The 5th-generation Volkswagen Golf made its debut late in 2006, except it's not called the Golf, it's called the Rabbit. Why the name change? Because the Golf, despite being the best-selling car in Europe for years, has never really taken off in America. By renaming the car, VW hopes to rekindle memories of the cheap, durable and economical Rabbits that scurried around American roads back in the late 70s and early 80s. Does the new Rabbit have as much appeal as the original? Read on. Base price $15,630, as-tested price $20,174, EPA fuel economy estimates 22 MPG city, 30 highway.
You remember the original Volkswagen Rabbit, don't you? It was one of the first "new" Volkswagens, introduced in 1975 when America's love affair with the VW Beetle was still very much in full swing. While other VW models like the the Dasher and Sirrocco were all but ignored by American motorists, the Rabbit was a huge hit. Economical, fun to drive and cheap to buy, it became the first import to achieve 100,000 first-year sales. VW introdued a new version in 1985, re-named the Golf -- but by then the love affair was over.
Volkswagen is hoping Americans will fall in love with the new Rabbit the same way they did with the old. The new Rabbit is fun to drive, but it isn't particularly economical and it certainly isn't cheap. Prices start at $15,630 for the 2-door and almost $18,000 for the 4-door; my test car stickered for over $20k. You can't spend that much on most of the Rabbit's competitors; if you get close you get amenities like leather seats, a navigation system, or an automatic transmission. My test car had none of these. It didn't even have a leather-wrapped steering wheel; the Rabbit's wheel is hard plastic. Looking around the Rabbit's interior, I just didn't see $20,000 worth of car.
To be fair, some of the Rabbit's value is hidden from view. Safety features such as front-seat-mounted torso airbags, side curtain airbags, and antilock brakes come standard, though electronic stability control is optional. Aside from the price -- and the lousy gas mileage, which I'll talk about shortly -- I really did like the Rabbit.
In the Driver's Seat
The Rabbit is one of several cars built off Volkswagen's A-platform; others include the Jetta, GTI and Eos. Though they differ on the outside, all have similar interiors, and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Vertically challenged as I am, I appreciated the Rabbit's standard tilt-telescope steering column, which adjusts in and out as well as up and down, and the height-adjustable driver's seat. Back seats have a decent amount of room and Volkswagen's "easy entry" front passenger seat makes rear seat access a cinch in the two-door Rabbit.
A big hatchback cargo bay (link goes to photo) rounds out the Rabbit's interior. VW has mercifully replaced the old Golf's Rube Goldberg-like trunk latch with a simpler mechanism: Unlock the doors then lift up on the bottom of the big VW emblem, and the trunk opens. It looks good (no unsightly handle) and it's easy to use.
Over-complex controls are a hallmark of German cars, so I appreciated the Golf's relatively simple climate controls. But operating the stereo was a headache that required several trips to the Rabbit's Bible-sized owner's manual. The system on my car had optional iPod connectivity, which allows all of the iPod's functions to be controlled through the stereo, but the controls didn't make any sense. Who would guess that you have to press and hold the "CD" button to engage the iPod's shuffle mode? And the fact that the stereo doesn't display song titles -- only track numbers, which in shuffle mode don't correspond to the order of the songs on the iPod -- just makes matters more confusing.
On the Road: Wonderful to drive, expensive to fuel
The main problem with this engine is the fuel economy. Bear in mind that most cars in this class have four-cylinder engines of two liters or less. Despite the fact that most of my test driving was on the highway, which should boost mileage, I averaged just over 25 MPG. Most of the Rabbit's competitors would easily top 30 MPG under the same circumstances. So much for the perception of the Rabbit as an economy car.
On my favorite twisty road, the Rabbit proved to be a wonderful car to drive fast -- no surprise, since the Rabbit is the kissin' cousin of the GTI, one of my favorite compact performance cars. The steering response felt much better than average and the suspension did a great job of keeping body motions under control. The tires held on nicely and the optional electronic stability system control kept the car going in the intended direction on those few turns where I went in a bit too fast. All in all the Rabbit is very rewarding and enjoyable to drive, much more so than most of its competitors.
Journey's End: My forbidden love
Would I buy one? Hmmmm. Much as I love the driving experience and the hatchback practicality, the Rabbit's high price and lousy fuel economy kind of defeat the purpose of buying a compact economy car. The punch line is that the Rabbit's high-performance cousin, the GTI, which is a much faster car, actually gets better gas mileage than the economy-minded Rabbit. VW hasn't announced whether or not its new diesel engine, due in 2008, will be fitted to the Rabbit. I hope so -- a diesel would fix the Rabbit's economy problems in an instant.
The Rabbit faces serious competition, most notably the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. Both get much better gas mileage and give you more car for less money, though they are nowhere near as much fun to drive. (The Mazda3, by the way, comes pretty darn close.) Buying a Rabbit over a Civic or a Sentra just wouldn't make much sense... though to tell you the truth, I might just buy the Rabbit anyway. -- Aaron Gold