Here at CarEnvy, we drive Volkswagen hatch-backs. I have a perpetually broken 2002 Golf, and I know that three more of our writers make their way around in the people’s hatch as well. When it isn’t in need of a new transmission/cooling system/axle, I love driving my Golf, so I decided it would be a good idea to go see what changes have been made in the last seven years. See what the better part of a decade does to a VeeDub after the jump.
My initial thought was that the Rabbit looks like your banker. It’s well put together, but nothing about it says “I’m stylish.” It’s certainly got more character than a Jetta, but so does Keeanu Reeves, who may or may not be the worst actor alive. But how much more could I expect at the price point? Apparently, quite a bit more. The interior of the car felt very solid. Normally when one gets in a car that costs less than $20,000, one can expect to immediately see some thing that looks like it was taken from the parts bin under the ugly tree. However, everything seemed very high quality. The car wasn’t filled with leather and wood of course, but nothing had that horrible hollow feeling. I’d be willing to bet that the interior will take some serious abuse before it starts to break. My only complaint was the lack of a center arm-rest. Not sure why they phased that out, but I’m rather fond of mine.
What makes the Rabbit different is definitely the engine. Generally engines come in even numbers of cylinders, but the Rabbit has five. While this isn’t unheard of, it is fairly rare in automobiles that aren’t Volvos. This 2.5L straight-5 develops 170 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque at 4250 rpms, which is pretty good given the price of the car. While the numbers on this engine aren’t shocking, given the competition at Mazda, the sound of the Rabbit’s engine is just a little bit fuller than a four pot could ever be. If you can’t justify or afford a sports car, the sound from this will make you just a little bit happier every day.
Mated to this is either a five-speed manual, or the six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic, which is what the model I drove was equipped with. In drive, it doesn’t always shift when you want it to, but it is still leagues ahead of the previous generation of VW automatics, which had no manual override, never shifted when it should have, and was perpetually broken. Luckily, there is a manual mode. There are no paddles, but I’m hardly surprised in a car of this type, and the gear select knob is easy to locate and operate so it isn’t that big of a deal. It shifts quickly enough to have a good bit of fun, but not so fast as to make the ride jerky. In manual mode the engine still automatically down-shifts if you slow down and up-shifts if you redline, but the rest it up to the driver.
What does all of this mean? It means that the little rodent makes it to 100kph in a respectable 8 seconds and is electronically limited to 209kph. That’s only part of the story though, the fun comes in when you go around a corner. The rabbit’s chassis is surprisingly stiff and the steering is typical Volkswagen, meaning that it is both familiar and fun. The car tracks nicely and is as communicative as one can ask for given the target market. Combined with suspension that can only be described as “German” the rabbit is great fun to drive.
The real question is whether the potential buyer would prefer the presumably better refined Mk VI Golf with the more traditional four pot, or keep the fun and quirky I5 in the rabbit. I honestly wish this engine was going to be an option in future low-end Golf models, but there really isn’t a place for it.
However, the conclusion I’ve come to is essentially this: VW can do quite a bit in seven years. The 2009 Rabbit is leagues ahead of my old Golf, and I am hoping to call one my own soon. That’s high praise.
Summary: A well built, fun car that’s damn cheap.
Base Price: $19,975 ($21,825 as tested)
Interior Design: 8/10 Much more solid than I was expecting.
Exterior Design: 6/10 Not terribly interesting, but clean.
Engine: 8.5/10 Lots of fun, and loads of potential for the insane (340hp a la TT-RS?)
Transmission: 9/10 Take your pick, both trannies are solid choices.
Audio/Video: 6/10 Nothing special, but not too shabby.
Value: 9/10 There are very few good cars that can be had for $20k, this is one of them.