Everyone knows the tortoise beat the hare, but it's seldom observed that in another unlikely endurance contest the Rabbit outlasted the Beetle as Volkswagen's prime model several years ago.
The original, iconic Volkswagen went on sale in Canada in 1952 and continued through to 1978, but the Rabbit - most years called the Golf - has been on sale since 1975 and counting. That's 26 years for the Beetle, 34 for the Rabbit/Golf.
(Of course the first Beetle prototypes were made before the Second World War and final production ended in Mexico in 2003, but international sales were over a shorter term.)
Though the Beetle and Rabbit/Golf differ completely, it's worth noting how each exemplifies the Volkswagen approach of evolving a basic vehicle concept over time.
The egg-shaped Beetle was developed continuously over its lifespan with progressively larger windows, tail lamps and engines and, near the end, a longer wheelbase and different front suspension.
In similar fashion, the Rabbit/Golf has evolved through a series of model generations. Certainly its progression is more dramatic than that of the Beetle with more obvious generational changes, but its two-box silhouette remains fundamentally the same today as in 1975.
It's no longer your basic economy car; it has become a premium European automobile. Base price, $20,975, as tested $25,635.
Another point on which to be clear, today's Rabbit is too substantial and too powerful to be as fuel-efficient as the likes of smaller cars like the Toyota Yaris.
In fact, our test drive was booked on the assumption the Rabbit meets this Eco Driver column's standard of consuming 10 litres or less per 100 km of city driving as listed in the Natural Resources Canada consumption guide. Wrong. With the car in the driveway, we note that its rating is, in fact, 10.7 L/100 km city (6.9 highway).
In our week's driving, we average 10.3 L/100 km in 367 km of our typical urban driving. Note that the real-life performance is better than the rating, so kudos to Volkswagen for engineering a powertrain for real-life consumption rather than the requirements of the government laboratory test.
The point remains, however, that the Rabbit is not in the same gas-saving league as Yaris, Fit and others of the tinier and tinnier ilk.
Earlier Rabbits or Golfs were, and future Golfs may be, but the current car's 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine is intended for meaty throttle response and easy cruising. Acceleration to 60 km/h, indicating peppiness in downtown progress, averages 4.7 seconds, a figure matched by the Pontiac Vibe in our testing.
The Rabbit is lovely to drive, particularly for those who enjoy smooth-shifting manual transmissions, and outfitted as ours is with the $1,600 Sport Pack this Rabbit feels far more European in its responsiveness than do most Volkswagen models.
At the same time, its suspension erases the shock of Toronto pot holes, an unexpected attribute. If it used even half a litre less per 100 km, we'd be in love. But that's just us.
The driver and passenger's seats are more supportive than most and fully adjustable to accommodate different body types. Many taller drivers find comfort in there being more head room in Rabbits and Jettas than in most cars.
Rear-seat room, though, is unexceptional in overall roominess and toe room is limited by the front-seat design.
Shiny, hard plastic appears unpleasantly cheap surrounding the radio and climate. Another holdover from the Rabbit's economy-car days is the audible hum of the engine at engine speeds, which is not really unpleasant, but it's something you notice.
The ongoing evolution of the car addresses such shortcomings observed in our test week, although this will be of little comfort to those who buy the 2009 model we're driving.
The sixth-generation car, which is to go on sale in Canada as the 2010 Golf this fall - the Rabbit name is culled once again - already was driven by some Canadian auto journalists (not this one) in Iceland as guests of Volkswagen and they report significant change.
The shiny, hard plastic has been upgraded, according to their reports. Increased sound dampening between the engine and the passengers greatly reduces engine noise. This Golf recently was named World Car of the Year following its introduction in Europe as an '09 model.
This review, of course, relates to what Volkswagen is selling here, now. An impressive automobile, indeed, but six months away from being replaced by a more impressive automobile. The Rabbit/Golf's evolution is an ongoing story, like the Beetle's before it.
The suspension was hugely improved a generation or two ago when multiple links were introduced to locate the rear wheels instead of the cheaper torsion beam commonly used on lower-priced vehicles.
This Rabbit not only is agile, it's safer in emergency handling than lesser vehicles. The electronic stabilization program that assists the driver control skids is, however, a $450 option.
Another option, the cold weather package, consists of heated seats and windshield washer nozzles, $275. Few Rabbits or Golfs appear to have been sold in recent years without this package, so it needs to be considered part of the purchase price, like the $1,360 freight and pre-delivery inspection.
Too bad the 2.5-litre engine isn't an option as well. A diesel alternative is to become available, but not until next year, and the 1.4-litre, turbocharged and supercharged gasoline engine now in use in Europe would broaden Golf's sales appeal.
The original Beetle, in all its incarnations, accounted for 487,863 sales in Canada. The Rabbit, Golf and the GTI performance model are closing in on 400,000 as Volkswagen's place in the market has changed from people's car to premium, to the point that this current Rabbit is better considered a less-expensive alternative to a Mercedes-Benz B200 than a competitor to the Toyota Yaris.
2009 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT
TYPE: Four-door compact hatchback
BASE PRICE: $21,950; as tested, $25,635
ENGINE: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-five-cylinder
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 170 hp, 177 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY (litres/100 km): 10.7 city/6.9 highway; in Eco Driver's city-area test driving, 10.4; regular gasoline
ALTERNATIVES: Saturn Astra, Mercedes-Benz B200, Toyota Matrix, Suzuki SX4, Pontiac Vibe
- Ride soaks up potholes better than most
- Solid body construction
- Comfort of seats
- Manual shift a pleasure to use
- Cheap plastic surrounding controls
- Lack of toe room in rear
- Next-generation Golf already on sale in Europe