A lot of car buffs like to glory over halo cars-the superfast, ultramodern machines that run $60,000, $80,000, $100,000 or more. That's fine-but it's a lot more interesting when you can produce something worth talking about for under 20 grand.
Volkswagen used to excel at this, building sprightly little racers that got your blood roiling. Then the German automaker lost its focus-er, set its sights higher, I mean-and other carmakers took the entry-sport trophy with cars like the Mazda 3 and the Honda Civic. But Volkswagen has drifted back to Earth and hopped ahead once again with, of all things, a modern remake of the venerable Rabbit.
The name is misleading. The Rabbit doesn't gently galumph from place to place, benignly following its nose. It races, thanks to a thumping 150-horsepower, five-cylinder engine that constitutes a big heart for a small car. The Rabbit is ahead of the pack in lots of other ways too, especially the standard equipment that comes on the base model, which starts at less than $16,000 for the two-door. In addition to expected basics like cruise control, a CD player, and power windows, every Rabbit comes with rear A/C vents, automatic one-touch, up-down windows all around, an MP3 connector in the audio system, and vanity lights over the two visor mirrors. In the four-door, which starts just below $18,000, even heated seats come standard.
There are so many features for the price that you're compelled to inspect the rest of the car to see what Volkswagen left off. My search turned up almost nothing. In addition to the comfort features, there's a full suite of air bags. Antilock brakes are standard. And there are further refinements that make driving this car almost as much as fun as what regular rabbits do to fill their spare time. The center armrest is one of the softest I've ever leaned on-a small thing, but the kind of careful touch that breeds confidence in the car. The ride is quiet and calm when you want it to be and jaunty when you're in the mood for a little excitement. And everything, inside and out, feels solid. Sure, I'd rather be driving a Bentley or Aston Martin, but I feel like a much smarter consumer in the Rabbit.
Nits: There's no power seat available on the passenger side, and only a limited power seat available on the driver's side.
G forces: The Rabbit runs like a hare-with plenty of staying power to get it to the finish line. The five-cylinder, 150-horsepower engine is zippy enough to let you make believe you're in the even-zestier GTI. The Rabbit is also low, small, and stiff, which gives it great grip around curves.
Gizmology: VW engineers get top marks for all the standard features in this puppy, like rear A/C vents, handy bag hooks on the B pillars between the front and rear doors, lots of little storage spaces, a cushy center armrest that slides in and out, and MP3 compatibility. The dashboard controls, while plain and straightforward, are also intuitive and very solid. There are a couple of missing features that would be nice--steering wheel controls for the radio, for instance. But there's very little missing from this great package.
Kidmarks: The four-door is the kidmobile, with a decent-size rear seat, two cupholders, and a center armrest.
Hot or not: Not quite. The Rabbit is cute though, with a perky little nose and unpretentious haunches.
Pain at the pump: Modest. Mileage ratings range from 22 mpg/city to 30 mpg/highway. Those are relatively low for a compact car, but that's on account of an unusually powerful engine. More info: www.fueleconomy.gov.
Crash course: The four-door earns 8 stars out of 10 in the government's frontal crash test, and 10 stars out of 10 in the side-impact test. The Rabbit hasn't been tested for rollover resistance. Details: www.safercar.gov
Standard safety gear: Advanced frontal air bags, side-impact air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, traction control. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private testing group, rates the Rabbit "good"-the highest rating-in its frontal and side-impact tests, and calls the Rabbit one of its "top safety picks." Info: www.iihs.org
Price points: Base price for the two-door is $15,620; for the four-door, $17,620. Price as tested: $19,845. (Prices include delivery fees.)