both cars got a bad rap because they were part of a resurgence in VW’s sales, and anybody that tried to get them serviced at the same shop they’d been using for years for their Fords and Toyotas was in for a rude surprise… it’s not that they were hard to service, just different (and punishing if you screwed it up.) If you got it serviced consistently at a decent Euro shop, they were pretty decent cars to own. They weren’t exactly Toyota-like reliable, but no worse than your average domestic product of that vintage.

    Not that VW’s rather pathetic dealer network helped much… during the Dark Years, VW wasn’t exactly picky, and they never weeded out the rather lackluster dealers they accumulated at the time.

    • 0 avatar
      James Courteau

      I got my Jetta serviced at a good Euro shop and it still took a crap with such regularity that I started to think I’d been feeding it Metamucil. These cars never wear out, they just break. One day the car is perfect, the next day its not drivable.

  • avatar

    These were complete junk when new and are even junkier now. An ex-coworker had a 2001 back in 2005 and she put tons of money into it. Even sunvisors broke because the swivel arm was made of cheap brittle plastic. My Integra of similar vintage (2000) was a much more quality car in comparison. It’s after looking at her Jetta I realized I wouldn’t touch VW with a 10-foot-pole.

    • 0 avatar

      My in-laws have a 2000 model 2.0, bought new. So far they have only done maintenance and replaced normal wear items. It’s low mileage for its age, but still doing very well for a 12-year-old car.

      • 0 avatar

        I had my Mk IV Golf for six years and 100,000 miles. In that time I had one warranty repair, otherwise just wear items. Least maintenance intensive car I’ve ever owned, including a Camry. Slow as Christmas (2.0) and got muscle car MPG (19 mpg combined) but a great little car around town.

        Granted, my best friend had a 2003 Passat around the same time. Spent more repairing that car in two years than my total repair & maintenance expenses in the last 15 years, excluding oil changes.

    • 0 avatar

      You know, I don’t jump into every Acura discussion and crap all over the party. I just go on to another topic. This story isn’t about the quality of interior parts, it’s about exterior styling. So your contribution is out of sync, syncromesh.

      • 0 avatar

        I owned a Mark IV Jetta TDI. It was crap. Beautiful crap. And fun to drive, when it ran. It remains one of my favorite cars ever, despite the fact that it was one of the worst cars (in terms of practical/reliable transportation) that I ever owned.

        This car can be, and is, both beautiful work of art and a horrendous piece of shit.

        If anyone puts this Jetta skin on a diesel or hybrid powered Corolla, I will swoon. But I already own a Prius.

      • 0 avatar

        My wife is still driving her 2000 Jetta TDI (with an automatic 01M!). Just over 180000 miles on it. We’ve owned it for 8 years and she’s put about 90000 miles on in that time. The only unexpected repair was the A/C compressor not long after we bought it. Original starter, original turbo, original injection pump is on it. It’s looking like it’s a 13 year old car, but she still likes it and I still love the design of it 14 years after it debuted in North America. Too bad VW doesn’t sell that body style as a “Jetta classic” (ala GM). As long as routine maintenance is done on it, they’ll last. Her car has been more reliable than my 2003 Jetta since that one ate an injection pump at 111000 miles.

    • 0 avatar

      Junk? Some were, some weren’t. It also depends on the owner. You can’t just “gas n’ go” VWs like you would a Toyota. However, if you just follow the maintenance schedule (oil changes every 10K, fuel filter every 20K (on the TDI), air filter every 30K, and timing belts every 100K), it will last a long time.

      My 2001 Golf (exactly the same car as the Jetta) TDI has over 435K that I’ve put on as the original owner, and still has the original untouched engine, trans, clutch and turbo. The rest of the car is in great shape too, and everything still works. Paint is still shiny and, being in Texas, no rust.

      You don’t have to be obsessive, just follow the recommended schedule and don’t beat the crap out of it and you can make any VW (or any other car for that matter) last almost forever.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep. My 2002 TDI turned over 200k miles last week. Other than occasional DIY intake manifold cleaning (damn EGR!) and a blown seal on the injection pump ($90) it has been largely trouble-free.

        Wonderful car, and phenomenal fuel economy.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll 2nd Chuck here. My buddy is about to do the 2nd Timing belt on his Mk IV TDI. He also had to do some seals on the fuel system, but he has been running pure biodiesel for 6+ yrs now.

  • avatar
    Freddy M

    Agree 100% Sajeev. The Mk IV was my favourite of all the Jettas, and IMO the best designed compact sedan of its kind at the time, and even today.

    I still see examples of this car driving around town, and think they still look superb, especially when they pull alongside their larger, uglier descendants.

    The sizing and proportions of this car were perfect. Sadly, due to styling trends and the desire for larger cars in general, we will probably never see such a clean, well-proportioned car again.

    • 0 avatar

      Freddy M….

      As Sajeev was describing the design features, I kept thinking about why the E90 BMW appealed to me. By golly, it has many of those same characteristics.

      So maybe the trail blazing provided by the Jetta Mk IV may be reincarnated once in a while; or maybe German sedans in general already show some of that common heritage?


    • 0 avatar

      @Freddy M:

      The other reason we won’t see any more of these cars is because they were maintenance whores. When I owned one, I got f-d every couple of weeks, and then I had to pay a big hairy guy afterwards so that I could do it again….

      And, yet, I kinda miss the car. Everything Sajeev says about it is true – it really was a beautiful car, and the TDI provided more usable torque than anything I’ve owned before or since.

      Mine was blue, with a black and tan leather interior.

  • avatar

    I couldn’t believe how clean looking these were when they came out. This and the Golf IV and the Passat of the same generation, they all looked so incredibly solid and clean. Like they were made out of German spite. “*this* is the way to do it, folks. Now you know.” And I can not believe they haven’t really made anything better since. How hard can it be to up their own game? Or was this the absolute height of German car design?

    My only gripe with the platform is the wheelbase. Considering all the platform sharing of that generation, all from the Audi TT and VW New Beetle to the Jetta and above all, the Skoda Octavia. The problem is the wheelbase looks too short on the larger models. It looks like they wanted to cramp as much car as possible into that little platform. And it shows.

    The execution is wonderful, as you say about the rear door, but it really shows the design would’ve benefitted with a slightly longer wheelbase. On the other hand, car design is all about compromise. And considering the compromises, this is perfection.

    • 0 avatar

      The MQB toolkit solves the wheelbase problem, allowing more flexibility to change it for different models. The Mk4 Jetta’s PQ34 platform wasn’t quite so flexible.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes. You could say that VW re-invented the platform game. At least to me. This generation of VW cars showed that anything is possible, and that it doesn’t have to be a let down to do so. Learning from the mistakes of English and American badge-engineering, the Germans finally showed the way to do it right.

      • 0 avatar

        “wasn’t quite so flexible” is an understatement – the PQ34 basically applied a top-hat approach: the chassis was fixed, but anything on top could be altered, which essentially meant just the sheet metal and interior design.

        MQB is an incredible leap forward. The only fixed point is the front axle to the pedal box, including engine placement. Otherwise the designers and engineers have free reign for everything from mixing and matching materials to suspensions, wheelbases, etc.

        PQ34 was really good at platform engineering, especially for the time, don’t get me wrong. The overall investment and advances we’re going to get with MQB is lightyears better – including the overall quality of components (let’s hope….)

  • avatar

    My first job out of college was working at a very large volume VW dealership in Ohio starting in the summer of 1999. The job lasted about 18 months before I headed off to graduate school, but the memories will last forever, not least of which being the horror show that became the MK IV Jetta.

    Don’t get me wrong: we sold an absolute boatload of silver Jettas (when you’re the biggest in volume you get allocated the color all of the sorostitutes desire: silver), and in September of 1999 I pulled the trigger on a gorgeous black on black 6MT GLS VR6.

    I loved that car – and the only reason I loved it is because I took the advice of my sales manager and purchased an extended warranty to go beyond the pathetic 2 year, 24,000 mile warranty on Veedubs at the time. The other reason I loved the car was because I had a service department at my disposal.

    And booooooy did I take advantage of both of those features. I owned the car until July of 2004 and would bet that if I went back to the warranty company today for a new policy they would deny me due to the fact that they probably paid out well over $10,000 in repairs on that car.

    Great fun, looked good, great marketing behind it…but junk reliability. Within the first year the wheel bearings were replaced (all four!!), the ABS sensor several times over, MAF, several oxygen sensors, the entire ABS unit at one point, several speed sensors, two window regulators and more. The fun continued until a family member offered to send a letter to Volkswagen of America, along with 125 (!!) pages worth of service records. The next day a faxed settlement offer came over – without us even saying anything other than “check out this stack of documents and get back to us.” No threat.

    Volkswagen clearly knew it had a major problem. Sales reflected that and it’s taken them the better part of 11 years to dig themselves out of that hole. This was the era of Jose Ignacio Lopez, executive in charge of procurement – who famously slashed component prices in what appeared to be a miracle of modern business. Well, we all know where that cost cutting REALLY went.

    Things really came to a head during ‘coilpack-gate’around 2001-2002, when a senior executive in Germany famously stated, “it’s not our fault if some components were built on a Monday!”, then proceeded to tell Americans that we don’t appreciate the work that goes into building an automobile. Meanwhile, VW would only replace one failed ‘pack at a time and stories were legion of owners picking up their freshly repaired Jettas, only to have a second or third pack fail as soon as they pulled out of the service department delivery bay.

    I still have a very fond attachment to my old Mk IV – in fact, it was replaced by a Mk IV R32 that was in comparison, completely bullet proof in the time I owned it. Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment, but the deal offered to me on the R32 was too good to pass up.

    There’s a saying in the business: the sales guys can put someone in a car, but the service department makes or breaks your opportunity to sell someone their next car. Combine cruddy customer service with lousy reliability and you have the cookbook for the horror stories we still read every day. Volkswagen has learned a valuable, costly lesson that they are only now making up for. Let’s hope the lesson sticks.

    • 0 avatar

      More reliability distractions, but this time with enough detail to make it interesting. Speaking of Lopez, I recall that the settlement of his employment lawsuit demanded that VW purchase over $1 billion in parts from the plaintiff, GM. That was soon before VW’s reliability reputation took a big fall. I’ve never seen discussion or documentation of this, but it might be interesting to see what company made those window regulators, coilpacks and peeling soft-touch interior bits?

      I’m also wondering why I never had trouble with any of those parts you mentioned while driving three Mk IVs for over 300,000 miles? That’s the magic of small statistical samples, anything can happen.

      • 0 avatar

        Huh, I wasn’t aware of the settlement.

        You’re correct on small statistical samples, but in my 18 months working at the dealership I received enough visits from recent buyers giving me the evil eye as they visited the service department for the n’th time to be pretty confident that the problems were pretty darn widespread.

      • 0 avatar

        I remember that Wheatridger. At the time I had a Mk III GTI VR6 and was very much a VW enthusiast (I later had an A4). I remember wondering what they would be procuring from GM to settle that one. Now I know… Dexcool, and lots of it, rebranded to VW G12. They used that crap on every VW and Audi from the late 90s until 2006. I was reminded of its virtues while flushing the cooling system on my A4 to clean out corroded muck that had settled in the heater core. I also remember the A6 having Onstar for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. The coil issues in 2001 and 2002 were legendary. Everyone I know of that had a late ’00 to ’02 Audi or VW with the 1.8T or VR6 had to have the coils replaced multiple times until they came out with an updated design. The MKIV Jettas and Golfs were great looking cars though. I wanted one badly but ended up riding out the MKIII until 205k miles.

      • 0 avatar

        Everyone who’s ever owned a first year car or truck is aware that it can be ugly. We’d like to think they’ve worked out all the problems, but it’s just not the case. Add in the cost-cutting at VW and it got worse. A shame that the MkIV was not the paragon of quality it could have been, since the MkIV Jetta (and Golf) were probably the best small car in terms of driving experience and value for a long time.

        That being said, my 2004 Jetta was trouble free. I replaced the ignition coils as a precaution (and VW paid me for them). 600 mile roundtrip weekly commute it never left me stranded and was lots of fun on the highway. Couldn’t beat our Accord on mileage, but the Jetta was way more fun. Your R32 was a late MkIV, which would explain the better experience over a 99.

        I had an 01 Focus which was pretty good for a car that also had a shaky start quality-wise. My Dad had an 04 Titan that was in the shop a lot for various items, also a first year vehicle.

      • 0 avatar

        As the former owner of one of these cars, I can assure you that its lack of reliability was a core part of the ownership experience.

        One of the times the automatic transmission failed, I lost both 1st and 2nd gear, so I had to back it over a mile home. I haven’t had a car fail that frequently or that miserably ever. Even my 1989 Ford Tempo could limp home better than that, and that was a domestic from an era when domestics were crap…

        RELIABILITY IS NOT A DISTRACTION!!! And, yes, I am happier driving a Toyota blandmobile, thank you very much. :-)

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I really love this series – it gives a great appreciation as to the thought that goes into design. Very subtle car, this one. The current Jetta wagon also does a pretty good job of keeping it simple IMO.

    Looking forward to the Houston Auto Show this weekend….I plan on going 3 times since I’m in the market and my Asberger’s insists I sit in everything……

  • avatar

    Great looking cars then and now. Though IMHO the MKIV Golf was considerably better, especially in 4dr form. Which only makes sense, as it was VWs bread and butter in the rest of the world. The way the rear door echoed the hatch line was just perfection. I had an ’02 Golf TDI which was pretty much the perfect practical car.

    It is sad that this sort of clean lined car you can see out of is so out of fashion. Bring on the bling, yo!

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    I owned a 2003 Jetta GLS which I later traded for a 2006 Jetta TDI. The Mk. IV was by far the better looking of the two, though the Mk. V had superior build quality. The Mk. V also had a little more interior room. I wish I could have owned a Mk. IV that was made like the Mk. V.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. I have a strong recollection of when the MK V spy shots first made it to the web and the response from the community was: this MUST be a joke.

      Thank God da’Silva put his foot down and corrected the misguided design cues that came in the Mk V Jetta, Eos, Golf, etc. What a let down those were…

  • avatar

    “…The complex reflector design of the side marker light…”

    For the upteemth time, this is NOT called a “side marker light” at all!

    This particular lighting equipment is called “side turn signal repeater”.

    Why do the Americans keep fudging this up for years and years??? Please pay attention to the distinct difference between side marker lights and side turn signal repeaters! And don’t make the same mistake ever again!

  • avatar

    Fine piece of writing, Sahjeev–I am not capable of seeing all these details as a complete picture or understanding how they work together, but your explanation makes sense. All I can tell you is whether or not the car “looks good.” With your eye, it’s a damn shame you’re not designing cars right now.

    • 0 avatar

      I also think this is a fine piece of writing – you do a good job of translating the language of design professionals to a language the ordinary person can understand. We owned a 2000 Jetta for few years, and I always thought it was one of the most handsome cars on the road, in a restrained and classy way. Now I understand why I felt that way – thanks!

      I might also point out that the interior of the MK IV Jetta was also a very nice design. The dash was uncluttered and easy to use, and interior was of a piece and had a well integrated flow from dash to door. Too bad it had the same problems that the rest of the car did in terms of quality – in only a few thousand miles the area around the grab handles looked like an angry dog had chewed on it. If VW could have made that car in a reliable form, they would already be the largest automaker in the world.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you, Scout. One thing to remember: one person can’t style a car. With all the engineering compromises and stresses of being in the creative arts for a profit-hungry corporation in mind, I don’t see myself lasting very long.

      I think I learned that at CCS, even if I don’t want to admit it. Hence, why VV exists instead.

      Thank goodness for TTAC.

  • avatar

    Finally, SM and I are seeing eye to eye. The Mk. IV VWs always have appealed to me as the cleanest, most satisfying styling… next to the Passats of the time, which look even better. Of the New Beetle, which used the geometry of simple shapes as a theme. Actually, almost all turn-of-the-millenium cars look much better to me than what follows a dozen years later, when excess detail tries to mask fishy shapes that mostly look alike.

    I’d encourage the Vellum master to consider the other, less common Mk. IV, the Golf. It shares most of what’s good from the Jetta’s shape, but by subtracting that droopy rear roofline, it adds a very dynamic rear profile. The four-door model trumps the two-door, in my book. Check how the rear door edge repeats the shape of the tailgate edge and rear clip, making a powerful S-shape about 18 inches wide that stretches the full height of the car. It’s the shape of a crouching sprinter, waiting for the start gun. It’s necessitated by purely practical considerations, but the careful way it’s drawn creates a strong sense of potential energy. Wunderbar!

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with the two versus four door statement above. There are certain cars which look better in the 4D variant: In particular, I think the Golf/GTI/A3 look far superior in four door trim.

    • 0 avatar

      In Canada This model continued as a City Golf in 2007 till 2010 and the City Jetta till 2009.
      They claim that these were more releiable and some key cosmetic changes in 08 kept them looking differnt or kinda cheezy.
      You could get one bare bones with manual windows and no AC!
      A used 07 with 80K could be had now for about $6k, not bad for a first car.

      • 0 avatar

        I always thought it was a mistake when VW “freshened” the City Jetta. The first City Jetta maintained the Jetta’s good looks (I always wanted one back in the day – I blame the commercial…the one with the windshield wipers), but the refresh went against all of the lines on the car. The front end didn’t fit, and round tail lights were worse.

        Hopefully first time buyers have more sense than to buy one of them for their first car though.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree with you about the City Golf/Jetta styling, but the facelift was done to refresh it for the Latin American market, where it’s still being sold today.

  • avatar

    In terms of basic design, this car equals or betters anything to come from the Wolfsburg design studios before or since. Having one of these in silver made you the coolest kid on the block anywhere on either coast. The corresponding Golf IV didn’t have nearly the style, but I always admired how its rear bumper cutline exactly paralleled the 4-door’s rear door cutline.

    I’d also submit this is the car that doomed VW in America for ten years. The car was so appealing and drove so nicely it brought a ton of new buyers to the brand. Then, it slapped them all in the face with ignition coils that caught fire, windows that dropped down into the doors on hot days, and engines that sludged up unless you used synthetic, which they never told you to do. None of those people will ever be back, despite how appealing VW’s cars are again today.

    • 0 avatar

      JSF22 –

      While I agree with you that these cars did doom Volkswagen to a profitless ten years in North America, apparently the Mk IV is a sin of the past considering 2012 was their best sales year since the Beetle was originally on the market in the early 1970s.

      …that, or we’re gluttons for punishment. ;-)

      • 0 avatar


        You certainly are right. I think it is partly a new generation of buyers; partly another new range of really appealing looking, nice driving cars; and partly really aggressive pricing (necessitated in part, I think, by the need to do something dramatic to make people consider them again). I hope they learned their lessons, and that if windows start dropping into the doors again, they don’t blame the harsh U.S. car wash detergents as they once did!

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed on all counts, except for the “not coming back” thing. If the Pinto sold quite well for almost a decade after the explosion fiasco…

      IMO, this could be the most beautiful VW design since the original Beetle.

      • 0 avatar

        The Mk IV, especially compared to its contemporaries, was just a very clean, handsome, simple design. One of its goals was to give the IMPRESSION of quality, which it certainly did. Put a Mk IV next to a Civic, Mazda, Toyota, Chevy or Ford of the day and it beat the socks off the competition….for looks.

        I think that for the current generation Jetta Volkswagen tried to mimic that simplicity as compared to the MK V’s odd combination of swoops, curves and angles. Perhaps the reason why I find the current Jetta so bland compared to the Mk IV is that the competition has gotten so much better in the past 12 years.

    • 0 avatar

      I still have my 2003 MkIV GTI with 180,000Km
      I have *never* had any ignition coil problems
      I have *never* had my windows drop
      I have *never* had a sludge problem and I have *never* used synthetic.
      (Also I have never had any of the electrical problems that all(?) MkIVs are supposed to suffer from.
      Yes, some parts have been replaced. Believe that’s called regular wear-&-tear.

      Still runs great. MkIV Golf and Jetta still my favourite of all V-Dubs. Finally MkVII getting some of that style back.

      Great article, thanks.

  • avatar

    This Jetta along with the pre-facelift Passat and Chrysler’s Cirrus/Sebring/Stratus sedans from the same era are some of my favorite sedan designs. A plus for the Passat was that its window behind the rear door is fully usable as opposed to the practically useless opera-esque windows on today’s vehicles such as the Fusion, Sonata (hideous!), nearly all crossovers, Altima/Sentra and Fiesta. A good sized piece of glass on the outside with the interior bits reducing the visible area to a fraction, plus, it just looks silly.

  • avatar

    Sajeev, the two-tone taillights on the later Mk IVs probably did cost less, but not by much compared to the fancier ones on the example you feature. They’re still going to involve multiple mold shots or assembly (probably sonic-welded — that’s a bit thick for RF welding). To save cost, you have to go to single-color lenses.

    Ford did this sort of thing all the time, starting out with tri-color taillamps and later cost-cutting them by eliminating the amber portions. Original DN5 *and* DN101 Taurus. Econoline, which lost its tri-color lamps only a year or two after its ’92 rebody. The Ranger pickup. My ’99 Mustang Cobra, unique among SN95 Mustangs, has separate amber turn signals in the taillights. The 2000 Cobra R also used them, but when the regular Cobra returned in 2001, they were gone. In all these cases, not only did they save the cost of the amber lens, they also saved the cost of the lamp and the wiring.

    The ultimate cheap-out was probably the ’97 F150 Flareside taillights (a design later also used on the SuperCrew). Three pseudo-pods in a common housing. Red upper and lower, clear backup lamp in the middle. Then a year or two later, the backup lamp was moved to the bottom, and the two red pods were moved together so they could be illuminated by a single lamp.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point, Jim. The single color cost difference makes sense. Given the quality of other components in these Jettas, I suspect the less complicated redesign cost savings was still good enough to make it come to life…even if it wasn’t as radical as a single color lense.

      Plus, it looked different.

  • avatar

    While I agree this was the best looking Jetta…. I still think it’s ugly.

  • avatar

    It’s such a gorgeous car. In my early twenties, there was a lady at work who drove a light blue one with tan interior, it was easily the best looking car in the work car park.

  • avatar

    Does anyone else think the 2006-2012 Ford Fusion looks like a 4/3 scale MK IV, inside and out?

    • 0 avatar

      You’re not alone. I’ve always thought the previous Fusion looked like a Mk4 Jetta scaled up to 120%

    • 0 avatar

      I think the ‘mark one’ Fusion more nearly resembles the Mk II Ford Mondeo—same shapes to C-pillar, front fenders, rear 3/4 view. A great-looking car we didn’t get.

      As good as this Jetta is, the Mk V was even better, in my view. Absolutely hated it when it came out, and soon came to think it was the best-looking V-dub yet (well, one of them; they have done a lot of nifty cars).

    • 0 avatar

      Marko: never thought about that…but you have a point. The ur-Fusion is a mix of MKIV Jetta and the Ford 427 Concept:

      Oh how I miss the 427 concept!!!

  • avatar

    I love this design. The jetta from MK1 to MK4 was the perfectly balanced sedan. Perfect lines. Awesome fun to drive. When I look at the MK5 and MK6 these cars seem bloated. I like the look of both but they don’t have that perfectly balanced small sedan look anymore. I considered a MK4 Jetta recently but ended up with a MK4 Golf (the Brazilian built City Golf). I just like the hatch more, but the Jetta will remain one of my favourite sedans of all time. Gotta getta Jetta. I still miss my 1990!

  • avatar

    The “wart” of a front-emblem looks better than does the one on Ford’s escape. The most tasteful front-fascia in the mainstream compact-car segment is, in my opinion, the Chevrolet Cruze…

  • avatar

    As bad as the reliability of these cars is reputed to be, and i won’t argue, I still see tons of them on the road. Maybe the rest of the country is sending all of their MkIVs to Alabama… Of course, I live in a regentrified, hippie/hipster, urban neighborhood blanketed with 1910-1930 bungalows and VWs of all vintages, but they’re still everywhere down here.

  • avatar

    I’ve had two of the MkIV’s. I think that it’s a brilliant design as well. I’ve always thought though that VW really put themselves in a corner. These things are damned near perfect, design wise. NOW what do you do?

    And I was right. Every iteration since has seen a lesser version. I have no interest in anything current from VW. I will just keep driving my Jetta.

    BTW, for all you haters… I’ve had great success with both my VW’s. I will still recommend them to anyone, especially the diesels.

  • avatar

    Surprised you didn’t mention the way the rear flows outwards.
    I had a 1999.5 MkIV (very early model) – and looking at it from behind, you couldn’t help but admire the seemingly-wide flared fenders (for a car that was fun to drive, but let’s face it, had modest sporting aspirations unless if it was turbo’d – no pun intended).

    Somehow it just looked solidly-planted, and ready to take corners hard (and for the most part, it did this fairly well).
    We won’t talk about the interior bits and mechanical bits, but from a strictly aesthetic perspective, this one is still (IMO) the best modern VW design (even better than the contemporary MkIV Golf, which was also a very good looking car).

  • avatar

    FYI: since we’ve definitely addressed the MK IV Jetta’s reliability (and cost) issues, let me just say that this example has about 165,000 miles on it and is in fantastic shape. The original owner treated it very well, as does Capt. Mike.

    Aside from the 2.slow 5MT combo making my Ranger look like a rocketship and the vinyl interior coatings peeling away, it drives very well and has zero mechanical problems…for now.

    • 0 avatar

      My 2.0L/manual Zetec ZX3 would stomp my neighbor’s 2.0L/manual Jetta, but that VW four was a smooth, sweet-sounding engine. A real pleasure to drive.

    • 0 avatar

      I had the 2.0 GLS (supposedly an engine design from the 80s).
      It was a 2nd-(3rd?)hand car that I bought to learn to drive manual.
      It was fantastic fun, and actually had 155,000+ km when I bought it – aside from a propensity to consume oil, it was fairly low maintenance.

      It was a base model car that came with disc brakes all-around at a time when most similar cars made do with rear-drums (not that drums are necessarily superior).

      VW really set the bar high for themselves with this one.

  • avatar

    Sajeev, thank you very much; well done. Your past articles on the 84 & 86 Audis and the 1986 Hyundai Excel, and this article on the 2003 Jetta; describe well the time period when “bar of soap” cars gained flush headlights and lost their black bumpers and lower body cladding at last; but before they all got those squint headlights that lead to today’s “angry bug or fish” look. I still think that period had the most beautiful sedans since the 1950s; even if many of them were lacking in reliability.

    I still drive a 1995 Taurus wagon; so I can’t help but make comparisions; there are many. Both have the clean nose with the square headlights and minimum of cut lines. The Taurus has the “belly button” Ford emblem squarely in the middle of the panel between the headlights, which was cleaner; but there are more crease lines running around the bumpers and the trim strips on the sides.

    The wrap around, or clamshell doors were harder to align properly on the assembly line; but I love them as well. I don’t know about the Jetta; but one bad thing about the clamshell doors on the Taurus is that the tip of the driver’s side windshield wiper tends to hit it; an annoying noise in what is otherwise a very quiet cabin; even 18 years later.

    Ford engineers found that the greatest source of wind noise on the 85-95 Taurus was the side mirrors; once again, I don’t know if that is the case for the Jetta. When designing the DN101; a group of engineers wanted to move the side mirrors down to the door. That would have made them even more quiet, but would have resulted in the DLO failure of a black triangle on the door. They were voted down, and the mirrors remained where they were; most nowdays are mounted on a flat strut away from the side of the car; I assume to reduce noise.

    The main problem with making the bottom of the rear doors follow the curve of the rear wheel arch is the rear windows. The 1995 Taurus has a single window and a clean C pillar, but as a result, the rear windows only roll down halfway. The Jetta went with a fixed pane of the glass; I assume the rear window was then able to roll down all the way. Their treatment of the fixed window and C pillar was probably a good compromise, as you stated, as opposed to a rear window you couldn’t roll down all the way; though a broader rear door may be better.

    Hiding the trunk lock in the volkswagon logo was a neat trick; but I wonder how many new owners it left scratching their heads or digging in the owner’s manuel; trying to figure out where it was. I am not sure if the rooftop whip or the fender mounted antenna on the Taurus is better; though a wagon with a roof top rack would almost have to have one fender mounted.

    Never thought about hiding the exhaust tips by turning them down. The Taurus has a squared off one that pretty much fits in a pocket in the corner of the rear bumper; at least it does now that I replaced all the hangers. :)

    The total absence of chrome with the exception of the logos caught my eye. Ford cut way down on the chrome on the Taurus, but could not get themselves to totally get rid of it; besides the logos, there is a strip of chrome on the window sills.

    I understand that you may not always have access to the inside; but I wish you could sometimes include the interior as well. That area also went through some radical changes; as they were styled in harmony with the exterior starting in the 1980s; then went from body colored to black, grey and brown in the period that followed; to today’s infotainment displays. It is one thing that makes Murilee’s junkyard finds so interesting.

    I don’t buy that today’s flash helps with seperating the looks of what are otherwise identically shaped cars. The three box sedans of this period all had the same basic shape as well; but one could easily tell a 5000s, a Taurus, and a Jetta apart. I saw a pair of Fusions today; and even they have few features in common with the Jetta – no wrap around doors, different trunk treatment, larger headlights, etc.

    I was so excited as a student in engineering in college when the new aero cars came out in the 1980s; they were so clean and honest compared to the chrome laden crease-and-tuck cars they replaced. Your column really helps me understand where it all went wrong after 2000; thanks again.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for your kind words! One of these days I will come across a clean Taurus that I can VV.

      • 0 avatar


        If you ever find yourself in the DFW area; give me a shout. I think the years have been pretty kind to the “Blue Goose”; and you are welcome to look it over. I have kept everything but the radio stock; and found another JY Taurus wagon with bumpers in better shape; I hope to get them installed, painted to match, and a small dent taken out of the rear wheel arch soon. I will also ask them to make a bottle of touch-up paint to touch up the scratches it has picked up over the years.

        I have seen several Jettas of this model year since you wrote this, including a wagon. There is a home on my commuter route that has a Beetle, this model Jetta, and what I think is a early 90s Jetta. Definitely VW fans to the core.

        And the wagon DOES have the rooftop wip behind the luggage rack. As one who has used the roof rack a few times; that would get in the way when swinging suitecases into a rooftop carrier or bag; the fender mounted one is better.

      • 0 avatar

        Awesome! I might take you up on that offer.

  • avatar

    Thanks for masterfully reviewing one of my favorite designs ever. We had a black 2001 GLX VR6 with the double-arm 5-spoke wheels. Easily the best-looking car we owned (which included a 2010 CC).

    To compliment its subtle and and handsome exterior was a beautifully-detailed and upmarket interior. Soft touch plastics all round, fabric-trimmed A-, B- and yes C-pillars! Try finding that today in a car south of an S-Class. Efficient, yet upmarket switches and controls, and, of course, that iconic purple-blue interior lighting.

    • 0 avatar

      So very true. The sad part is how the rubber coated plastics peel with age. While I love the concept, the reality is probably worse for those who keep the car for a long time.

      I have the same rubber coated stuff in my Mark VIII and I’m about ready to strip it all off and deal with the hard plastics. 10+ years of looking at the wear is getting old.

      • 0 avatar

        Supposedly, that issue has been resolved. My understanding is that the early rubberized paint coatings would break down if they came into contact with certain ingredients commonly found in hand crèmes and some interior cleaners. VERY often this issue was worse in women’s cars. The manufacturers started getting it right around the ’03 era, and in my experience the newer cars are nowhere near as bad as the early ones. My buddies 270K Jetta TDI had no peeling issues at all, nor do any of my friend’s Saabs from about ’05-’06 onwards. BMW seems to have stopped having issues with it post the ’09 facelift. The earlier cars could have issues within the first few years, so it is not necessarily a time thing.

        You can buy the paint and re-paint the pieces yourself, you can even get it in a spraycan I believe.

  • avatar

    Reading this made me realize how similar it looks to the earlier-90s Audi 90.

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