- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Marketing is a murky world indeed. Some ideas work and some don’t. Some can make or break a product, while others are insignificant enough that their product impact is practically nil.

Volkswagen’s reintroducing the Rabbit name for the American version of the fifth-generation Golf falls into the latter.

No doubt some go-getter at a Golf marketing meeting said something like, “Hey, remember in 1985 when we jettisoned the Rabbit name for Golf? Let’s change it back.” Someone at the other end of the table yelled, “Brilliant!” “Harrumphs” echoed around the gathering and the deed was done.

In the great scheme of things, it probably won’t much matter. Notoriously unreliable, most examples of the original Rabbit are long gone. Consequently 30- to 40-somethings may wax nostalgic about learning to drive in a Rabbit, but the first-time buyers this car targets probably have no clue that once upon a time what the rest of world knew as the Golf was a Rabbit in this country. Whether called a Golf or Rabbit, it will succeed or fail on its merits.

Volkswagen started with a platform utilized on other small VWs as well as the Audi A3. It greatly revised the suspension found in the last-generation Golf. In particular, the rear torsion beam axle has been replaced with a multilink arrangement translating into a more pliant ride.

The other big change mechanically is the powertrain. Here the rather anemic 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four stimulating the outgoing Golf gives way to a more energetic 150-horsepower 2.5-liter four. While the extra pep catapults Rabbit over most of its competitors, it still falls short of one or two of them, such as the new 172-horsepower Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass.

Delivering decent if not exhilarating acceleration, the Rabbit’s four streams its production to the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. Ponying up an additional $1,075 gets you the new driver-shiftable six-speed automatic. Fuel economy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a respectable 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the open highway.

After flirting with the higher-end segments of the automotive spectrum with the luxurious $100,000 Phaeton, Volkswagen appears to be concentrating again on its more traditional less-well-heeled target buyer. The very affordable $15,620 base price of the three-door Rabbit adds some credence to the suggestion that VW is returning to its roots.

Technically there is only one trim level for the new Rabbit; however, like the outgoing Golf, there is also a five-door configuration. It is gussied up with additional standard equipment and a $17,620 price tag.

All Rabbits come standard with power accessories, cruise control, air conditioning, MP3 capability, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and six air bags. Plunking down the extra two large for the five-door ups the content to include an upgraded audio system — replacing the single CD player with a six-disc CD changer — and additional adjustments for the driver’s seat.

Volkswagen never seemed to notice that hatchbacks fell out of favor for a few years. It continued building the Golf despite an industry trend away from hatchback configurations.

The pendulum is swinging back, making hatchbacks more plentiful on the automotive landscape and elevating VW to seer status on the subject.

Whether it’s the three-door or five-door Rabbit, the shadow it casts is the same. The dimensions don’t vary with the number of passenger doors.

As would be expected in this class, the front-seat occupants have more wiggle room than those in the back seat.

The new Rabbit is larger than the old Golf, however, and does provide rear-seat passengers with a couple of extra inches of legroom. With the rear seat in place, there are 15 cubic feet of cargo space and that increases with the split back seat folded down.

The wealth of standard content aside, the Rabbit’s cabin is well executed.

It’s a tidy arrangement highlighted with quality materials and meticulous workmanship. The switches have an expensive feel and the gauges glow blue when the headlamps are engaged.

Right at home in a car costing $10,000 more, the front seats offer sufficient support to ward off fatigue even on all-day treks. Road and engine noise are kept at bay, creating a quiet passenger environment.

This may be Volkswagen’s representative in the small economy segment, but it doesn’t shortchange passengers to qualify for its entry-level standing.

Sure, the changes to the suspension architecture have somewhat softened the sporty edge of the previous hatchback, but the tradeoff is enhanced passenger comfort, and there is nothing wrong with that. All in all, the Rabbit is a value in the compact segment. Moreover, unlike the Rabbit of two decades ago, this one reflects the same degree of quality as the rest of VW’s lineup.

So why quibble over the name? Golf or Rabbit, it is an effort worthy of Volkswagen.

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