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(Volkswagen Photo)

Rabbit redux

Volkswagen returns to 'People's Car' roots with an old nameplate

The nameplate on the rear of the 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit is accompanied by a silhouette of a rabbit with its "ears back," a badge VW calls a "running Rabbit." We assume that this rabbit started out with its ears up and they were pinned back while traveling at 60 miles per hour, signifying that this car is really at home on the road.

VW, which went upscale with top-end Passats, the Touareg, and the short-lived Phaeton, has gotten back to its "People's Car" roots. The reborn Rabbit has just enough stiffness in the ride to feel slightly sporty, but it's nimble around town and stable on the highway. It's nicely engineered, and you never feel as though you're in a small car.

Make no mistake, though, this is a small car. In fact, it's sufficiently short, narrow, and light to be a great city car. Add its outstanding high way manners and you've got a strong combination.

VW picked a great time to bring back the Rabbit nameplate. The original was sold in the United States from 1974-1984. For its era, it was an affordable driver's car. The new version, sold elsewhere in the world as the Golf, retains the marque's affordability and fun-to-drive characteristics at a time when you might think folks are at least giving compact vehicles added consideration.

We'd love to say it gets 30 miles per gallon, but we settled for the 27 it delivered on two tanks of gas.

The company is marketing the Rabbit as one of "3 V-Dubs for less than $17,000," the others being the New Beetle and Jetta. They have similar drive trains and different body stylings. Where the Beetle makes a retro-styling statement and the Jetta is a more conventional sedan, the Rabbit is sportier in an understated way. The dual exhaust tips are the only overt exterior sign of its sporting heart.

The 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine delivers 150 horsepower, but it's really the 170 lb.-ft. of torque -- 90 percent of which is available from 1,750 rpm on up -- that makes it feel like a stronger performer.

If rear-seat passenger space is paramount, go with the Jetta. We could fit two adults in the rear of the Rabbit, but wouldn't want to do it for a long drive. In fact, we'd probably keep the rear seats folded down most of the time to carry "stuff." That's what we did during a three-hour trip to Connecticut recently.

Our test vehicle had 12,000 miles on it and showed no signs of hard use. The front seat room was fine for two and we didn't feel small on the road.

Dual front and side air bags are standard, along with antilock brakes, an anti slip traction system, and a combination electromechanical steering system that compensates for lateral forces -- hence, our stable highway driving experience. The only downer: stability control is a $450 option that also comes with engine braking assist and an electronic differential lock.

The interior was nicely appointed with standard heated seats. Missing from our tester was an auxiliary jack, something that has been added during the production run along with an optional built-in iPod adapter -- a change that says a lot about the ubiquity of the iPod and carmakers' ability to implement changes far faster than in the past.

We're hoping that this Rabbit multiplies. So far, it's selling at four times the pace of the Golf it replaced. We give it a solid two "ears up."