My first car was a VW Jetta, so the nameplate will always hold a degree of specialness to me, and having driven the most-recent iteration of the sporty GLI on the Tail of the Dragon when it launched, I was eager to see how far the Jetta has come during its lifetime.

First-Generation Volkswagen Jetta Test: Beginning of a Lineage

The first-generation Volkswagen Jetta, or A1 Jetta as it’s known internally and among enthusiasts, is different from its most recent incarnation in nearly every way, most notably in terms of its pokey drivetrain. Its 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine produced just 74 horsepower and 90 lb-ft of torque. The engine is significantly coarser than modern powerplants and it makes quite the racket under hard acceleration. At idle, the entire car vibrates like a Sharper Image massage chair. I ended up putting it in park at stoplights just to disconnect the engine from the rest of the drivetrain to keep it from rattling the whole cabin.

Test driving this 1982 Volkswagen Jetta, I didn’t get the same jovial salutations I expected from fellow motorists. Instead, other drivers seemed irate at my slow-speed cruising. In fact, I traversed almost 40 miles at just 55 mph, something I only discovered later when I started using my phone’s navigation system. As it turns out, an indicated 65 mph on the dash was actually just 55 mph. Hitting an indicated 75 mph took a lot of work and yielded a mere 65 mph on my phone’s screen; no wonder a gardening truck’s passenger flipped his middle finger toward me as the truck blasted past, honking all the way.

First-Generation Volkswagen Jetta Test: Italian Design

Similarly, even though the first-generation Volkswagen Jetta is technically the successor to the famous Beetle, the Jetta doesn’t generate the same amount of “Aw, cute classic” delight from onlookers in general. The bodywork was penned by legendary designer Giorgetto Giugiaro at the famed ItalDesign design house; Volkswagen attempted to capitalize on the success of the Jetta’s sibling, the Rabbit, by continuing the theme of boxy angles and Giugiaro’s beloved straight lines. I suspect, to many onlookers, this museum-grade test car looked like a run-of-the-mill economy box, not a lovingly restored piece of history.

Still, I had a blast driving the first-gen Jetta. Even though the three-speed transmission, which has shift points indicated on the speedometer, is super slow, the sedan has the same suspension setup as its contemporary Rabbit: MacPherson struts in the front, and a torsion beam in back. The hardware provides connected, comfortable ride quality, and the small Jetta, which rides on tiny 13-inch wheels, is happy to be chucked through corners.

There’s no power steering here, so the first-generation 1982 Jetta is difficult to maneuver from a standstill or when crawling through a parking lot. However, the steering feel is lovely on winding roads, and the VW handles with fantastic responsiveness. Brake-feel is linear, and the front disc/rear drum setup has no notable problem slowing the car from freeway speeds. This is by no means a performance car, not even in its day, but its playful handling and tactility make it an enjoyable runabout.

First-Generation Volkswagen Jetta Test: Roughing It

The 1982 Jetta’s interior is extraordinarily handsome in the context of what you would probably expect from an early-1980s economy car. According to Volkswagen, this particular first-gen Jetta has a “chocolate-covered dash” and “latte-colored, cut-pile carpet,” and the brown leather seats contrast with the darker metallic paint to somehow make the car look a bit more premium. The chairs are soft and comfortable, too; had it not been so hot on my main driving day, I’d have been in perfect comfort.

Indeed, the day of my test drive was an absolute scorcher; even though the Jetta came equipped with air-conditioning, the system was so weak, I had to crack open the windows to get some proper circulation. As nice of an example as this classic Jetta was, I also could not get the radio to function, so it was just me and my thoughts for the entire drive. The number of cabin cubby holes was pretty useful for stashing my phone, garage remote, and camera, but just a day with the Jetta left me missing the refinement and relative luxury of modern cars.

First-Generation Volkswagen Jetta Test: Learn from Your Elders

Putting the 1982 Jetta to the test, you learn some quality motoring lessons from this nearly 40-year-old sedan. The slow acceleration wasn’t too much of an issue on neighborhood streets, but getting up to speed on faster boulevards was an exercise in patience and bravery. I gained a new appreciation for just how quick modern cars are as they leached onto my rear impatiently; it certainly didn’t help my anxiety, but it was a stark reminder of what used to qualify as everyday performance.

When the Jetta first came to our shores, it was a serious-looking car with boxy Italian styling that replaced the cheerful little bug that had become so emblematic of Volkswagen in the U.S. and around the world. Volkswagen’s sedan would become a sales success, becoming the company’s top-selling model (as of 2014) worldwide. The first-generation Jetta today may not have the same appeal to non-enthusiasts as its air-cooled predecessor, but this upright, boxy four-door still has charm in spades.  

First-Generation 1982 Volkswagen Jetta S Highlights

  • Design by Giorgetto Giugiaro
  • Spacious interior and trunk
  • Accurate and communicative steering
  • Playful handling
 1982 Volkswagen Jetta S Specifications
ON SALE 1982
PRICE $8,000 (base when new) (est)
ENGINE 1.7L SOHC 8-valve I-4/74 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 90 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
L x W x H 167.8 x 63.4 x 55.5 in
WEIGHT 1,863 lb
0-60 MPH 9.8 sec (est)