VW's Rabbit Redux

It doesn't have the best fuel economy in its class, but the new Rabbit is a bargain-priced sporty German car

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Sporty handling, cargo space, price

The Bad: Relatively poor fuel economy, quality doubts

The Bottom Line: A sporty German car at a bargain-basement price

Up Front

"What's in a name?" The question was famously asked by Juliet of Romeo in the Shakespearean drama that bears their names. But it's relevant in a mundane way to our current subject, the new Volkswagen Rabbit. The Rabbit, which hit the market in June, is essentially the same as the redesigned Volkswagen Golf—except that it has a different name in North America.

The new name is a shameless attempt to use nostalgia to wring out some extra sales for the car. The VW Golf was sold under the Rabbit name from 1975 to 1985, and a lot of former owners have fond memories of VW's sprightly little bunny.

Me, for instance. My first new car ever was a 1980 Rabbit I bought off a Minneapolis car lot for about $7,500. It was a real revelation for someone who had been driving a Chevy. On dry pavement, it was quick and nimble, with tight, German-style handling that made it great fun to drive. My first front-wheel-drive car, it also did well in snow. And the hatchback and fold-down rear seats meant you could haul tons of cargo in the back, even though it was a tiny little economy car.

The pitch for buying a Rabbit today is essentially the same as it was back in 1980. It's still the cheapest car you can get with German-style feel and handling, and VW actually lowered the car's base price when it changed the model's name. (Confusingly, the 2006 Rabbit was only on the market for three months. It was replaced in late August by the nearly identical '07 version of the car. Meanwhile, dealers are still selling the last '06 Golfs out of their inventories.)

The Rabbit comes in two styles, a two-door or four-door hatchback. The two-door Rabbit with a manual transmission starts at $15,620, down from $16,660 for the most basic '06 Golf. The four-door Rabbit starts at $17,620. Add a little over $1,000 for an automatic transmission on either version.

VW hasn't cheapened the model's design, however. The Rabbit is slightly bigger and roomier than the previous version of the Golf, with a couple more inches of (badly needed) legroom in the back seat. The Rabbit's standard powerplant is also an inline, five-cylinder engine that delivers 150 horsepower. The bigger engine makes the Rabbit considerably feistier than the Golf, which had a smaller, 2-liter, 115 horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

The standard equipment on the Rabbit is impressive. It includes antilock brakes, traction control, cruise control, power doors and locks, heated outside mirrors, keyless entry, and side curtain airbags (an important safety innovation that all small cars should have). Heated seats and heatable windshield-washer nozzles—which keep the nozzles from freezing up in winter—are even standard on the four-door model.

Adding optional equipment is less expensive than on most German cars, too. The major ones include a power sunroof ($1,000), electronic stability control ($450), 16-inch alloy wheels ($400), satellite radio ($375), rear side airbags ($350) and tire-pressure monitors ($150).

Plus, there are numerous small touches in the Rabbit that set it apart from most econoboxes. For instance, turn-signal blinkers are integrated into the side mirrors, making them more visible during night driving. The rear hatch has a cool, disguised handle: You open it by pulling up on a big VW logo on the back door. And you can turn the electronic stability control on and off at the push of a button.

The Rabbit seems to be selling well so far. Golf sales were already booming when the new model hit the market: VW sold nearly 1,800 Golfs per month in the U.S. through May, up 50% from the same period in 2005. Sales of the Golf have trailed off as the Rabbit gradually replaces it, but combined sales of the two models in September were 2,836 (1,189 for the Golf and 1,647 for the Rabbit). So, it looks like the Rabbit will continue the Golf's upward sales trajectory.

Rabbits are also hopping off dealers' lots at a rapid clip. The average Rabbit spends just 17 days on the lot before selling, according to the Power Information Network. That's not as fast as the turnover of Honda (HMC) Civic (nine days), or Toyota's (TM) Scion tC (14 days), but it's more than three times quicker than average.

Behind the Wheel

There's a reason the Golf has long been the top-selling model in Germany, as well as in Europe. At a bargain price, the Golf/Rabbit feels like a lighter, less-solidly-built, and slower BMW 328i, low-end Audi or VW Jetta (with which the Rabbit shares its platform). And that's a good thing.

The Rabbit isn't particularly quick. My test car with a manual transmission accelerated from 0 to 60 in slightly over eight seconds (I could get it up to 57 in second gear in 7.6 seconds, at which point the need to shift into third slowed things down). However, like the Honda Civic, the Rabbit's sportiness makes it seem quicker than it is (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/06, "Civic Virtues").

For an economy car, the steering is tight. You get a fair amount of feedback from the road, without being overly hard. The Rabbit's suspension doesn't smooth out the bumps on back roads nearly as well as, say, the new, much more expensive BMW 3-Series (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06, "BMW's Super Coupe"), but it's a lot smoother than the Mazda RX8 I'm driving now. The shift throws on the manual transmission aren't as short as I like them, and the transmission feels a little sloppy for my taste. But the Rabbit drives well for an economy car.

The Rabbit's interior is functional and well-made, with numerous small touches that set it apart. For instance, the glovebox is double-walled and solid-feeling, with damped hinges and flocked lining in the interior. The center armrest slides forward and back for comfortable positioning. There are 12-volt plugs in the center console and the rear compartment. The latches to pop the gas compartment lid and the trunk are on the driver's door, where they're easy to see.

One of the interior's few disappointments is the little sunglass compartment above the rearview mirror. It's made of cheap plastic and feels like it would break easily.

Buy It or Bag It?

For my money, the Rabbit offers a very appealing combination of sportiness and practicality. The hatchback and the standard 60/40 fold-down seats give you a lot of potential cargo space for weekend trips to the store. There's a passthrough between the rear seats for hauling skis and other long items. In theory, the car also holds five passengers, though the rear seat is probably too cramped for more than two adults.

The Rabbit's price is about the same as those of its main rivals, which are Japanese. The Power Information Network—which, like BusinessWeek.com, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP)—figures the Rabbit is selling for an average of $18,173, compared to $18,925 for the Honda Civic, $18,441 for the Mazda 3, $18,268 for the Scion tC, and $16,124 for the Toyota Corolla.

I haven't driven the Corolla, but the Rabbit is about as sporty and fun to drive as the Mazda 3 (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/05, "A Mazda for Youths (And You)"), Scion tC (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/5/05, "Scion: Third Time's a Charm"), and Civic. The little VW also has a youthful image. Just over half of all Rabbit buyers are under 35, Power figures, almost as many as for the Scion tC (53.2%), slightly more than for the Mazda 3 (48.5%), and significantly more than for the Civic (36.6%) and the Corolla (28.4%). Power says the average age of Rabbit buyers so far is just 39 (vs. 44 for the Golf, according to VW).

The Rabbit's weak point is its fuel economy. It's rated to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway with a stick shift or an automatic, and in a stretch of 299 miles of mixed driving I got 22.6 mpg. The Civic, Mazda 3, and Corolla all have significantly better government mileage ratings, while the Scion tC's is about the same. (The basic Corolla, which is rated at 32 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway, gets the best mileage of the four.)

The other doubt I have is about VW's quality record. In J.D. Power's 2006 Initial Quality survey, the '06 Golf had 157 problems per 100 vehicles sold, vs. 138 for the Scion tC, 105 for the Civic, and a mere 96 for the Corolla.

Still, the Golf ranks slightly better in the quality ratings than the Mazda 3, which had 160 problems per 100 vehicles sold, and it's always possible that the Rabbit will do better than the Golf. Maybe nostalgia is getting the better of me, but I can't help liking the Rabbit, even though I know its moniker is a marketing gimmick. To paraphrase the Bard, a VW Golf by any other name is still a mighty fine little car.

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