2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic
2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Laurance Yap

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“Is that the new Golf?”

It seemed to be the question on the mind of a lot of Golf drivers that I pulled up beside at stoplights or pulled in beside in various parking lots.

“Yes,” I would say. “I mean, no. They call it the Rabbit now.”

Heaven knows why they decided to change the name back to Rabbit, the name the Golf was introduced to North America with in the late seventies. While that nameplate may have a little bit of residual goodwill – and my emphasis is very much on the “little bit” part of that statement – it’s been called a Golf for its last three generations and has been called Golf everywhere else in the world. Volkswagen is targeting relatively young, new car buyers with this model; how many of them are going to remember the old Rabbit? And if they do, aren’t they as likely to remember it as their first cheap used car as remember the original?

Whatever. The new Golf is now called the Rabbit and has a rabbit logo on the back (with no text). The old Golf is now called the City Golf. Hopefully, you’re as confused as I am.

The Rabbit still looks like a Golf. It has the new Volkswagen corporate face, with its curved headlights and deeper front air intakes, but doesn’t have the chrome single-frame surround that the Jetta and Passat have. The shape is instantly recognizable, a chunky shoe in profile with thick, strong-looking rear pillars and a rising beltline that give it a real sense of security. At least on the test car I was driving, it had a nice stance, even on the standard plastic wheel covers and steel 15-inch wheels (16-inch alloys are a no-cost option; I don’t know why you wouldn’t go for them).

2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic
2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic. Click image to enlarge

It drives like a Golf, too, with a very high-quality, very (dare I say) German driving experience. Even though it’s not a particularly fast car, you can tell the Golf – er, Rabbit – has spent some development time on the autobahn. It cruises along at high speed confidently, with the steering providing just the right balance of lively feel and well-damped security. The suspension shrugs off big bumps at highway speeds with unruffled ease and in town, the ride is firm but never jarring. Cornering on the standard 15-inch Continental tires will exceed your expectations: there’s plenty of grip available and the Rabbit remains resistant to understeer well past the point where you would think its front tires would be squealing in protest. The brakes are terrific, with a progressive, if long-travel, pedal and offer ABS and brake-force distribution as standard.

I’ve never much been a fan of automatic transmissions in small cars, but the Rabbit is an exception. For one thing, the optional six-speed automatic gives you an extra gear compared to the standard five-speed manual, giving a double-whammy of both improved acceleration and better fuel economy. For another thing, it’s impressively smooth and responsive in its operation, shifting seamlessly when you’re puttering around town and changing gears with authority when you have your foot down.

2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic
2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic. Click image to enlarge

It also has a manual-shift gate – rare for this class – which gives you the ability to work it like a manual, though there aren’t any paddles behind the steering wheel. There’s also a “sport” position in the shift quadrant that makes the automatic behave like an aggressive manual driver, downshifting while braking and holding gears longer under acceleration.

The automatic is a good partner to the 150-horsepower 2.5-litre inline-five-cylinder engine, which isn’t the smoothest engine in the world, but at least has a distinctive warbly sound that makes it stand out in a class full of four-cylinder cars. Once it’s warmed up (it can sound a bit like a diesel when cold), the engine is quiet except under hard acceleration and its fat torque curve reduces the need for the transmission to downshift; you can, mostly, just waft past other traffic by flexing your right toes. On the other hand, the Rabbit’s relatively large displacement (in its class, the next-smallest engine is the 160-hp 2.3-litre that’s optional in the Mazda3) means that its fuel economy is less than impressive for the size of car. Over a week’s worth of mostly freeway driving, I managed about 10 L/100 km; the last Honda Civic I drove beat that by almost 3 L/100 km.

Overall, though, I was tempted to overlook the fuel-consumption penalty because this car drives far better than its $20,000 starting price. It’s not as frisky as a Mazda3, or as light on its feet as a Civic or Corolla, but it also feels more substantial, more solid at high speeds – and save for the occasionally-gruff engine, is more refined as well.

2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic
2007 Volkswagen Rabbit six-speed automatic. Click image to enlarge

As you would expect from Volkswagen, whose interiors have set the standard for mainstream cars since the late nineties, the Rabbit’s interior also feels very expensive, and is solidly constructed from high-quality materials. Save for a small dashboard rattle, my tester felt solid and tight, like it would last for years and years. There is some small evidence of cost-cutting, though: the lower panels of the centre console and doors are now made of harder plastic than they used to be and the standard CD stereo’s small, dim display, leaves a bit to be desired. Still, the 10-speaker stereo does sound good – and the Rabbit comes with a long list of standard features including power windows, locks and heated mirrors; air conditioning with semi-automatic climate control; cruise control; six airbags and a security system with keyless entry and ignition immobilizer.

What comes as a surprise is just how roomy the Rabbit’s interior is. While the old Golf was always versatile and flexible, it was lacking in rear-seat space and could feel a bit tight up front for larger drivers. The Rabbit feels significantly larger in all dimensions: there’s enough room in the back for real adults even when the front seats are pushed all the way to the rear and the cargo area is larger than ever. Finding a comfortable driving position is easy no matter how big or small you are, thanks to a convenient barber’s-chair height adjustment, an infinitely variable seatback angle (the knob that controls it can be a pain, but once you’ve set it, you can forget it) and a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes. Should you opt for the three-door version (a five-door is available and would definitely be my preference), access to the rear seats is easy using a handle mounted on the side of the front seat; when you put the seat back, it remembers its previous position, something many cars still haven’t figured out how to do.

It’s clever little touches like this that really set the Rabbit apart from its competition. From the outside, with its plastic wheel covers and matte-finish trim, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a car that you grow to like more and more the more time you spend with it. There’s a depth to the design and engineering of the Rabbit that doesn’t immediately reveal itself; it’s a car that grows on you rather than one that makes a great first impression. As such, I imagine it’s a car that would be a lot of fun to own; it’ll only be over the course of a few years that you discover just how good it really is.



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