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2008 Volkswagen Rabbit test drive

The Volkswagen you've been waiting for

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

By Philip Powell

2008 Volkswagen Rabbit front 3-4 view

VW adds subtle curves and aerodynamics to a basic 3-box for a captivating appearance

Photo © Philip Powell

What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

Changes to the 2008 VW Rabbit (née Golf) include 20 more horses (to 170) and a tire pressure monitoring system. The base Rabbit is a good buy at $16,130 (up $500 from last year) as it comes with air (as in conditioning), 6 airbags (as in bump-resistant), and one-touch power windows. My Canadian test car was well-equipped with alloys, electronic stability control, sunroof, and an exclusive-to-Canada cold weather package, all for CDN$26,470; figure $20,295 for a similarly equipped Rabbit in the US. EPA fuel economy 22 MPG city/29 highway for the manual, 21/29 with automatic.

First Glance: In love again

Larger photos: Front - side - rear

I'll confess to having fallen in love too many times. Usually with beautiful women who fell in love with me. I was lucky that way. I've also fallen in love with a number of objects; cars, trains, boats, planes, mostly. And like the women, I couldn't afford to keep them. But this is the first time I've fallen in love with a rabbit! Fortunately my Rabbit has four wheels and an engine, doesn't eat carrots, and shows no tendency to multiply, which is a good thing as I only possess one parking space.

I'm in love with this Volkswagen for its handsome styling, its practical design, its build quality, and because it is genuinely fun to drive. What's more, it won't drive me to the poorhouse, as a few of those other loves did. Some journalists felt that fuel economy in the 2007 Rabbit was lower than expected and with a big jump in power for 2008, little has changed in that regard. Personally I'm not bothered by such statistics because, with a 2.5 liter engine producing 170 horsepower and 177 lb.ft torque, this Rabbit runs as if a fox was in full chase. Some buyers, however, might prefer a choice between performance and economy and since Volkswagen has less thirsty engines in its European stable, perhaps one of those should be optional. The diesel would be perfect, as has been proven in previous Jettas. Meanwhile, when making comparisons with a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, both of which offer better mileage, remember that they have much smaller engines under their hoods.

In the Driver's Seat: You want it, you got it

2008 Volkswagen Rabbit interior

Functional yet comforting, the Rabbit's interior says "drive me!"

Photo © Philip Powell

Larger interior photo

For a new romance my Rabbit felt oddly familiar. Could it be those Volkswagen genes going all the way back to the Beetle? My experience with Volkswagens can be traced to that era when I raced, rallied and drove hillclimbs in a much-modified Beetle so I'm inclined to believe that heritage does count, even if the engine has swapped places with the trunk. Anyway, nicely settled in after bumping my head thanks to a deeply sloped A-pillar (none of your remarks about my advancing years, please, Aaron), I noticed the utterly simple layout of the instruments, radio and climate controls (links go to photos). In fact the radio knobs and buttons are so large I suspect VW has learned a lesson regarding ease of legibility.

Some critics have complained that the materials are too dark and monochromatic but hey, guys, it's a car, not a boudoir! At least they're of good quality. The Rabbit's seats are firm and supportive though adjustments (height, backrest, lumbar, etc.,) must be made manually. The backrest adjuster is a large, knurled wheel, an ancient Germanic tradition that some people hate but I absolutely love (woops, there's that word again!); turning the wheel by hand means you can adjust the angle infinitely, just as in a power seat. Overall, the driving compartment is spacious and light, with good sightlines to aid forward visibility, but forget the $1000 sunroof option. No matter how many adjustments and open window combinations I tried, buffeting could not be eliminated.

On the Road: Lots of power, lots of fun

Run, Rabbit, run! And it did, quickly, with the kind of acceleration we once expected from a V-6 and with a strong measure of torque from below 2000 rpm to redline, although the 2008 Rabbit moves so quickly in the mid-ranges that holding the revs to 5000 or even higher is rather pointless. Unless, of course, you enjoy listening to that engine, which is the sweetest-sounding 5-cylinder I've heard since Audi gave us the 5000 and Acura copied it with the Vigor. On the other hand the Rabbit's engine is amazingly quiet in normal operation, one reason why the 6-speed automatic might actually be a better choice. Several times during my test I forgot to shift up or down, simply because there was no engine noise to remind me. And yes, I'm aware of the tachometer (the most wasted gauge in modern automobildom; I wonder how many average non-enthusiast drivers have a clue what it's there for?).

The other reason I'd opt for the auto has to do with my old "boy racer" tendencies, wherein a car with an engine that revs so eagerly encourages risky habits. That said, if you're one of those who must shift manually, be assured this box is slick and accurate, with short throws from gear to gear. And if you're also one who knows how to heel-and-toe, the Rabbit's pedals are perfectly placed. A fully-independent suspension with optional electronic stabilisation system meant the Rabbit slashed through the curves on my favorite riverside road like a snake with its tail on fire.

Journey's End: Family fun

2008 Volkswagen Rabbit rear view

From the rear it could be an SUV or a crossover but it's a car (thank goodness!) with a practical hatch

Photo © Philip Powell

Regardless of laments for past loves and raves about how much fun the Rabbit is to drive, I would like to reassure our rational viewers that it is utterly sensible, practical, and safe for families more concerned about basic transportation than dashing through winding roads like a man who, to quote Nietsche, still hides a child inside him that wants to play. So please forgive my exuberance. I did pay attention to things that matter, such as a generous hatch area with 60/40 split-folding rear seats and a front passenger seat that folds flat in case you bring home a new kitchen counter. Active head restraints and side-impact and side curtain airbags also come standard.

Those who sit in the back will find more than enough leg, head, and elbow room, along with adjustable heat/AC vents, door pockets and seatback storage plus, yes, thank goodness, a pair of cupholders to match those in front! (Slight hint of sarcasm from someone who believes that drinking and driving anything is risky. But then, my commute to work only goes from bedroom to shared bedroom office.) If I were young again this is the car I'd buy for my family to feel comfortable and for me to play race driver when they're safely at home, which I did with those Beetles. The Rabbit is not just an economy car, it's a well-equipped family car with a dual personality. My only beefs were with the sunroof and front seat access; not enough to prevent me from falling in love all over again. Ever tried to kiss a Rabbit? -- Philip Powell

Next page: Pros and cons, who should buy it, and specs

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