If you haven't test-driven a new VW Rabbit, it's best to understand why it was built before making conclusions. It isn't a GTI 2.0T FSI blessed with noticeable power throughout the RPM range. It also doesn't have the visual appeal and distinct styling the GTI possesses. So in all honesty, what does the Rabbit have? We flew to Philadelphia to meet representatives of VWoA for a conference and test-drive of the Mk5 Rabbit.
The Rabbit is an affordable, entry-level hatchback. Karen Marderosian of VWoA Marketing reinforced its focus customer. "The Rabbit is born and bred for city driving," she explained. "It will be marketed towards young people between 18 and 34 years old. We are aiming to reach people with upcoming lifestyles, typically urban, city-dwellers in a city driving culture."
Since this car is geared for the city, we drove two Rabbits through downtown Philadelphia to evaluate if VW was right in its strategy.
Test driveThe morning sun peered through the dense skyscrapers as we lined up among ten Rabbits in front of our downtown hotel. Unfortunately, the planned driving route was cancelled due to overnight flooding. VWoA consulted with the locals, revised the directions and distributed them to the drivers. Our first vehicle was a five-speed, two-door Rabbit painted Shadow blue. The hue wasn't gorgeous, but we were pleased with its cleanliness and simplicity. Once inside the cockpit, a beautifully contrasting cloth tan interior welcomed us. Switching on the ten-speaker sound system, we were excited to find the classic hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, blasting from VW's compilation CD. After listening to the song, we determined the audio was greatly improved from the previous generation Monsoon stereo, especially with deeper low-end bass.
We started the ignition on the 2.5 liter i-5 and maneuvered our way out of the city. Once we entered the freeway on-ramp, it was imperative to go wide open on the throttle and assess the Rabbit's performance. Low-end power was adequate thanks to 170 lb/ft of torque, but the top-end was unsatisfactory. We were able to accelerate quickly but noticed a substantial loss in power after 5000rpm. The five-speed manual transmission felt smooth and natural through each shift. The steering was also responsive though there was substantial body roll and the back-end felt loose while attacking sharp corners. The suspension was firm and slightly bumpy once we were cruising, although we might attribute this to the uneven motorways of Philadelphia.
We returned to our hotel after four hours of driving a diverse set of roads and concluded VW reached their goal of building the Rabbit for its target market. It's not an open-road demon or track-ready racecar. The Rabbit is durable, has decent low-end power with smooth shifting and looks sleek for city-driving consumers.
Aftermarket AmbitionsWe'd like to offer you brief recommendations to make the VW Rabbit both a better driving and looking car. We're suggesting a subtle and simple approach, but please feel free to experiment with different techniques.
Suspension is the first weakness to address. Like most North American Volkswagens, the factory ride height ruins the overall appearance of the vehicle. Installing lowering springs and new dampers will decrease the ugly wheel gap and improve the ride performance. Another suspension component we suggest is sway bars to decrease the unimpressive body roll. If you are tight on cash, just go with the rear sway bar to improve the unpleasant understeer and rear-end fragility.
The next concern to address is wheels. If you are not a fan of the 15" factory hubcaps (and we're not), we'd recommend an 18 or 19" wheel. Recall the VW commercials and the billboard advertisements with the white Rabbit: VWoA offers an optional 18" Karthoum wheel which features an impressive thick five-spoke design, or the 18" Vision wheel which displays a split five-spoke pattern. Another alternative is aftermarket wheels. A clean replica or one-piece wheel such as an Audi RS6 wheel or Porsche turbo wheel would match the Rabbit's body. Mounting a set of three-piece forged wheels might be overkill for this commuter car.
Next, we would consider ordering the factory option aerodynamics kit. Once again thinking back to the commercials, the new valances and side skirts offer a cleaner and sportier appearance compared to the factory black valances. Other aerodynamic kits might become available in the near future so we'll be sure to keep you informed.
Finally, we're curious why VW didn't incorporate an iPod audio input. It might be smart to retrofit an adapter to shuffle through the 60 gigabytes worth of MP3s.
If you're looking to milk all the available horsepower from the Rabbit, we'd recommend you contact Neuspeed about its turbo conversion. Purchasing a GTI would be a better option for performance but we're excited to see what enthusiasts might construct from the Rabbit.
Gypsy Cab ProjectVolkswagen is continuing its advertising with the Gypsy Cab Project. Created strictly for the internet, the campaign takes a man from Colorado and inserts him in a taxi-themed VW Rabbit on the streets of New York City. The country driver offers free cab fares to anybody, but has no idea where any address or landmark is, which makes the video clips entertaining. If you haven't checked the website already, visit www.gypsycabproject.com.
Our second test drive was in the four-door, six-speed tiptronic Gypsy Cab. In an effort to pick up interested Philadelphian pedestrians, we took a detour and cruised through different neighborhoods north of downtown. We noticed several regions of the city separated by nationalities such as the Polish, Lithuanian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. We even ventured to Temple University and the nearby naval bases. At the end of the journey, we were unsuccessful in picking people up in the Gypsy Cab, but we did receive several strange stares.