VW bids for US high-performance market with its Rabbit GTI

It may not be a Ferrari or some other exotic car from that ''land of exotics, '' Italy, but the price isn't in the same ballpark either.

The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI is designed for the driver who wants to save money when he buys a car, yet get a kick out of the car when he kicks the accelerator pedal.

The GTI is still a Rabbit, but a performing Rabbit all the way.

With a 1.8-liter overhead-cam engine and close-ratio 5-speed gearbox, the GTI hops from 0 to 50 miles an hour in 7.2 seconds, a full second faster than the standard VW Rabbit. It has an Environmental Protection Agency estimated city mileage of 26, and on the highway the figure jumps to 36. You probably won't get it. I couldn't.

In designing the car, VW engineers upped the compression ratio from 8.2 to 1 for the standard VW Rabbit to 8.5 to 1 in the GTI. Cubic-inch displacement of the engine is slightly higher, and the gear ratios are designed for perky performance, even in fifth gear.

Cornering ability of the GTI is superb for a car of its size. On the skid pad , VW reports, the GTI delivered a lateral acceleration of .82g.

Gearshifting also is a snap - smooth and precise. In keeping with its image, the ride is firm. No one wants a mushy ride if handling is the goal. They simply do not mix.

And the price?

VW says that a bunch of buff-magazine writers, asked about price at an early preview for writers this year, guessed $10,000 without a quiver. My 22-year-old daughter, asked the same question by me, also came up with $10,000.

No way, VW replied. Even so, the starting price of $7,990, some $1,700 more than the base US Rabbit ''L,'' can soon approach the $10,000 figure if the buyer wants a few of the extras off the shelf. The car I'm now driving is priced just under the magic figure of $10,000. Air conditioning these days, for example, is no longer a $400 option, but $650. Even the destination charge is creeping up -

Is nothing bad about the car? Well, the E-light, which is designed as an aid to economical shifting of the gears, is a distraction, especially if the driver is slow in changing the gears and the E-light snaps on between upshifts. The performance-oriented driver, however, would never see the light anyway because he'd know when to shift so as to maintain the car's thrust.

Also, the special sport-type seats may take some getting used to. They grip the body, but perhaps too much. The crank-operated sunroof, a $285 option, steals headroom from the 6-foot driver. The sans-sunroof model would be better.

Space is abundant in front, but rear legroom suffers (doesn't it usually?) if the front seats are pushed all the way back.

Like all Rabbit hatchbacks, a back shelf shields the trunk area.

Where is the GTI heading in the marketplace? One of its key jobs is to help the company get back in gear. Also, it is projecting an image of power which the company wants to assert. Meanwhile, VW is working on a higher-performance Scirocco, but that's still down the road.

Indeed, the new-to-the-US GTI - it's been on sale in Europe for the last six years - should help pull the VW Rabbit out of the muck, badly damaged by the low-ball economy, interest-rate level, high unemployment, and a jungle of competitive cars all over the lot. Rabbit sales this year are off a devastating 44 percent compared with the same time period a year ago.

If the Rabbit GTI had been around a year or two ago, it might have helped the company maintain its market position in the US. But then again, given the sad state of the automobile business these days, it may not have helped at all.

The point is, VW is going through a tough time in the US and only time will enable it to build up its momentum once again.

The Rabbit GTI will certainly help out. That's for sure.

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