First Drive: 2006 Rabbit 2.5

In 1975, just as the American public was starting to warm up to the idea of cars that were both compact and economical in the wake of a fuel shortage, Volkswagen launched its small and plucky Rabbit. Powered by 1.5 liters of fury, with breaker-point ignition, drum brakes at all four corners and 13″ tires that were smaller than the brake rotors on today’s Audi S8, the Rabbit would never be mistaken for a luxurious vehicle. Compared to its peers, however, the Rabbit was a knockout. Road & Track once named it “the best sedan under $3,500”, and Car and Driver, in a 1978 comparison of econoboxes, stated that “the car that is all by itself at the head of the pack is the VW Rabbit.” The cheeky hatchback has also proven to be remarkably durable. Consider this: There hasn’t been a new Rabbit produced in 22 years, but there are still 18,000 examples frolicking over the hills and dales of the American countryside. That’s no idle brag. When was the last time you saw a Renault Le Car on the road? Or a Toyota Corona? You could gather up everyone who owns one of those, and still not be able to field a soccer team.

Rabbit soldiered on, changing its name to Golf in 1985 and growing more and more distended with each generation. As Volkswagen of America stood on the cusp of introducing an all-new, fifth-generation Golf in the U.S., it made a bold move that left even those who like bold moves scratching their heads. It not only chose to introduce the car at a substantial price cut under the previous model – $14,990 for a two-door model and $16,990 for a four-door with more standard equipment – and to sell it as a Rabbit. The decision was so eleventh-hour that VW staffers at the New York International Auto Show were frantically prying Golf badges off of show cars the day before they were set to be unveiled to the press.

The Rabbit had died, but now it has been reborn.

The most obvious change from the outgoing Golf is in the Rabbit’s exterior appearance. Volkswagen has smoothed out the sheetmetal, giving it a much cleaner and streamlined appearance, most noticeably because of the greater angle between the hood and the rakishly canted windshield. Front rub strips are tucked underneath the headlamps like a quarterback’s greasepaint, complementing a two-bar grille that eschews VW’s corporate waterfall snout in favor of a more subtle appearance. On Rabbit’s flanks, taut vertical planes define the boundaries of the wheelhouse bulges. Matte black mouldings on two-door models – body color on four-doors – help protect against parking dings, and side-marker turn signals have been smoothed into the lower edges of the heated mirror housings. All Rabbit models feature an integrated and color-matched rear spoiler to break up airflow over the backlite, keeping the window clean at highway speeds, and the hatch release handle has been integrated into the VW badge, eliminating visual clutter.

The overall result is a much cleaner and more upscale looking vehicle, which in turn gives the Rabbit less of a hair-shirt, entry-level image. The improvements are not just aesthetic, either – the Rabbit bounds through the air with a slippery coefficient of drag of 0.32 – lower than any shoebox on wheels has a right to achieve. As a result, wind noise and buffeting from the wakes of trucks is greatly reduced.

Other striking visual details on our test vehicle were the factory-upgrade 16-inch “Magny Cours” alloy wheels with 205/55R16 all season tires. Rabbit comes standard with 196/65R15 tires on steel wheels covered by sexless, decidedly unhip hubcaps. The larger wheels and tires fill out Rabbit’s prodigious wheelhouses, even if there is still enough of a gap between the tire and the body to insert a complete, clenched fist. Rabbit is available with no fewer than three different alloy wheels which can be installed at the North American distribution port – seventeen-inch “Goal” wheels and eighteen-inch “Vision” and “Karthoum” wheels, all featuring lipless designs which seemingly flow into the sidewalls of the tires. But you have to wonder whether Volkswagen’s logic has ebbed its flow in offering so many low-profile wheel packages on a vehicle that is being marketed as a city car.

As much fun as the name “Rabbit” conjures up, one can only guess at what Volkswagen was thinking with the exterior color palette. Rabbits are available in a chuckle-free spectrum of dark blue, dark gray, light gray, white, black, and a gray-green. Oh, sure, a bone is thrown to funky Rabbit lovers with the availability of the flamingly-pigmented Tornado Red, but that doesn’t change the fact that most Rabbits hitting dealership lots could very well be camouflaged – if you were ever driving through Chelyabinsk and wanted to blend in against an old Soviet tractor factory.

The same criticisms can’t be leveled against the new Rabbit’s interior. Available in black, gray or a warm light brown, all interiors feature a stylish two-tone trim with a matte black instrument panel and metallic garnishes around the floor shifter and gauges. The grab handles and glove box door are silicone-damped and operate with velveteen motions. The attention to detail is typically German- gaps between mating surfaces are almost obsessively uniform, and nowhere is there a visible screw head or line of casting flash. The interior is filled with soft-touch surfaces; the headliner is a nice woven cloth, and there is fabric covering the pillar trim.

Controls are extremely intuitive to use in the Rabbit, and are laid out in a manner that not only makes sense, but is visually pleasing. The radio falls readily to hand, and the ventilation system can be adjusted by three large knobs located in the center stack. Rabbit features Volkswagen’s Climatic semi-automatic climate control system, which automatically adjusts the temperature to stay within a preset limit but allows full manual control over fan speed and airflow. There is only a single 12-volt accessory outlet in the center console, a bit of a disappointment in a time when every cell phone, laptop computer, and iPod integration widget needs its own plug. (While late 2006 Rabbits have no iPod integration, 2007 models should have an auxiliary input built directly into the head unit.) Large gauges in front of the driver feature white-on-black printing and are easy to read in all lighting conditions. Volkswagen’s traditional blue gauge illumination with red needles looks as good here as it ever has, and the radio and switchgear glows softly in matching hues. The only real ergonomic gripe about the interior is the lever to operate the Rabbit’s standard cruise control, which sticks out on the left side of the steering column and gets bumped frequently when going for the turn signal stalk. Wheel-mounted controls would have been better by far.

Our test vehicle featured the upgraded ten-speaker premium audio system, which includes a six-disc in-dash changer – a welcome break from previous Volkswagens that stuffed a remote changer in the glove compartment or armrest cubby. The player reads MP3 format data CD-Rs, and is Sirius satellite radio compatible. (XM is available, but only on the very few 2006 models so equipped.) The sound quality of the 10-speaker system was acceptable given the Rabbit’s place in the market, with punchy but distorted low-end frequencies and clear highs and mid-range frequency reproduction, thanks to coaxial speakers and separate ceramic dome tweeters. The system lacked proper imaging and staging, like many factory audio systems, but the average Rabbit buyer won’t be bothered by the sound quality. Especially in light of the fact that a similarly priced Honda Civic has no speakers and slab of plastic covering the hole where the optional radio should be.

The 8-way manually adjustable seats on the Rabbit four-door that we tested were firm and supportive, with the ability to set the cushion height, head rest angle, lumbar support and a power recline on the driver’s side. I was able to find a comfortable driving position within 30 seconds of entering the vehicle. Four-door Rabbits also feature heated front seats as standard, and the passenger seat folds flat to increase loading space across the entire expanse of the interior. Two-door models receive height-adjustable seats that perform a clever flip-flip-flip origami motion to move up and out of the way, allowing easy access to the rear. Both Rabbits have 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks and head rests at all seating positions. With the rear seats upright, Rabbit yields 15 cubic feet or cargo space, more than enough room for a large suitcase, a 35 gallon aquarium, or a dozen twelve-packs of Old English. (Don’t ask how we know.)

“But how does it drive?” you’re wondering. We’ve established that the Rabbit is a very nice car to look at and sit in, all of which means nothing if it’s a disappointment on the road.

We’re happy to report that Rabbit carries over much of the ride and handling found on the new Jetta. What stands out the most – especially compared to the outgoing Golf – is that Volkswagen has improved body control by leaps and bounds. The squidgy roll, nose-dive under braking, and squat on acceleration are all but gone thanks to higher-rate springs and firmer dampers. The Rabbit’s stiffer body structure and longer wheelbase mean that even though the suspension has had its flab surgically removed, it still rides better than the previous generation car. Consigned to the trash heap is the twist-beam solid axle of the old Golf, replaced by a multi-link, fully independent rear suspension with a stabilizer bar. Although we were unable to test a model with the 15″ tires, the 16″ models that we drove turned in well and didn’t want to wander wide of the turn, especially over bumps where the Golf’s solid axle would clomp and buckboard. Steering is electromechanically assisted, which sounds horrible after having driven all manner of GM cars with fingertip-light Delphi electric power steering systems, but the Rabbit’s speed-sensitive variable assist is very nicely weighted and is surprisingly good at communicating what the front wheels are doing to the driver.

Volkswagen is quick to point out that the Rabbit is being marketed as a city car, and its modest amounts of grip at the limit is proof of the car’s real mission. Yet when pushed hard, the Rabbit is still reassuring given its all-season tires and comfort-biased suspension tuning. It will understeer if pushed too far, partly designed-in to protect inexperienced drivers from oversteer and partly because of its front-wheel-drive configuration. Rabbit is predictable enough at the edge, though, that it’s simple to bring the car back under control with the throttle – there are no real surprises or scares that will crop up as a result of a young Mario’s inevitable mistakes.

Standard on all Rabbits is VW’s familiar 150hp, 2.5-liter in-line five cylinder engine, mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or a six-speed Aisin automatic with Tiptronic controls. The clever DSG dual-clutch gearbox is not available on Rabbit.

With 90 percent of its torque available from 1,750 clear up to 5,125 rpm, the 2.5 pulls well off the line, with more than enough scoot to move the nearly 3,000-pound Rabbit into gaps in traffic without a trace of drama. A world-class fence-sitter of an engine, the 2.5 may prove to be the Rabbit’s Achilles’ heel in the marketplace – it’s not gutless, but neither is it particularly efficient or inspiring. Looking at the 2.5 from an enthusiasts’ point of view is to be disingenuous, since it wasn’t designed to get boy-racer hearts pumping, but when looking at it from an economical standpoint, the engine fails to impress as well. With an EPA mileage rating of 22/30 and a large 6.3-quart oil capacity, Rabbit owners will have to look long and hard at the operating and maintenance expenses before signing paperwork at the dealership. The best thing that can be said about the 2.5 is that it’s better than the previous doorstop of a base engine, the 2.0-liter four cylinder, and that is damning by faint praise.

In the end, there are two kinds of stories about Volkswagen.

In the first story, which is usually told by someone who owns an air-cooled Beetle – or maybe an early GTI – the storyteller finds himself lamenting the company’s shift away from its core values. Maybe it was around 2004, when the lowest-priced model in the lineup chiming it at $17,990. Maybe it was the laundry list of standard power features that was driving the base price higher. Maybe it was the lack of lightly-optioned vehicles available on dealership lots. Whatever the circumstances, the storyteller finds ample evidence that the company he knew and loved is abandoning buyers looking for an inexpensive, reliable German car, and hopes for the day that VW would again play in the entry-level arena. The company’s name, he is quick to point out, means “people’s car.”

Volkswagen, so the story goes, is a company rooted in value, not rubbery interior materials.

In the other story, the teller is also talking about VW’s core values, but sees the proliferation of standard features and upgraded interior trims as inevitable. Volkswagen simply can’t go after the lower end of the market, instead leaving it to a handful of Korean brands and amenity-free Japanese models. The real market, he insists, is for highline Passats and Touaregs. Those who keep reminiscing about their Foxes and Sciroccos, he believes, are like old men who sit around in rocking chairs and pine for the “good ol’ days”, but conveniently forget about indoor plumbing and the electric light bulb.

Volkswagen, so the story goes, is a company firmly rooted in offering a premium product at a premium price.

After a significant amount of seat time in the Rabbit, I can say with confidence that the car straddles both ideals: It is at once an inexpensive, practical car and a vehicle that feels like it costs twice what it does. Having driven it on lazy backroads and through gridlocked Philadelphia, I’ve only become more convinced of this. Rabbit is urban kickabout and automotive couture, utilitarian yet upscale. If there ever were a time for Volkswagen to recapture the imagination of youthful buyers, if there ever were a time when the stars were aligned for the company to make inroads into a market long since ceded to Asian brands and fire-sale domestics, this would be it. And the Rabbit would be the car to do it with.

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