Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

Test Drives

December 16, 2008

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.

September 24, 2008

Video Test Drive: 2008 Volvo C30

I was interested to see what Volvo had cooked up with the new Volvo C30. They have such a strong brand known for high quality and very safe vehicles, but fun? The C30 has been compared with Volvo’s original sports car the P1800 made famous in the sixties TV series The Saint. Thrilling spy-guy Simon Templar (Roger Moore) was never far from his sporty P1800. Would the C30 serve me as well?

The C30 is considered an upscale small car. It seats 4 and sports a turbocharged straight-5/5-cylinder, 2.5 liter engine. Performance ratings with the short-throw six-speed manual transmission are 227 hp, 0-60 in 6.2 seconds and a top speed of 146 mph. Plenty of power for my jaunt around Shelburne, VT.

The C30 is priced at a level that should encourage first time Volvo drivers to give it a try with an MSRP starting at $23,800. This price puts it in competition with the Volkswagen GTI and possibly the Mini Cooper. These are all fun and enjoyable cars to drive. They start at about the same price and have similar attributes. The Volvo expresses a little more class and neither of the competitors are quite as fast.

Volvo is known for their passion for safety and the C30 continues that tradition. Besides your regular contingent of front, side and side-curtain air bags, it also has seat belt pre-tensioners, a whiplash protection system, a side-impact protection system and an anti-skid system. It's even got anti-submarining protection. I’m glad I looked that one up before taking it in the lake as it turns out to be no more than seats designed to keep you from sliding out of your seat belt ;-)

I left Almartin Volvo and pointed the C30 back to my office to pick up some gear. This was a frustrating choice as I was feeling a need to let this fun little car go fast and traffic on Route 7 had me backed up. I would get my way soon enough on the interstate and on some back roads around Chittenden county.

My favorite driving moment was exiting I89 and pulling some G’s on the off ramp. The seventeen inch alloy wheels and McPherson spring strut front suspension did a fine job of keeping me locked on the road. It didn’t hurt at all that Sublime was cranking on the Dynaudio 650 watt, 10 speaker premium audio system.

Overall the car drove very well. There was plenty of power and the steering was crisp and genuinely felt “sporty”. The car has an upscale personality yet is quite a bit of fun to drive, a nice combination. The interior feels well put together and the “floating” dash-to-console display has a unique and beautiful design.

My Advice
If you’re looking to inject a little fun into your life, at a reasonable price, this could well be the car for you. I would recommend this car to anyone in the market for a fun-to-drive sporty model who also has an appreciation for the finer things in life. The C30 manages to pull both of them together quite nicely.

Is there a car you'd like to know more about? Let me know and I'll schedule a test drive.

Thanks to Almartin Volvo in Shelburne, Vermont for their loan of the Volvo C30 for this test drive.

September 16, 2008

Video Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Tundra

American drivers love their pickup trucks. Sure, with gas prices topping $4 a gallon, trucks are less popular than they used to be. Back in May, the Ford F-150, the country’s best-selling vehicle, was replaced — for the first time in 23 years — by the Honda Civic.

But does that mean no one will ever buy another truck? No way. There are too many jobs and lifestyles that require a good pickup, especially in rural states like Vermont. After test driving the Toyota Tundra I can tell you that, if you’re one of those people who needs the size and capacity of a pickup, the Tundra is a very good choice.

Mike Hughes at Courtesy Toyota handed over the keys to a good-looking green Tundra for my romp around Barre and Berlin, VT.

The Toyota Tundra I tested had the largest engine available — a 5.7 liter V8 — and came with 4WD and a six-speed automatic transmission. Its double cab wasn’t as big as a full-on crew cab, but it still had four doors and a back seat with room for about three people.

For such a large vehicle it drove as comfortably as a car, and was just about as quiet as any vehicle I have ever driven. I enjoyed sitting up so high. It’s a commanding feeling. And there was plenty of power under my foot.

The turning radius is fantastic for a truck of this size. As I approached a T-intersection I was sure I was going to have to do a three-point turn to head back the way I had come. I was amazed when I pulled a U-turn in one shot.

All of the V8 Tundras come with a heavy-duty towing equipment package, including a tow hitch receiver, and are pre-wired for a trailer so you’re ready to tow if you want to. And they’re all built here in the USA, in San Antonio Texas, in a mile-long new facility that started rolling out Tundras in 2007.

Several years ago the Tundra had a reputation for not being as big and tough as its competitors. Well, Toyota took that criticism seriously and the Tundra is now built about as heavy duty as a full-size pickup can be — which might be why the Tundra won the Motor Trend 2008 Truck of the Year Award.

The Tundra is rated for hauling half a ton and towing over 10,000 pounds. The load rating would be even higher if not for Toyota’s decision to use an independent front suspension, which adds greatly to the Tundra’s driveability. The torque range is just sick, providing steady power across a wide range of engine speed. The Tundra also has the largest front-brake rotor of any full-size pickup truck, and four pistons activating the brake pistons — twice as many as the industry standard.

What about safety? The Tundra’s got three separate handling systems that help ensure a safe ride. The Vehicle Stability Control system and Traction Control system adjust speed and braking to keep you on the road. The first checks to see that the vehicle is headed in the same direction you’re steering, and the latter monitors the wheels individually for slippage.

The Electric Brake-Force Distribution system optimizes brake force to each wheel to keep the vehicle balanced. An electronic sensor over the rear axle determines whether you’ve got a full load or are in the truck by yourself.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Tundra is about the safest full-size pickup ever tested. It received top scores across the board and is the first full-size pickup to be judged a “Top Safety Pick.”

My Advice
If you’re even thinking about buying a truck, you owe it to yourself to test drive the Tundra. I found no faults with this vehicle and was very impressed with it for a wide variety of very good reasons. If I needed a truck, or at least could convince my wife that I did, I’d buy one.

September 12, 2008

Video Test Drive: 2009 Subaru Outback

I couldn’t have picked a nicer summer day to take the trek across the state from Burlington to St. Johnsbury. The temp was perfect, not too hot, not too humid. The kind of day that if you have to work, you just wish for a good excuse like I had to get out there and enjoy it.

As I drove down Interstate 89 I had to laugh at the number of Subarus I was seeing. It seemed like every other car was a Subaru and many of them had the Saint J Subaru sticker on the back. That’s actually where I was headed to test drive the newest 2009 Subaru Outback, Vermont’s “unofficial state car.”

Subaru started selling vehicles in the US in the late ‘60s and in the mid-‘70s the company pioneered the use of 4WD in vehicles that were not intentionally built for off-road use. Subarus became very popular in regions with hills and severe winters like we have here in Vermont. The Subaru wagon became the world’s top-selling 4WD vehicle. The Outback is the latest model of Subaru wagon.

A wagon is a nice option if you’ve got kids or dogs, or if you like to go camping or play sports. If that’s all you’re after, any wagon might do, but up here in Vermont, with our tough winters, the Outback’s extra inches of clearance and all wheel drive are nice options.

The Outback competes favorably against other wagons and at the time of my test drive was rated #1 in Affordable Full Size Wagons by U.S. News & World Report. The Dodge Magnum has since snagged the #1 spot, primarily thank to its V8 engine availability and retro styling. Car guys love to go fast, but your family might appreciate the Outback’s significantly better safety ratings.

The model I took out was the 2.5i Special Edition. Besides standard features like Symetrical All Wheel Drive, Vehicle Dynamics Control, 4-wheel independent heavy-duty raised suspension and a Tire Pressure Monitoring System the Special Edition adds an 8-way power heated driver seat, heated side mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer and a 440-watt, 9-speaker Harman/Kardon premium audio system. There was even a plug for my i-pod in the center console.

Road and Track says “The Outback combines the virtues of a small SUV with carlike ride and handling,” and I couldn’t agree more. I found the wagon rode very well on pavement and felt steady on bumpy dirt roads.

My Advice
The Outback is a quality ride, suited to our extreme weather. It’s safe and the added cargo space is a must if you’ve got an active lifestyle. But you don’t have to take my word for it. There are 1000s thousands of other Vermonters out there who — by their loyalty to Subaru — provide an even stronger recommendation. It’s Vermont’s “unofficial state car” for a reason.

September 03, 2008

Video Test Drive: 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid

It was a beautiful day for a test drive and I was glad to have the chance to get away from the computer and take the 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid out for a spin. I picked it up from Shearer Chevrolet in South Burlington, VT and drove it on a variety of road types including cruising on I-89, in traffic jams on Route 7 and on the city streets of Burlington.

The Malibu is a mid-sized sedan that competes favorably against the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. GM has worked hard to close the gap with these Japanese category leaders and the Malibu is one impressive result.

The Malibu received an extensive redesign for 2008 that received high praise from the auto industry.

  • Car and Driver listed it as one of its “10 Best Cars of 2008.”
  • The North American International Auto Show selected it as the “North American Car of the Year.”
  • J.D. Power and Associates named it the “Highest Ranked Mid-Size Car in Initial Quality.”

This car looks good inside and out, a vast improvement over the previous Malibu. More importantly it drives well. It gets darn good gas mileage and I found that it delivered respectable performance and a steady, comfortable ride. It’s also a safe car, receiving 5 stars for frontal and side impact crash test ratings and 4 stars for rollovers which is right on par with it’s Japanese competitors.

The Malibu has 3 trim levels. The LS & LT models get a 2.4L Ecotec 4-cylinder engine, coupled with a 4-speed automatic shifter. That combination achieves 169 horsepower with 22 MPG City and 30 MPG highway. An upgrade to the 6-speed automatic transmission will boost you to 33 MPG highway.

The LTZ model gets a more powerful 3.6L V6 rated at 252 horsepower. Of course there’s a trade-off on gas mileage at 17 MPG City and 26 MPG Highway. You decide where your priorities lie. Each engine provides different advantages.

The Hybrid model I drove uses the 2.4L Ecotec Hybrid engine. The Hybrid technology bumps MPG to 26 City and 34 Highway.

For comparison’s sake, the Toyota Camry Hybrid might be the closest apples-to-apples competitor. The Camry Hybrid gets 33 MPG city and 34 MPG highway so it’s a slight winner in that category with lower city gas consumption. But the base price of the Camry is $1000 more, and the Malibu actually rides a little better. The engine doesn’t turn off when coasting, it has better steering and a tighter suspension which results in a car that’s a little more fun to drive.

What’s my advice?

If you’ve been waiting to buy a quality American car that is a match for its Japanese competitors then the Malibu is for you. It’s a well built, good looking car, with a quiet ride and good performance — and if you care, it’s made in America.

Would I buy the Hybrid? First a reality check – if I wanted to buy a hybrid with the absolute best gas mileage possible, I would probably buy a Toyota Prius. The Malibu though has some attractive features that eht Prius does not. The Malibu is a larger, safer and more comfortable car. Each car fits different lifestyles and needs.

The difference in gas mileage between the 2009 Malibu LT2 with a 6-speed transmission and the 2009 Malibu Hybrid is 4 MPG city and 1 MPG highway. By my calculations it would take almost 10 years to make up the approximate $1000 vehicle price difference via fuel savings. The 6-speed transmission is going to drive better in a variety of conditions.

It would be very difficult for me to pick between these two cars, but with either one the next time Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” came on the radio I’d be ready to sing along ;-)

2009 Chevy Malibu LS LT LTZ Hybrid
Engine 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder 3.6L V6 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder
Transmission 4-Speed Auto 6-Speed Auto 6-Speed Auto 4-Speed Auto
MPG City 22 22 17 26
MPG Highway 30 33 26 34
Invoice $19,604 $22,534 $25,605 $23,337
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