A Rabbit By Any Other Name
In October, when Car and Driver named the Volkswagen GTI one of the 10 “most fun cars for $25,000,” I knew I had to get my hands on one. I’ve been reading great things about it for years and finally got my chance to test-drive one last week, courtesy of Lewis Motors in South Burlington.
The Volkswagen GTI is really just a sport version of the Volkswagen Rabbit — though they’re marketed as different cars — and that got me thinking. Maybe I should take them both out and compare. So that’s what I did.
The story actually starts way back in 1938, when Volkswagen began building the economical Beetle. It became one of the most influential and iconic vehicles of all time, and was once the world’s best-selling. By 1975, though, the nearly 40-year-old Beetle was primitive by most vehicular standards. Volkswagen needed a solid replacement. It took years of trial and error, but the company finally came up with a winner. Enter the Rabbit.
Before I go on, there’s a wrinkle in this story: The Rabbit is a Golf. “Rabbit” is just a name, and everywhere else in the world, except the U.S. and Canada, it will always be a Golf. To further confuse matters, though the car is called the Rabbit now in North America (as it was in 1976 when it came to our shores), from 1985 to 2006 it was called the Golf here as well. And Golf doesn’t refer to the sport of golfing. It is short for Golf-Strum, and that’s German for Gulf Stream. It’s a nod to the ocean connecting our shores, where the Germans hoped to ship many, many cars.
OK, glad we cleared that up.
Now, what did the Rabbit have that would make it a worthy successor to the Beetle? For one thing, it was a hatchback, a design that gave it lots of space for its small size. The tall hatchback was so influential that several copycat designs appeared within a few years, including on the Dodge Omni and Ford Escort.
While an economically spacious cabin was a plus, the Rabbit was a joy to drive, too. It had a Twist-beam rear suspension and independent Macpherson strut front-suspension system that gave the car excellent handling characteristics. I had two Rabbits in the ’80s and can attest to the fun I had whipping them around the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. Finally, when the high-performance GTI version rolled out in 1983, it created an entirely new genre of vehicles, called the “Hot Hatch,” and that solidified the reputation of this great small car.
Fast forward 25 years and the Golf (or Rabbit) is the third-best-selling vehicle of all time, with more than 25 million built. That puts it right after the Toyota Corolla and Ford F-Series pickups, at 35 and 32 million units, respectively, and, interestingly, just ahead of the VW Beetle at 21 million units. So, Volkswagen’s effort to replace the Beetle was indeed a great success.
Unlike the Beetle, which had essentially the same design for its many years of service, the Rabbit has evolved, keeping the car in competition with many formidable opponents along the way.
Today the Rabbit and the GTI share some common characteristics. Both show evidence of their German lineage, with many components and engineering deriving from Volkswagen’s sister companies, Audi and Porsche. That they are faster than their peers and fun to drive is a two-edged sword, as it also results in fair but not great fuel economy. Both vehicles can be described as well built, safe, sporty and tastefully designed. The differences between Rabbit and GTI are exactly what you’d expect from any performance upgrade: a better engine, brakes and suspension.
The GTI gets a turbo-charger with an extra 30 horses, which enables it to reach 60 mph about a second quicker than the Rabbit. It gets a six-speed manual transmission instead of the Rabbit’s five-speed. For automatic shifting, they both get six-speeds, but the GTI’s offers a state-of-the-art Direct Shift Gearbox, which delivers more power, better control and faster performance than a manual transmission. The GTI suspension is beefier and more comprehensive, which makes it a favorite on the autocross circuit. And since you can’t see all that performance equipment, the GTI’s interior and exterior design elements are cranked up a notch with sportier and more attractive details.
That doesn’t leave the Rabbit lacking much, though. First, consider that it starts at about $7000 less, with an MSRP of $15,890. And it has plenty of power for normal driving situations. Each of these VWs fills a different niche, allowing the same basic vehicle to compete on the lower end with affordable small cars such as the Mazda3 and Honda Civic, and on the higher end with upscale small cars such as the Audi A3 and BMW’s 1-Series.
The Rabbit and GTI are a couple of great vehicles, one a reliable daily driver, the other a little classier with some extras to get your adrenaline pumping.