When we got the keys to a 2006 Volkswagen Rabbit hatchback, we were just a little turned off.
A rather cheesy-looking, bright green rabbit's foot -- a retro good-luck charm from our childhood -- was attached to the key chain.
With a goofy touch like that, it was easy to worry that the new Rabbit would be a small car that puts too much of a premium on cuteness -- even silliness -- from its adorable bounding-bunny logo to the car's recent marketing hook-up with Playboy magazine. VW explained that unseemly alliance by saying the Rabbit logo was a "distant cousin" to the iconic Playboy bunny logo.
But after spending a week in the German-built Rabbit, we're convinced that all the whimsical stuff surrounding the renamed Golf is just a smokescreen. Because the little Rabbit is one substantial and serious small car that easily keeps pace with, and in some instances even outguns, such high-profile Detroit competitors as the Dodge Caliber and Ford Focus.
That came as a bit of a surprise to us, considering the car has been on sale for three years in Europe, where it still carries the Golf name. Amazingly, the Rabbit, which went on sale here in late June, seems fresh and appealing in the U.S., even against such formidable competitors as the recently redesigned Honda Civic.
The five-passenger Rabbit starts at $15,620, including a $630 shipping charge, for a base two-door model.
We tested an amply equipped four-door model with five options, including a $1,075 six-speed automatic transmission, and a bottom line of $20,920.
If you're worried about high gas prices and can't imaging giving up a big sedan for a smaller car, the '06 Rabbit is an excellent transitional vehicle.
Our test car is rated by the EPA at 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
At the same time, the Rabbit feels spacious and solid, with a surprisingly high level of creature comforts and an impressive array of standard safety features, including antilock brakes, front side air bags, and side curtain air bags that protect all outboard passengers. In comparison, side air bags are an extra-cost item in the '07 Focus.
In keeping with its German heritage (and four-legged namesake), the Rabbit is also quick and nimble, which puts it miles ahead of the '07 Caliber. For under $21,000, the entertainment quotient is tough to beat in this class.
Besides safety and performance, one of the Rabbit's strongest attributes is its lack of a cute "face," the bane of many small cars, including the new Toyota Yaris.
The wedge-shaped Rabbit looks much more stylish than its boxy namesake from the 1970s, thanks to such design cues as a rather long hood, a rear roof spoiler and jazzy wheels, including the optional $400 16-inch alloy ones on our test car.
The Rabbit can be further customized with a $1,675 "ground effects" package that includes a front spoiler, side sill extensions, a rear valence and an exhaust tip.
Inside, the Rabbit more than meets our small-car litmus test. That is, how well the rear-seat passengers are treated. In this case, they are pampered. The rear seat not only has good head and leg room, it comes equipped with individual reading lights, vents with directional controls, two cupholders, map pockets and in-door storage.
The cabin is flexible, with a split-folding rear seat that also has a pass-through feature in the center for items such as skis. There is ample cargo room with the rear seat folded down. We were able to stash eight grocery bags in the trunk with the rear seat up.
You won't feel as if you are being penalized for downsizing with the Rabbit, either, because VW took pains to include many upscale features.
Our test car had a standard in-dash 6-CD player, heated front seats, a power front seat rake, lighted vanity mirrors and such options as $375 XM satellite radio. VW even provides four-year/unlimited-mileage roadside assistance with the Rabbit.
Our short list of complaints included front cupholders that are too small and don't adjust, limited space in the center console and the fact that you have to pay $450 extra for stability control, a safety feature that keeps you from sliding around on slippery roads. Also, expect to pay $350 for rear side bags that protect the chests of rear occupants; they are also only available on the four-door models.
The new 2.5-liter-in-line-five-cylinder engine is considerably larger and more powerful than the 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the previous Golf model. We found the Rabbit's peppy engine to be a reassuring road companion, especially when merging onto the freeway or passing at highway speeds.
The Rabbit's I-5 churns out 150 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. In comparison, the 2.0-liter I-4 engine in the Focus returns 136 horsepower, while the base engine in the Caliber, a 1.8-liter I-4, delivers 148 horsepower (but feels considerably less muscular).
A five-speed manual transmission comes standard on the Rabbit, while a six-speed automatic with clutchless shifting is an option.
The Rabbit also benefits from a new fully independent suspension system that uses a multi-link rear and an "optimized" front axle. The ride is smooth and supple, and handling is crisp and controlled -- much more akin to that of a larger, more expensive European sport sedan than your typical econocar.
We have to confess that we are former Rabbit owners -- and that the purchase of a bare-bones 1979 model was one of the low points of our marriage. That's because one of us traded in a beloved VW Beetle for the Rabbit.
When we go small, the Rabbit is bound to be at the top of our shopping list. We won't even mind if they stick a rabbit's foot on the key chain, either.