It was the Rabbit, then it was the Golf and now it's the Rabbit again. Same car. Five generations. Two names. But Volkswagen's name game with its least expensive model has only taken place in the American market. In the rest of the world it was the Golf, it is the Golf and it will remain the Golf.
But the 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit is more than just a new name on last year's Golf. Like the Jetta, which received a redesign last summer, the 2006 VW Rabbit hatchback is an all-new car. Actually, it's very much like the Jetta sedan: same engine, same suspension, same interior, and for the first time the two cars even share front clips. But before we get into all that, let's fire up the old flux capacitor and travel back to 1985.
Twenty-one years ago a joint American-French expedition located the wreck of the Titanic, Michael J. Fox made us laugh as the lovable Marty McFly in the sci-fi comedy Back to the Future and Mafia boss Paul Castellano was gunned down in front of Spark's Steak House in New York City, giving John Gotti control of the Gambino crime family. Great achievements all, but 1985 was also the year of New Coke and the renaming of the Volkswagen Rabbit — two of the world's legendary marketing mistakes.
In its defense, Coca-Cola fixed its blunder quickly, but VW has continued to sell its small front-wheel-drive hatchback in America as the Golf ever since.
No official reason for the car's name change has ever been given, but it's believed that VW's brass wanted the Golf to eclipse the company's Beetle as the most produced vehicle in the history of the world. But to do that, the car needed to wear the same name everywhere it was sold. Rabbits didn't count as Golfs.
VW achieved that production goal in 2002, when it built its 21,517,415th Golf. American buyers remained unimpressed, as hatchbacks here have achieved the popularity of Mongolian throat singing. In 1981 VW sold 174,000 Rabbits, while last year Golf sales bottomed out at just 15,000 units.
So the Volkswagen brass went back to the boardroom and with nothing to lose, blew the dust off the Bunny. Unlike U.S.-bound Jettas, however, which are built in Mexico, all Golfs and Rabbits will be built in Wolfsburg, Germany, which allows VW to boast that the Rabbit is the only German-engineered, -styled and -produced vehicle in its segment.
Slightly bigger Bunny
Like the performance-oriented GTI hatchback, there are two- and four-door versions of the Rabbit. Both share the same 101.5-inch wheelbase with the Jetta, which is 2.6 inches longer than the wheelbase of last year's Golf. The Rabbit is also an inch longer, 1.5 inches taller and about 220 pounds heavier than its predecessor. Interior volume is up, especially rear-seat legroom thanks to that increased wheelbase, and cargo volume has grown to 15 cubic feet.
Although the Rabbit's profile remains reminiscent of the original, unlike in the days of roller disco and Different Strokes the word "rabbit" does not appear anywhere on the car. Instead, a small chrome bunny cast midhop decorates the hatch beside a chrome 2.5, which denotes the Rabbit's engine size in liters.
How the Bunny hops
Powering the Rabbit's front wheels is the same torquey iron-block 2.5-liter five-cylinder used in the Jetta. Peak power is a respectable 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 170 pound-feet at 3,750, and it runs on regular. Considering last year's Golf was powered by a 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the increase in pull is significant. A five-speed manual is standard, but a six-speed automatic is optional for $1,000.
The engine feels good off the line, but lays over about 4,000 rpm. The result is a car that feels quick in the city, but needs full throttle for highway merging. A Jetta 2.5 we tested last year was equipped with the six-speed automatic and managed zero to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds. A Rabbit 2.5 automatic should do the same.
Our rainy afternoon drive in a Rabbit four-door automatic was not at all unpleasant. Volkswagen says the hatchback's chassis is 80 percent stiffer than the structure of last year's Golf, and the improvement can be felt. On the potholed streets of downtown Philadelphia, the little car felt strong and substantial. Hardware such as the Rabbit's electrically assisted power steering, standard four-wheel disc brakes (with ABS) and four-wheel independent suspension (a Rabbit/Golf first) are shared with the Jetta and provide a comfortable and responsive drive.
In the bunny hole
Also lifted from the Jetta is the Rabbit's interior, which remains class-leading in its high-quality materials and upscale design. Standard luxuries include air-conditioning, cruise control, an outside temperature display, a split fold-down rear seat, power windows, traction control and a tilt-telescoping steering wheel. VW also finishes the Rabbit's cargo area richly and gives the Rabbit's driver a fat three-spoke steering wheel to grab onto. Another nice touch is the VW's rear-seat headrests. There are three, and they're cleverly engineered not to interfere with the driver's rear view when not in use.
Although our test car had cloth seats, they were heated (standard on the four-door), height-adjustable and comfortable. Other options like the car's sunroof, its XM radio, 16-inch wheels and stability control were also appreciated, but drove its sticker price up above $20,000. The base price of $14,990 you'll see in all the ads is for a two-door five-speed and doesn't include the $630 destination charge. Four-door Rabbits start at $16,990, plus destination.
Hop and faith
"Our goal with the Rabbit is to reclaim our stake in the affordable car market," says VW Product Strategist Paul Spevetz. That means Volkswagen is hopping, we mean hoping, the Rabbit's lower price, improved hardware and cute new name and marketing will get more urban, college-educated folk between the ages of 18 and 34 to head for their VW dealer.
Then there's the VW faithful. The guy with GTi tattooed on his tush and a garage full of Quantum wagons. Volkswagen also needs the Rabbit to get this guy back in the showroom.
With new competition from cars like the Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit and the recently redesigned Honda Civic, not to mention the timeless good looks of its own Quantum, VW's 2006 Rabbit certainly has its work cut out for it. Better stock up on the carrots.
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