The new 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit reminds me that we had a pet rabbit when I was a kid. He was a fine companion, and this fact made it easy to overlook his flaws, which included a sometimes chilly disposition and a very nervous bladder. He died unexpectedly. We were sad for weeks.
Volkswagen also had a Rabbit that died. This one was a hatchback born in Germany as the Golf in 1974 that came to North America as the Rabbit in 1975. It was a big success, and VW built an assembly plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, to begin making them in 1978. The Rabbit multiplied and 200,000 cars were produced in 1980.
But the Rabbit had quality problems and started to look like a Chevy Malibu and people lost interest. Finally the Rabbit died in 1985. Volkswagen closed the American plant and re-embraced its German heritage, renaming the car the Golf.
The Golf eventually surpassed the Beetle to become Volkswagen's most successful model, but in recent years, sales in North America have slipped. Once again, quality issues have been partially responsible. For this sales malaise, Volkswagen's doctors prescribed a shot of well-timed nostalgia, the same treatment that worked wonders for the New Beetle and Mini Cooper.
And so the Golf has been quietly retired and the Rabbit has been revived.
Introduced as a midyear model, the 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit is available as a two- or four-door hatchback. Two-door models start at $15,620, while a four-door starts at $17,620. Only one trim is offered.
We tested a four-door hatchback with a five-speed manual transmission that included the power sunroof, stability control, satellite radio and 16-inch alloy wheels, with 205/55R16 tires included as options. The price of our compact was $19,845.
This Rabbit is more than a rebadged version of last year's VW Golf. This is the Golf 5 platform introduced in Germany in 2004 that also underlies the redesigned VW Jetta introduced to the U.S. in 2005, and it's all-new from top to bottom.
With a wheelbase of 101.5 inches, a length of 165.8 inches and a width of 69.3 inches, the 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit is an inch longer and wider than the Golf. Backseat passengers see the most benefit from these new dimensions. The Rabbit bests the Golf by roughly 2 inches when it comes to both rear shoulder and legroom.
Under the hood is an engine that makes the Rabbit a greyhound compared to the Golf. Motivated by the same 2.5-liter inline-5 that gives the Jetta its mojo, Volkswagen's Rabbit is good for 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 3,750 rpm. The 115-hp Golf couldn't even try to outrun this hare.
To gaze upon the Rabbit's sheet metal is to know the virtue of simplicity. Either that, or you'll find it bland. In front, the car looks like a cross between the Jetta and the Touareg, with the Jetta's frowning headlights and the Touareg's triple-slatted grille. A body-colored bumper keeps it all no-fuss.
In profile, the Rabbit resembles the Golf, but a rising beltline makes it more modern. Its lines are spare and clean. The Rabbit holds the honor of being the only car in its segment that's built in Germany. Of course, some people swear by German efficiency. The precision with which the Rabbit's exterior panels are aligned makes it hard to argue with the stereotype.
This motif of precision is repeated within the interior. Fit and finish is superb, and all the switchgear feels pleasingly substantial, from the turn-signal stalk to the tiny knobs that govern audio settings like bass and treble.
You'll likely find the Rabbit's cabin stark, but soon all the cool touches reveal themselves. A metallic ribbon bordering the cabin lends a sense of discreet luxury. A carpeted cargo area, rubber-lined storage bins and a lined glove compartment add unexpected polish. An LED display that sits between the speedometer and tachometer lights up with the same warm glow you'll find in the Rabbit's cousins at Audi.
All this gives the Volkswagen Rabbit a more opulent feel than you'd expect from a car that costs less than $20 large.
This four-door Volkswagen has a list of standard features that includes a six-disc CD changer, heated front seats and external mirrors, an external temperature gauge, signal mirrors and a power-adjustable driver seat. Not too shabby for an economy hauler.
Unfortunately you won't find features like heated external mirrors and signal mirrors on competitors like the Mazda 3, not even as options. Audiophiles will find themselves pining for remote audio controls on the steering wheel, though. Unlike some of its classmates, the Rabbit doesn't offer this perk as an option.
Flagging its tail
With only 15 cubic feet of luggage capacity, this Rabbit is no kangaroo. Competitors like the Ford Focus and Kia Spectra are a couple cubes more spacious in the luggage department.
If you can spare the passenger room in the second row, the picture improves. With the 60/40-split rear seats folded forward, cargo capacity swells like a blowfish to 46 cubic feet. When the rear seat is left upright, there's also a pass-through to accommodate your skis or snowboard.
To access the Rabbit's cargo area, you depress the top half of the large Volkswagen logo found on the hatch; the bottom half of the logo then tilts out, providing a handhold for lifting the door.
It's the kind of setup that will likely have you reaching for the owner's manual the first time out, but once things are explained, it's easy to use. Some editors thought this secret-door approach to hatch access was innovative. Others found it unnecessarily complicated.
A 150-hp engine doesn't represent a lot of muscle in this class these days, yet the 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit offers enough juice to get you onto the freeway without any white-knuckle moments. In track testing, it hopped from zero to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, a time that's strong for its class.
The Rabbit manages this impressive performance despite the fact that its gearing isn't optimized for a 0-60-mph run, as 2nd gear maxes out at redline at 54 mph. In any case, our efficient little bunny briskly dispensed with the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 85.3 mph.
Still, the Rabbit isn't crazy about being pushed hard. Most of its torque and horsepower are tapped out by 4,500 rpm. And at high revs, its inline-5 engine — like other examples of this engine we've tested — grumbles with a coarseness that makes it sound reluctant to expend further effort.
This VW feels competent when you're driving for fun, but not exactly exhilarating. One editor remarked that the Rabbit feels every inch a German vehicle on the road: solid and well-planted.
Its slalom run was achieved at a reasonably impressive 62.6 mph; the Rabbit darted through the cones without losing its cool. It navigated the skid pad at 0.80g, feeling somewhat ponderous, but well-controlled. Braking is average; 60 to zero was managed in 135 feet.
The Rabbit doesn't seek to match the sporty handling of the Mazda 3, this market segment's class leader when it comes to fun-to-drive good times. But the Rabbit does tell you what it's doing on the road, with electric power steering that's both communicative and responsive.
Unfortunately the Volkswagen Rabbit is undeniably a dog when it comes to fuel economy. With a manual transmission, the Rabbit is rated for 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway by the EPA.
In comparison, the Ford Focus achieves 27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, while the Mazda 3 gets 26 mpg city, 33 mpg highway. The VW inline-5 engine is simply thirsty, as we learned when our testing of the 2006 VW Jetta found us averaging just 19 mpg.
Sure, this companion has its flaws, but the Volkswagen Rabbit's upscale cabin and bevy of luxury features make it easy to overlook them.
Expect competence and refinement, traits that place this Volkswagen at the top of its class. But don't expect an especially spirited experience. For that, you'll need a Mazda 3. Or a golden retriever.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The name keeps changing, but the formula stays the same: a fun and functional hatchback with intuitive steering and an upscale (for the price) interior. Driving the new Rabbit, I found myself trying to discern the supposed improvements to this "all-new" version. The new 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine adds much appreciated punch to the car's acceleration, but low-speed torque is a bit disappointing (so much so that it had me thinking "turbo" after a few stoplight blasts).
Otherwise the car feels just like every other Golf (or Rabbit) of the past three decades. The steering and suspension tuning aren't as crisp as Mazda's 3, but better than the Dodge Caliber or Kia Spectra5. Interior materials are segment-leading, as is seat comfort, but the high seating position further emphasizes the car's somewhat "tippy" feel in the twisties.
A few ergonomic quirks, like the rear hatch that doesn't actually "pop" when you release it, or a stubborn power point I couldn't get to work (but apparently other drivers could) had me grinding my teeth.
Still, it's a credit to Volkswagen's original 1974 vision that 33 years later the car remains a top choice for economy hatchback buyers — no matter what they call it.