The all-new Volkswagen Rabbit represents the fifth generation of the Golf platform. It comes to the United States nearly two years after this new platform was launched as the Golf in Europe.
This is the first time Volkswagen has used the Rabbit name since the mid-1980s. Back then, Rabbit was the name used in North America for what the rest of the world knew as the Golf, the squared-off hatchback that replaced the old Beetle as the entry-level Volkswagen. The original Rabbit sold so well that Volkswagen became the first import brand to establish an assembly plant in the United States, at Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. By the mid-1980s, however, the Rabbit was falling behind in the sales race against rapidly improving Asian competitors, and Volkswagen closed its Pennsylvania plant closed around the end of the decade.
The Rabbit nameplate was resurrected by Volkswagen of America in an effort to re-establish and revitalize its share of the entry-level automotive market in North America. Americans bought nearly 175,000 Rabbits in 1981; in 2005, they took home fewer than 16,000 Golfs.
While the original Rabbit was offered not only as a hatchback but also as a convertible and even a compact pickup truck, the 2007 model comes only as a hatchback.
The new Rabbit looks a lot like the GTI that Volkswagen launched in the U.S. as an all-new model for 2006. It should, because both are built on the fifth-generation Golf platform. However, the Rabbit and GTI differ in some visual and many mechanical aspects.
Perhaps the greatest visual distinction is in their grilles. The GTI shows the aggressive, deep and blacked-out grille that characterizes many newest-generation VWs while the Rabbit has a more traditional grille set above the bumper and between the headlamps rather than extending down into the lower front fascia. The Rabbit doesn't look old-fashioned, however, not with three big air intakes set into its lower front fascia.
In profile, the new Rabbit isn't as squared off as earlier Golfs. It looks smoother, more well rounded, more muscular, more contemporary and even friendlier. Standard 15-inch and optional 16-inch wheels and tires lend a sure-footed aspect to the side view. A wide and dynamically sweeping C-pillar enhances the car's well-planted profile.
The rear view is dominated by large and wide-set tail lamps that, with twin tailpipes and a broad bumper, underscore a well-planted appearance.
The Rabbit is slightly larger than the previous-generation Golf, about an inch longer, an inch wider and 1.5 inches taller. Its wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) is more than two and a half inches longer. Such a change usually means a smoother ride.
Inside, the new Rabbit resembles the GTI, which means that it features a lot of room and some nice materials that look like they'll wear well.
VW says "Raumwunder" is the German word for small on the outside but big on the inside and the Rabbit provides 94.2 cubic feet of room under its roof, which makes it nearly as roomy as the interior of the mid-sized VW Passat sedan.
Even with the rear seat in its upright and locked position, the Rabbit provides 15.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity, nearly a cubic foot more than the Passat's trunk. Four tie-down hooks are provided to secure cargo.
The back seat is comfortable for two but has room for three when needed. Legroom is more than adequate and there are cup holders and storage cubbies for those sitting back there. Access to the rear seat is aided in the two-door Rabbit by VW's Easy Entry System. Just tip the front seatback forward until it snaps into place, and then the entire front seat slides forward to make a path to the rear. Slide the front seat back and it returns to its original position with the seatback at its original angle.
Obviously, this feature isn't needed in the four-door Rabbit, which provides rear doors for access to the back seat. Fold the back seats down and the large cargo area is accessible from the rear doors as well.
Front seats are very comfortable and supportive. Volkswagen is promoting the Rabbit as an urban vehicle, but we found it comfortable for long stretches of highway travel. One reason is the improvement in noise, vibration and harshness levels, a benefit of its improved structure. The Rabbit isn't noisy inside, even at freeway speeds, and quiet equals comfort.
Driver comfort is aided by the presence of a steering column that both tilts and telescopes for more personalized fit. The driver's seat in the two-door model features six-way adjustment while the 4-door version gets an eight-way adjustable driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support. The front seats are heated in the four-door version as well.
Drivers in the four-door model can flip the front passenger's seatback forward into a flat position, allowing long objects, such as a ladder, to be carried or to provide a flat surface for a laptop or lunch.
The instrument panel features Volkswagen's gauges illuminated in red and blue. Audio indicators and easy-to-use knobs to adjust the climate controls add convenience.