2006 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-Door Review


PHOTO

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2006 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-Door

What was to be the latest generation of the Golf hatchback was, for the American market, renamed to Rabbit at the last minute. The car was always knows as the Golf in the rest of the world, and in Europe and Asia it's Golf today. But it was Rabbit here when it replaced the long-running Beetle in the late 1970s, and the Rabbit name still had plenty of equity and recognition. Volkswagen is returning to its roots.

The new Rabbit is a return to the VW roots in another, and more important way as well. It's aimed at the heart of the compact class, where the German automaker first achieved success long ago, and provides a solid alternative to the Asian cars that now dominate that category. It's offered in two- and four-door trim, both very well-equipped and competitively priced. There are alternatives for less than the two-door Rabbit's base MSRP of $14,990 or the four-door's $16,990, but those alternatives don't include the Rabbit's high level of standard equipment and comfort. And, with 150 horsepower, the Rabbit's torquey 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine is significantly stronger than any competitor, while returning very respectable gas mileage. The Rabbit's optional automatic transmission is not the four- or five-speed usual for the class, but a six-speed.

As might be guessed from the use of that drivetrain, and its similarity in shape to the latest GTI, the 2006 Rabbit is built on the same platform as the Jetta and GTI, which means that it now features a fully-independent suspension and four-wheel antilock disc brakes, unlike many of its competitors. Here it most shows its distinction from other small cars, for its ride and handling qualities are purely German, with good comfort, a quiet driving experience, and the fun-to-drive character that has given VW an almost cult-like following. That sporty German character shouldn't be surprising, as the car is now not merely ``German engineered'', production has been transferred back to Wolfsburg, Germany.

I've spent the past week with a four-door Rabbit equipped with some key options including the automatic, a power sunroof, 16-inch wheels and tires, the ESP stability control system, and XM satellite radio. So-equipped it's no ``econobox,'' it's a small-on-the-outside, large-inside car with the comfort, road manners, and performance of a car a class or two above and a distinctive character.

APPEARANCE: Stylistic changes between the last Golf and the new Rabbit are mostly subtle. As before, it's a two-box hatchback, but with sleeker lines. It's a little longer, both in overall length and wheelbase, and both versions have the same dimensions. The two-door model's doors are longer than the four-door's front doors, pushing the B-pillar back a few inches. At the front, the ``goatee'' trim introduced in chrome on the Jetta and Passat and black on the GTI is notably absent. The fenders are more pronounced, and more triangular headlights and a reshaped grille give a fresh new look. The rear is the most changed part, with large, rounded wraparound taillights. The VW logo is prominently displayed in the center of the grille and on the trunk, but nowhere does it say ``Rabbit.'' Instead, look for the chrome bunny.

COMFORT: As outside, the Rabbit's interior is a bit fresher in an evolutionary way, and a touch larger. And as ever, it's well-appointed and very comfortable, and the steering wheel is manually-adjustable for both tilt and reach. Materials used are all synthetic, but of high quality and handsome design. Air conditioning is standard in both models, and it works well - I was pleasantly cool even when the outside thermometer read well over 100. Instrumentation is complete, and the instrument panel is well-designed. Windows are power-operated, as is the optional glass sunroof. Interestingly, the driver's seat in four-door Rabbits has power back angle adjustment and manual cushion adjustment, for eight parameters total. The front passenger seat has the same adjustments, only completely manually. Seat comfort rivals some cars costing considerably more, and the velour upholstery feels very good. The rear seat is split 60/40, and in the four-door also has a ski passthrough and folding center armrest. The beauty of a four-door hatchback lies in its versatility. The four doors obviously make passenger access easy. They also help significantly in arranging cargo with the rear seat partially or completely folded. And items that can never fit through a sedan's trunk go easily through a hatchback opening.

SAFETY: The four-door Rabbit has received ``Top Safety Pick, Silver'' status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for its performance in frontal offset, side-impact, and rear-impact tests. It also has earned a four-star rating for driver and front passenger frontal crash protection and a five-star rating for side crash protection from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The full complement of front, front side, and side-curtain airbags are standard, with rear side airbags available in the four-door. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, traction control, and an electronic differential lock are also standard, with the ESP electronic stability control system available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Like its cousins the Jetta and GTI, the new Rabbit has an improved unibody structure that boasts increased structural rigidity and replaces the old rear torsion-beam axle with a fully-independent multilink suspension design. MacPherson struts continue in front. If not as firm as the GTI's, the Rabbit's suspension settings are firmer than in Golfs of old, and result in both very good ride comfort and entertainingly enthusiastic handling. Electro-mechanical variably-assisted power steering helps the driving experience, too, by providing a light touch at parking speeds and appropriately more effort at speed.

PERFORMANCE: Where most compact hatchbacks have a four-cylinder engine of 2.0 liters or less, and the old Golf fit right in with a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter, the Rabbit has more. Much more, as in a twin-cam, 20-valve 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder powerplant that makes 150 horsepower at 5000 rpm and a very healthy 170 lb-ft of torque at 3750 rpm - with most of that peak available from 1800 through 5000 rpm. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, with a six-speed automatic with both Tiptronic(r) manual-shift mode and Sport mode optional. My test car had the automatic, and if it had a negative impact on performance, I didn't much notice. The engine's strong torque and wide torque band, and the transmission's six speeds to improve both acceleration and cruising fuel economy seem meant for each other. Manual shifting worked well on tight roads, but Sport mode worked very nearly as well, holding gears through corners and even downshifting when necessary. Fuel economy, EPA 22mpg city and 30 highway, with 24 during my week, may not quite be up to the best in the small hatchback class, but the Rabbit is larger and more substantial and fully capable of delivering comfort on a long drive, not merely a short commute.

CONCLUSIONS: Volkswagen successfully returns to its roots in a modern way with its new Rabbit hatchback.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-Door

Base Price			$ 16,990
Price As Tested			$ 20,920
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 20-valve inline
				 5-cylinder
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 151 cu. in.
Horsepower			150 @ 5000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			170 @ 3750 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic (opt)
Wheelbase / Length		101.5 in. / 165.8 in.
Curb Weight			3,137 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		21
Fuel Capacity			14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane regular unleaded gasoline
Tires				P205/55 HR16 Conti Pro Contact (opt)
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		22 / 30 / 24
0 to 60 mph				9.0  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
6-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission	$ 1,075
Power sunroof					$ 1,000
ESP						$   450
16-inch alloy wheel package			$   400
XM Satellite radio				$   375
Destination charge				$   630

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