- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

When practically everybody in the car business abandoned hatchbacks as if they were infected with some sort of bird flu, Volkswagen stubbornly stuck to the design with its Golf.

That was fine in Europe, where people love the wagonlike utility and practicality. But it didn’t help much in the United States, where buyers traditionally favored notchback cars with conventional trunks.

But times and tastes change, and hatchbacks have become all the rage. Among them: Chevrolet Aveo and HHR, Toyota Yaris and Matrix, Dodge

Caliber and Nitro, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Pontiac Vibe, Jeep Compass, Scion xA, Honda Fit, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa, Mazda 3 and Ford Focus. And that doesn’t count small crossover sport utility vehicles such as the Ford.

The upside is that VW’s hatchback fealty has been vindicated. The downside is that there’s a whole lot more competition out there.

To give its new offering an extra shot, Volkswagen dug deep in its past and changed the Golf’s name in the U.S. back to the Rabbit. It was a puzzle to anyone who remembered the shoddy quality of the Rabbit of the 1970s, when it was built in the United States. The factory eventually closed and production returned to Germany.

But there are a lot of younger buyers out there with little or no memory of the earlier Rabbit, and there is something perky about the name and how it lends itself to clever advertising.

Moreover, this Rabbit bears no resemblance whatsoever to its ancestor. In the current herd of hatchbacks, it offers standout performance, handling and comfort to go with its versatility.

But don’t think of it as an economy car, as are many of the competitors. The base price of the tested automatic-transmission Rabbit was $18,695. It’s decently dressed, with standard equipment that includes antilock disc brakes, traction control, an automatic differential lock in the front-drive transaxle, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, cruise control, remote central locking, power windows, powered and heated outside mirrors, manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and an audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and MP3 capability.

A couple of atypical items of equipment are heated cloth front seats and a driver’s seat with manual adjustments for travel, height and lumbar, but a motorized seatback. Though it seems strange at first, it makes a lot of sense because the seatback angle can be fine-tuned, where a manual adjuster offers only limited increments.

With a few options, including electronic stability control, a motorized sunroof, XM satellite radio and alloy wheels, the bottom-line sticker price came to $20,920.

Unusual in this class of car is the fact that the Rabbit’s automatic transmission is a six-speed. It shifts so smoothly it’s difficult to discern the shift points, and the extra ratios help the Rabbit to get the most out of the 150 horsepower from its 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, which also is unusual in a class that features mainly fours.

Acceleration from zero to 60 mph comes up with a definite Germanic feel, as well as the sort of supple ride you might not expect in a car that is less than 14 feet long. The combination results in a conveyance that is effortless to live with daily.

Of course, the hatchback design makes for versatility. Though the cargo area is a modest 15 cubic feet — about what you’d find in a midsize sedan — the rear seatbacks are divided two-thirds and one-third, and fold nearly flat to expand the stowage. In addition, the right-front seatback also folds flat to carry long items such as stepladders or lumber.

The back seat offers adequate knee and head room for two persons, but they are forced to sit uncomfortably upright. The center-rear position should be saved for a watermelon or a duffel bag.

Up front, the seats are comfortable and supportive. It’s not difficult to find a comfortable driving position. The center console cover, which also functions as an armrest, slides back and forth.

With the cloth upholstery, which does a good job of warming the torso by itself, the seat heater comes across as redundant. Leather upholstery, which is cold in the cold and hot in the heat, is a better candidate for heating and cooling.

Controls are mostly ergonomically correct. But the cruise control lever is too similar to the turn signal lever, so you sometimes get one when you want the other. An Audi-like switch controls the sunroof opening in increments.

The instruments are lighted in bright blue, with red accents, and are easy to read quickly. The door pockets are big enough to hold quart-size drinks.

Sales of the Rabbit’s predecessor, the Golf, totaled 15,690 in 2005. With both the Golf and the new Rabbit together in 2006, sales were on a pace to top 28,000.

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