It pains me to admit that I really kind of like it when automakers drag old model names out of the closet and slap them on the skin of a fresh, new automobile.
That's what Volkswagen did with the Rabbit, an old-school name reintroduced late in 2006 and rolling into the 2007 model year.
OK, before you purists tear into me, I totally get that this Rabbit is actually a fifth-generation VW Golf being marketed to the American public as a bunny hatchback.
So what? Volkswagen's Golf was marketed as the Rabbit to North American consumers from 1975 to 1984. I don't mind a little wordplay from a manufacturer trying to make a group of prospective buyers feel special.
And you have to love a 2007 car with a chrome image of a running rabbit on its back end. It's accurate, too, because the tested four-door car -- also sold in two-door trim -- was one rapid Rabbit.
Indeed, for my money, the new Rabbit's performance is the vehicle's signature trait.
A glance at the Rabbit's specifications doesn't get the blood racing: a 2.5-liter in-line 5 with 150 horsepower and a maximum torque rating of 170 foot-pounds coming in a few ticks below 4,000 revolutions per minute.
Heck, a lot of cars have that ... and more.
But running the Rabbit on the highway quickly motivated me to learn some advanced right-foot control. I struggled mightily to keep the car under 80 miles per hour.
It just kept wanting to scamper up there to 80 mph. My brain was telling my foot, "Back off, back off, back off ..." Even when I felt like I was crawling, the Rabbit was whizzing along at 70 to 75 mph with seemingly no strain and surprisingly little noise.
Kudos to VW engineers for putting some hopped-up Volkswagen GTI DNA into this 3,100-pound Rabbit, which also featured exceptional responsiveness and a fair amount of firmness in hard corners.
And kudos for including four-wheel discs (vented on the front), electronic brake force distribution and hydraulic brake-assist. They all combine to make this hare nearly stand on end when you hit the brakes.
In fact, the long list of features included in the manufacturer's suggested retail price of $16,990 makes the Rabbit a value leader. The tester's price swelled to more than $20,000 with such extras as a $1,000 power sunroof, a $375 XM Satellite Radio package and a $450 electronic stabilization program (recommended for that extra margin of safety).
Inside, the Rabbit's dash was uncomplicated, and the controls were easy to use. Three adults will be cramped sitting in back of the 166-inch-long car, but not as much as you would think given the 94 cubic feet of passenger space within the cabin.
Outside, flipping the large VW logo is a cool way to open the hatch, which yawns wide to accept bulky cargo.
Styling is sweetly aerodynamic with that touch of cuteness you expect from the maker of the venerable VW Beetle. European styling is evident, but a bold front end is American-style sporty.
Some have griped about the Rabbit's somewhat tepid 22 miles-per-gallon rating in city traffic -- not an impressive number for a lightweight compact. But with regular gas as recommended fuel and the aforementioned performance characteristics, it's hard to gripe too much about 22 mpg.
The 2006 four-door Rabbit tested last year by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety earned the coveted "Top Safety Pick" designation, based on results during front, side and rear-end crash tests.
Overall, the Rabbit stacks up nicely in a compact segment that's loaded with safe, affordable, reliable and well-established models. But the Rabbit offers a little more oomph and sporty style than you'll find in some of those other models, even though it doesn't deliver the fuel economy of some of its competitors.
I'm happy that Volkswagen is concentrating on the small performers that it builds so well, instead of wandering off into foreign territory to build big $100,000 sedans (see the recently departed Phaeton).
This new Rabbit is worth taking for a test run. Just remember to keep it under 80 mph.
Volkswagen Rabbit at a glance
Make/model: 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, front-drive, compact, hatchback sedan Base price: $16,990 (as tested, $20,920) Engine: 2.5-liter in-line 5 with 150 horsepower at 5,000 revolutions per minute and 170 foot-pounds of torque at 3,750 rpm EPA fuel economy: 22 miles per gallon city; 30 mpg highway (regular unleaded) Transmission: Six-speed Tiptronic automatic with overdrive Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes: Power four-wheel discs (vented on front) with anti-lock and other braking-enhancement features Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; independent, multi-link on rear (stabilizer bars front and rear) Fuel tank: 14.5 gallons Passenger volume: 94 cubic feet Cargo volume: 15 cubic feet Curb weight: 3,137 pounds Height: 58.2 inches Length: 165.8 inches Wheelbase: 101.5 inches Width: 69.3 inches Track: 60.6 inches on front; 59.8 inches on rear Ground clearance: 5.4 inches Tires: P195/65R15 all-season radials Final assembly point: Wolfsburg, Germany
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