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Down The Bunny Hole

What would you do like a Rabbit?

2006 Volkswagen Rabbit
Remember when Eddie Murphy was funny? If so, you'll have fond memories of the VW Rabbit and Rabbit GTI, the German whippersnappers that set gas-guzzling, radial-tuned suspension junk piles on their collective ear in the 70s and 80s. It's been 22 years since witty VW owners have been able to 'mount' a second Rabbit emblem on their beloved hatchbacks, demonstrating to fellow motorists just one of many things Rabbits do well. But the wait is over, in the form of an all-new and rebadged Golf V. This has been on sale in Europe for nearly three years, but heck, it's new to us.

Volkswagen wants to put the Rabbit at the forefront of city driving culture. This means putting keys into the pockets of gainfully employed Gen-Xers and artsy types who will in time define style and trend for the rest of the country. And who will eventually expand their wealth and buy a Touareg. VW pushes the Rabbit as an urban appliance, and specs it to excel in the metropolis with a torquey engine, compact dimensions, sexy styling, made-in-Wolfsburg quality and an accessible price.

The Rabbit introduction was held fittingly in Philadelphia, our country's founding city. After escaping the flooded byways of Philly with a spanking new Rabbit under our tails, we head straight for New York, the most urban of cities our nation has to offer.

VW has invested the Rabbit with raumwunder, meaning small on the outside, big on the inside. It comfortably ferries five adults around - with rear passengers, admittedly female in this instance, commenting on how much room they have. Every one of these attractive, hip, educated twenty-something women likes the car, with one planning on making this her next four-wheeled purchase. Since female customers anchor the brand, VW obviously got it right.

Often, the plebian stablemate of a performance model - in this case the GTI - looks frumpy, with greater ride height and smaller rolling stock. Not so with the Rabbit, which - with either two doors or four - looks damn sharp. And while the outgoing Golf was heavy and looked it, at least its replacement hides its heft well. There's a generous helping of the imitable EG Civic in the C-pillar of the two-door, and that's not a bad thing. The Rabbit actually embodies the clich of a 'dynamic stance'. The standard 10-speaker stereo is quite good, the interior is Euro-chic, uses sophisticated textures to camouflage its plastics, and the seat cloth is upscale.

VW is hoping customers will follow the carrot of a $14,990 entry price for a base model two-door (over a thousand dollars less than cheapest outgoing Golf IV) into the dealers. Like a Scion tC, the base model car is rather well-equipped for its youthful target, but options quickly send the Rabbit's price north. Two extra doors cost another $2K, an auto 'box and sunroof are $1K each, 17-inch wheels and tires $1350 and a body kit $1675. VW's Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is offered as a standalone option at $450.

The savvy Rabbit ad campaign asks what one might do like a Rabbit. The problem is this Golf replacement doesn't do much like a rabbit, be it the libidinous mammal or its nimble great-great grandfather sold from 1975-1984. According to Volkswagen, manual shifting two-doors start at 2974 pounds, and an auto four-door at 3137 pounds. Central to the original Rabbit experience was a curb weight of around 2000 pounds, which made for a sprightly and chuckable car, and also eminently tunable.

If only there was something more complimentary to say about the Rabbit's five-cylinder, 2.5-liter iron-block engine. Redline is an agrarian 5800rpm, but no benefit in acceleration is experienced by spinning it past 5000rpm anyway, where it makes its peak 150 horsepower. All 170lb-ft of torque is supplied at 3750rpm. With a low 9.5:1 compression, this is obviously an understressed and robust engine that should provide years of reliable commuting. As you can imagine, this unit is only found in Rabbits bound for the North American market. For the vast majority of the driving public, the broad powerband of the 2.5-liter is a vast improvement over the 2.0-liter it replaces and is more than sufficient. Fuel consumption is a claimed 22mpg and 30mpg (city and highway respectively) for both manual and automatic-equipped cars, although confronted with the go-pedal use required on the streets of New York, the Rabbit returns mileage in the teens.

Europeans get the option of a super trick 1.4-liter TSI direct-injection four-cylinder that is both turbo- and supercharged - with a Borg Warner turbo and Eaton blower, good for 170bhp - that also returns good fuel mileage. VW figures (correctly) that Americans won't pay the premium for that engine, but it is worthy of mention.

Moving to a multi-link rear suspension is a step in the right direction, but a surprising amount of body roll makes exploring possible benefits other than ride quality inadvisable. The Rabbit is fitted with commendably firm dampers and features enough travel to dispense with all but the nastiest of NYC potholes, whose diameter and depth will bottom out anything except for SCORE off-road race trucks.

Finding a parking space in Manhattan is usually as pleasurable as playing footsy with a claw hammer, but 165.8 inches bumper to bumper and a tight turning radius will get the Rabbit into many spaces passed up by local behemoths.

Further proof of VW's quest for city car domination is a horn loud enough to make Hummer drivers flinch. This is important in New York, as horn is the only language spoken by all of the almost exclusively foreign-born cabbies.

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