TO pump up the marketing volume for its redesigned Golf, VW decided to revive the name “Rabbit” for the North American market (the first-generation Golf, circa 1975-1984, was also called Rabbit in die Staaten). I suppose that makes a certain kind of sense — car names having a curiously indelible equity all their own (e.g., Charger, Impala and, of course, Beetle). And yet, anyone who fell in love with the Bunny back then would be a whole generation older and likely several tax brackets wealthier by now. These people would have left the Rabbit demographic behind with their bongs and cinderblock bookshelves.
No, if VW wanted to name the car after a pagan fertility symbol, they should have named it the VW Britney.
This, the fifth-generation Golf — called, sensibly enough, Golf in the rest of the world — was actually teed up in winter 2004, but was held back from the North American market until this summer for reasons too depressingly corporate to bear explaining. Earlier this year, VW rolled out the hot-hatch version of the Golf/Rabbit called the GTI ($21,990), a wanton little sin-pot with a turbo’ed 2.0-liter, 200-hp four-cylinder under the hood and girthy meats at the corners. Punchy, direct, fun to drive, with handling tighter than a pair of Spanx pantyhose, the GTI benefits hugely from the platform’s new independent rear multi-link suspension.
Pop car-culture mavens may recall the commercials for the GTI, which featured the “Fast” — a narrow-eyed, Jungian apparition that growled from the back seat that it “didn’t get along with girlfriends.” I’m pretty sure this was the first car commercial based on a psychotic episode.
Now, at last, we in North America have the base-model Golf/Rabbit, and it’s — how to say? — a rodent of easy virtue. Cheap, in other words. The three-door model has an MSRP of $14,990. If you want the five-door, it will cost you $1,000 extra per door ($16,990). Both varieties are hospitably equipped for the 1040-EZ set, with such standard gear as four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control and limited-slip front differential (stability control is a well-worth-it $450 option); side curtain air bags front and rear; power windows/mirrors/doors; cruise control; in-dash six-disc CD changer; heated seats; and lots of other creature comforts. Our test car, the sedan, had the 16-inch alloy wheels ($400), satellite radio ($375), power sunroof ($1,000) and the stability control. All told, that’s a lot of varmint for $19,845.
As always, the Golf/Rabbit is a well-sorted piece of geometry, a “two-box” configuration with a big, nearly vertical hatch and a compact profile planted squarely on its wheels. This new car is aerodynamically combed smooth in a way the previous car wasn’t; a short chin spoiler, rocker trim and rear valence give the car an aftermarket-perfected appearance. Our test car was finished in gloss black, and I think that’s a very good choice. No matter how rockin’ this car is mechanically, a white Rabbit is going to look a little, let’s say, eccentric. Speaking of which, apologies to Lewis Carroll.
The interior of this car is without fault. Mature, restrained, economical without looking deprived. The rear doors open wide, allowing easy access for parents struggling to lock in a child safety seat. There’s plenty of leg room. With the driver’s seat pushed all the way back, I had no trouble sitting in the left rear seat. The cargo space behind the rear seat upright is surprisingly large and usable — as I found out when I took a friend to the airport with her two-weeks-in-Korea monster suitcase. The front seats (eight-way adjustable driver’s seat with power recline function) are well bolstered and covered in a rich velour fabric. You were expecting maybe fur?
I don’t want to hit this next point too hard, but I couldn’t help noticing that the Rabbit — built in Wolfsburg, Germany, as opposed to Mexico, Brazil or wherever else the VW flag flies — feels like a more well-struck coin than other VWs from around the globe. I drove this car hard for a week, and I never heard the slightest hint of a rattle, or squeak — nothing. I mean, even Bentleys squeak and burr here and there. This car felt drop-forged like a Craftsman wrench. At 80 mph, cabin noise is smothered to levels that would send Buick engineers to the bar for a celebratory beer. VW assures us that this is the result of major structural upgrades, stiffening and sound-deadening measures, but I also wonder if German-built VWs enjoy a bit of home-field advantage?
On the road, the car emanates a locked down and well- calibrated agility that makes it a real hoot to drive, even if it isn’t particularly fast. Figure 0-60 mph in just under 9 seconds. Under the hood is a Cosmoline-smooth 2.5-liter, 20-valve inline five cylinder with a lot of the sophisticated breathing apparatus from VW’s more expensive engines. The five-shooter generates 150 hp at 6,000 rpm, which aren’t clock-stopping numbers, but because the engine is so torque rich, the car rarely feels out of breath or flat-footed. On the highway, just drop it down a gear and floor it; the Rabbit will wiggle its well, you know and move out. Mr. McGregor is out of luck.
There’s no particular trick to going fast in a fast car: Just aim and fire. It takes a little more craft to hustle a slow car around. The Rabbit — with light and pin-sharp electric steering, good brakes, perfect pedal position, ample lateral grip and reasonably flat, drama-free cornering — rewards whatever effort you put into driving. Overall, this is an extremely likable runabout.
It is not, however, a fuel mileage champion. The EPA rates the car at 22/30 mpg, city/highway, which is overly generous by about 25%, according to my results. Other complaints include the fact that iPods can’t talk to the Rabbit — a major deficit, though an iPod adaptor will be optional for 2007.
And, I confess, I have reservations about the whole “Rabbit” thing. Car names have a gender chemistry that is often hard to predict. Does it strike anyone that Rabbit — a cute, concupiscent fur-bearing herbivore not generally known for its kick-ass attitude — might not vibe with the young male meathead demographic?
In any event, take Mick’s advice: Paint it black.
Contact automotive critic Dan Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2006 VW Rabbit five-door
Base price: $16,990
Price, as tested: $19,845
Powertrain: 2.5-liter, 20-valve, DOHC inline five cylinder, with variable-valve timing; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive with electronic differential lock
Horsepower: 150 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 170 pound-feet at 3,750 rpm
Curb weight: 3,137 pounds
0-60 mph: 9 seconds
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Overall length: 165.8 inches
EPA fuel economy: 22 miles per gallon/30 mpg (regular unleaded)
Final thoughts: A Rabbit to nibble your bum