New VW Rabbit comes with right creature comforts

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There had to be plenty of skeptics back in 1974.

The homely but lovable Volkswagen Beetle, one of the best-selling cars in history with sales that would go on to top 21 million, was being succeeded by a sterile-looking little box that essentially threw everything that defined the Beetle into the trash.

Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive was replaced by front-engine, front-wheel drive. The durable, air-cooled boxer engine was banished in favor of a conventional, in-line, water-cooled, four-cylinder engine. The cargo area was moved from front to back and accessed through a hatchback.

And the name — Golf — how weird was that? It’s still difficult to figure out how the product planners decided on it. All I know for sure is that it was taken from Golf-Strom, which spells Gulf Stream in German.

Of course, I also know that the Germans understood it would be a hard sell overseas, so they named it the Rabbit for North American buyers.

Time, obviously, has proved the skeptics wrong. The Golf/Rabbit is now in its 33rd year and is the third best-selling car in history, with more than 25 million sales. It passed the iconic Beetle in 2002.

The genius of the then-rare front-engine, front-drive configuration has long since been confirmed. The space-efficient design, which provides comfortable seating for four adults, is now the gold standard for compact cars worldwide.

The name game — that’s still a mystery to many of us. Volkswagen standardized the Golf moniker worldwide when VW abandoned its less-than-successful Pennsylvania production plant in 1984, and then reintroduced the Rabbit name a year ago in the United States with the introduction of the 5th generation model.

I recently spent a week with a four-door version of the new Bunny and can confirm that, while it is improved in every way, it remains true to its roots. It is what it always has been — an affordable, versatile, roomy compact that is uncommonly fun to drive.

The latest restyling differentiates the new car from its predecessors, but both the two-door and four-door models are essentially mild derivatives of all that have come before.

Beneath the surface, however, the car is thoroughly updated, with a more rigid platform, new engine and automatic transmission, updated suspension and improved interior.

The five-cylinder engine is a first for the Rabbit and a huge improvement over the 115-horsepower, four-cylinder powerplant it succeeds. Its 2.5 liters produce 150 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, enough for peppy acceleration and quiet cruising. Fuel consumption with either the five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission is rated at 22 miles per gallon city/30 highway. I averaged 18 to 28 mpg in a four-door model with standard shift.

What makes the Rabbit such a joy for the enthusiast driver is its agility. It”s not quite on a par with the more expensive and more powerful Volkswagen GTI, but the handling characteristics are so neutral it”s almost possible to forget that this is a front-drive car. Chalk that up primarily to the revised independent suspension, with strong assists from the nicely weighted, communicative rack-and-pinion steering and strong anti-lock disc brakes.

But that same suspension also provides a compliant ride that makes the Rabbit a quiet, relaxing place to spend in traffic on the open road.

Inside, the Rabbit is well tailored, but somewhat austere. Seats, especially the front buckets, are quite comfortable, and there is enough sound-deadening material to block out most outside-world annoyances.

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