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Volkswagen Rabbit: 1970s and 2006+

1970s Volkswagen Rabbit

volkswagen rabbitThe Ford Escort and a bunch of GM vehicles were all engineered and styled as copies of the Rabbit. But the original Rabbit (Volkswagen Golf), in turn, was a copy of the Simca 1100, which the Omni/Horizon twins were based on, so the latter — normally called Rabbit clones — are actually more original.

The 1979 Rabbit, in “E” form, got around 30 mpg when it was new, and it got around 30 mpg after 100,000 miles, too. Its top speed was about 98 mph at that time with a four-speed (originally around 102), but it could get to 50 very quickly, and overdrive models could go faster.

With a four-speed stick, the Rabbit was unbelievably loud inside at speeds over 70, and particularly at 90 and over. Fortunately, it rarely went that fast. It was probably the most reliable car I ever had, after the warranty ended; but it spent most of its first year in the shop. After warranty, it only went through a brake caliper and alternator.

This particular Rabbit was one of the first made in the US, using a factory in Pittsburgh (UAW-organized) that was built, but never used, by Chrysler. Quite a few owners say that American VWs were better made than German ones. American Rabbits had square headlights, and were made with a new process that went wrong on mine: a roof weld came loose early on, and the dealer claimed many times nothing was wrong until it was sent back to the factory (this turned out to be a problem on many early American Rabbits that was fixed after a few months). The clutch also died a very early death and was replaced under warranty. Another peculiarity of these Rabbits was a system that required the use of shims to adjust the drive belts, not the smartest system in the world considering the layout of the engine bay. 

I bought my Rabbit from my father. When it had almost, but not quite, reached 100,000 miles, it failed inspection. He had the valves adjusted, the engine tuned, and other things looked at, all to no avail. With the calendar passing rapidly, he sold it to me for a song in 1987. The first thing I did was bring it to a "foreign car mechanic." He re-adjusted the valves, which did not work, but fixed the prior mechanic's damage. He cleaned the fuel injectors for the first time, so they actually sprayed instead of dripped. Then he gave up.

I fixed this problem - even though it was a multiple-port fuel-injected engine, and the most sophisticated (and newest) car I had ever had was a 1976 Valiant with a carbureted 318. It was a leaking vacuum hose connector. At the VW dealer, they wanted about $5 for the connector, but gave it to me in return for adding a Volkswagen fob to my keychain, next to the Plymouth fob.

When I started to learn to drive a stick, it was on the Rabbit (which had its almost-original warranty-replaced clutch when sold at about 102,000 miles). My brother had learned on the same car. I had a devil of a time getting into first because I couldn't bring myself to press down the gas enough, and the Rabbit would get launched into a lurching cycle: it would lurch forward, almost stall (lurch backward), and inject extra fuel to prevent the stall, thereby lurching forward. This tended to stun me into not pressing the gas harder, and it would continue until I took my foot off the clutch or pressed it down harder. Eventually I figured out how much gas it needed while shifting and life became easier. My regular car was a Valiant V-8, though, and if you hit the gas as hard on that as you needed to on the Rabbit, you'd spin the rear tires.

With 50,000 miles on the minimum-sized, economy tires, the Rabbit could easily outhandle my Camaro (with new tires and shocks). Admittedly, the Camaro had 100,000 miles by then, but the Rabbit's handling was exceptional on dry roads. Its idle was also excellent - even in 1979, it had multiple-port electronic fuel injection (combined with an old-fashioned ignition system!) that the Big Three did not have on its entry-level vehicles until 1995, when the Neon forced the issue with its cheap 132 hp.

The Rabbit was unpredictable on bumpy turns. Its excellent handling would quickly turn into uncontrollable over- or under-steer with the addition of a few bumps or a hydroplanable puddle. This, and the lack of warning between “limit of adhesion” and “no adhesion,” may explain the loss of so many Rabbits to side-of-the-road ditches.

The Rabbit's engine only actually produced something like 80 horsepower, but the manual transmission and light weight (2,000 lb) made the best of it. Gearing also helped - until 50 mph it was very responsive. After that it accelerated more slowly and much more noisily.

My particular Rabbit had a clearcoat paint and showed no rust anywhere but on the bumpers in 1988, when I sold it because I had gone to graduate school in New York (my second of four major car mistakes: selling the Valiant, selling the Rabbit, buying the Satellite, selling the Fury so I could buy the Sundance. At this time, I could add buying the turbovan, and selling the Neon for the PT). The engine was still oil tight, but there had been a mysterious antifreeze leak for most of the car's life that we never did find.

The Rabbit was the first Volkswagen produced in the United States (at a plant which is no longer used), and it sold moderately well for a premium small car, averaging 130,000 units per year. Square-headlight Rabbits were American, round-headlamps were imports; and amusingly the American ones were apparently made to much higher quality standards than the German imports.

George Yost noted that “Dealer and foreign car shops were sometimes more dangerous to the car then learning how to fix it yourself.  Most also had problems with parts.” 

2006 and newer Volkswagen Rabbits

For 2006, Volkswagen finally dropped the ostentatious Jetta/Audi A4 front clip and replaced it with a much more modest, Rabbit-like one, reverting the name back to its original American title. Available in both two- and four-door versions, with pricing starting at $14,990 for the two door, the Rabbit retained its old stiff suspension for agile handling, gained a more powerful base engine that returned its original quickness and then some — the Rabbit's gained quite a bit of weight since the old days, largely due to the use of sound insulation and safety features, but also due to the larger engine and the need to be able to handle more torque. Gone was the old 80-or-so horsepower four from the olden days and the sadly outclassed 115 hp 2.0 liter version of it from the last Golf; new was a five-cylinder, 150 horsepower 2.5 liter engine with 170 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm (yes, Volkswagen was making less power from its 2.5 than Chrysler got from its old 2.4). 90% of the torque was available from 1,750 to 5,125 rpm, though owners had complained about lack of low-end power, especially on hills or with air conditioning on. Wheels gained a full two inches of diameter - 15 inch wheels were standard. They were quite a bit wider, too. We have a review of the new Volkswagen GTI at acarplace.com

The suspension had also been revised with a multi-link rear suspension and a new front axle. A standard electro-mechanical steering system and optional Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) combined with an optional six-speed automatic with Tiptronic® and sport mode reinforced the idea that Rabbits would remain at the forefront of small-car technology, as they were when they came with multiple-port fuel injection (and points!) in 1979.

The 2006 Rabbit was made in Germany, and remained in essence a rebadged Golf. Safety was approached via driver and front passenger front and side thorax airbags, side curtain airbags, rear passenger side thorax airbags (four door only), and active front head restraints. The Rabbit included numerous comfort features unheard of in “real” Rabbits, such as a six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat and a four-way manually adjustable front passenger seat. Both feature adjustable lumbar support and heated seats in the four-door version. The front passenger seat in the four door folded flat, and in the two-door model, the front seats moved forward for easy access to the rear seating area. The 60/40 split folding rear seats added to the convenience of the cargo area, which boasted an impressive 15 cubic feet of very-usable space.

A five-speed manual transmission came standard. Length was 165.8 inches in length; width, 69.3 inches; height, 58.2 inches in height. Legroom was a respectable 41.2 inches.

Given that Volkswagen had been dragging the bottom of quality surveys lately, along with Land Rover and Mercedes, the warranty was a high point with a fairly unique four year, 50,000 mile limited full-vehicle warranty. The drivetrain was good for another year (5/60) of coverage, and there was a 12-year rust-through warranty.

The Rabbit conflicted with Volkswagen’s current persona of "Germans are always better than you filthy moron Americans” arrogance [editor’s note: the annoying commercials with a German bad-mouthing American cars disappeared from the air in mid-2007]. Rabbit always seemed fun and sporty, but in a light-hearted way. The Rabbit was first and foremost the best economy car you could get; after that, by the way, it handled turns very well, and the GTI had decent enough acceleration. The Rabbit came from a time before Volkswagen was striving to be the front-drive BMW. The early-1980s tagline was “It’ll feel better in a Rabbit.” (The tagline was accompanied by a “curve ahead” sign, and it was true.)

Sometimes I wonder about the new Rabbit. Its flowing curves must be great for slipping through the air, but they make it somewhat odd-looking, though better than the Jettas and corresponding Audis, with their immense chrome grilles. Mainly, the newer Rabbits don't seem to be as, well, rabbity as the old, lighter ones. The new Rabbits weren't that much quicker, but they required five cylinders rather than four to push around all their weight, and gas mileage was poor for the size of the car. The new rear suspension gave it a smoother ride, but at the expense of some of the fun feel and considerable weight and cost. Where’s the old, tossable, economical, fun Rabbit of yesteryear?

Read our review of the new Volkswagen GTI at acarplace.com

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