We snuck into the Arie Crown Theater in McCormick Place for the dealer unveiling of the companion to the Volkswagen Beetle, the 1975 Rabbit.

The subcompact hatchback set to arrive in showrooms a few weeks later was going to help VW take on those upstart Japanese econoboxes that had arrived a few years earlier.

VW was the top-selling import brand in the U.S., and sales topped 500,000 units annually from 1968 through 1971–until the Japanese showed up.

As for the dealer preview, no fear of being spotted and kicked out. They were too intent on learning the price and whether it would be able to take on those “under $3,000” Japanese rivals.

When the price was revealed at $2,995, dealers started high-fiving each other.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the showroom. In just the couple weeks between the dealer showing and the car going on sale, the German mark rose in value against the U.S. dollar, and the sticker read $3,495.

Worse, the mark kept rising, and the more it did, the more popular the Japanese imports became.

What really hurt VW, however, was the decision to drop the Beetle in 1977 (the convertible lasted until 1979), and let Rabbit be the entry-level vehicle to bring folks into the VW family.

Rabbit eventually was built in the U.S. between 1979 and 1984, before it was replaced by the Golf.

Golf never really caught on like VW hoped. For some strange reason, VW said, more folks associated the name with the sport of golf rather than the intended gulf breezes. Can’t imagine why.

Sales have been dismal the last few years, with roughly one Golf sold for every 10 Jettas. Golf sales last year fell 36 percent, to 15,690 units.

It hasn’t helped that VW lost focus on its mission of affordable cars after taking on the Phaeton at $60,000 to $90,000 and Bentley at $100,000 plus.

So VW decided it was time to breathe new life into sales, just as it had in 1999 when it reintroduced the Beetle. To do so, it is bringing to the U.S. the next-generation Golf that’s being sold in Europe, but giving it a new name–Rabbit.

VW says the new Rabbit “goes back to our roots as affordable German engineering.”

By changing the name, VW said it hopes to open the door to newcomers and focus attention back on affordability with an entry-level model priced about $2,000 less than the $16,900 starter Golf.

Rabbit went on sale in June in two- and four-door hatchbacks; the two-door starts at $14,990. That makes it a more than worthy rival to the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa that start at $13,000 to $15,000 and were brought out this year to create a high-mileage, low-priced segment.

The $14,990 starting price certainly attracts attention, especially when it includes such standard features as anti-lock brakes, traction control, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, power locks, heated cloth seats, AM/FM radio with in-dash CD player and MP3 capability, side-curtain air bags and anti-theft alarm with remote locking.

But if you want to move up to a 6-speed automatic, add $1,075. A power sunroof costs another $1,000, while electronic stability control goes for $450.

The four-door starts at $16,990, but you still don’t get automatic, sunroof and stability control without paying more.

Affordable, yes, but not the $14,990 price leader.

The Rabbit sports a 2.5-liter, 150-horsepower 5-cylinder engine, same as offered in the Jetta. It replaces the 2-liter, 115-h.p. 4 in the Golf.

A little quicker and quieter, but when stomping on the accelerator, there’s a noticeable hesitation before springing to life. It was almost like turbo lag, only there is no turbo. When pulling out to pass, we had to retreat a couple of times because cars approaching from the rear had the momentum we didn’t.

Once the engine gets over that little hiccup, acceleration is fine. But there’s no time to say “excuse me” when you pull out to pass on the interstate.

We tested the four-door Rabbit with optional 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic, a clutchless manual. Smooth and quiet, but the mileage was 22 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway. It’s able to claim membership in the 30-m.p.g. club, but it snuck in the door. We expected more from a compact.

A $14,990 starting price will get people in the showroom to take a look, but once there they’ll see the sticker says 22/30 whereas Yaris boasts 34/39, Versa 30/36, and Honda Fit 33/38 with their 4-cylinder engines.

German engineering be damned when gas is $3 a gallon.

Ride is typical German firm though not economy-car harsh. German engineers feel that to enjoy the road you have to feel it–and you do. But you mostly hear the suspension ping over the tar marks rather than feel them in the steering wheel or seat.

Handling was rather nimble into and out of corners and especially into and out of parking spaces. It goes where you point it, and you don’t have to put up with body lean or sway. The decision to move up to 16-inch all-season radials in Rabbit from 15-inchers in Golf helps.

In case you tend to get a little rambunctious at play time, remember that ABS and traction control are standard and stability control is a $450 option. Snow Belt motorists would be wise to go for stability control in this front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Cargo room is sufficient for groceries or luggage. If you need more, just flip either or both the rear seat backs down flat.

Nice touch is that the handle to raise the hatchlid is the VW logo, accompanied by another nice touch, a running Rabbit metal logo alongside the 2.5 designation for the engine. Would be even nicer if the rabbit was larger than a silver dollar, but then it would probably attract the folks who swipe such ornaments to make necklaces out of them.

Cabin room is a little tight, more so in back, but the front bucket seats offer lots of support for cozy commuting or long-distance travel. And the cloth seats are heated, a feature usually reserved for leather.

VW will add a new diesel engine to its lineup starting in 2008 in Germany. Jetta will get the engine first before it moves into other offerings. No word on when Rabbit would get it.

Though VW offers a Beetle convertible and this fall adds the EOS convertible derived from the Jetta, there are no plans for a drop-top Rabbit.

– – –

2006 Volkswagen Rabbit

Wheelbase: 101.5 inches

Length: 165.8 inches

Engine: 2.5-liter, 150-h.p. 5-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic

CITY 22 m.p.g.

HWY 30 m.p.g.

Prices as tested: $20,290*


$16,990 Base

$1,075 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic

$1,000 power sunroof with sunglasses holder

$450 Electronic stability control

$400 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season radials

$375 Sirius satellite radio

*Add $630 for freight.


Remake of Golf with new name.

Higher performance 5-cylinder from Jetta replaces the old 2-liter, 115-h.p. 4

New 6-speed automatic.


Lag after stomping on the gas pedal before the engine springs to life.

Return to “affordability” comes at a high price.


Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.

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