1980 Volkswagen Rabbit Convertible Tested: A Happy Little Car


From the January 1980 issue of Car and Driver.

Hi there, it’s us in our car zoo suit. The one with the white wall splashes and the padded shoulders. For our formal casual photography session, we slipped into our silver threads, but the outfit we spent most of our time in featured red pants and an off-white jacket. If you don’t immediately love his track, you’ll find it grows on you. Maybe it will even change your personality. It will definitely change what everyone thinks about you. Your Volkswagen dealer offers you the chance to get involved immediately. And, somewhat less obviously, very smart.

These German cars are almost embarrassing to us. They get too good. When we say so, it gets us a mountain of mail complaining that we sold out our objectivity and our credibility, and in turn probably got grotesquely bloated bank accounts. No such luck. But there’s no way to do that, the Rabbit convertible will bring the postwoman to her knees with hate mail again. She will come to hate this car for the burden it will bring her, but she will be alone.

Volkswagen has everyone else in the bag and loves it. This has happened before. Last time we tested a VW convertible, it was the erstwhile and beloved Beetle version. More peculiar cars existed only in the minds of drug-addicted individuals and in deepest France. If there was a more universal love in the world of cars, we don’t know it. Leather perversity was loose in the world in the form of the Beetle convertible. David E. Davis, Jr., said it’s a compelling argument that automotive progress isn’t everything. Patrick Bedard admitted he was intrigued by a car shaped like molded Jell-O when everything else looked like a block of cheese. Don Sherman calls it the fastest four-seater lawn chair he knows of. Volkswagen has sold more than a quarter of a million of its lawn chairs, and somewhere today people are sitting in them and soaking up the sun. When the Beetle convertible disappeared recently, demand screamed.

Volkswagen took the demand and drove it to the Karmann wagon works along with a batch of Rabbit mechanicals. Karmann was of course the birthplace of the sleek lined Ghia of yesteryear and the aforementioned topless Beetle. With such VW experience at hand, it didn’t take long for VW to pull an open-air rabbit out of Karmann’s magic hat, and the car is a classy mechanical entity. It makes you want to play ticker-tape parade, a national hero waving, standing behind you with forearm on roller bar, surrounded by the Thirties bulges of the folded top, getting the ride of his life in one of the neatest of all small cars.

Like the Beetle, the Rabbit defied convertible fashion to start one of its own. It is cute with the top up, and what can be described as . . . interesting with the top down. There isn’t much visual doubt that the convertible was an existing car with the top chopped off. The rear fenders are now kicked up a bit, and on top of them sits the mechanism for the top. When the top is down, it’s only down in the sense that it’s collapsed, as it still sticks up far, a large reading cushion with armrests, and a blocking rear view. Beneath the folded top is a handy, if draped, skirt that opens to the back. The rear seat folds forward for greater carrying capacity. The rest of the body is unmistakably Rabbit, its lines otherwise undiluted except for the upright roll bar that provides rollover protection and reinforces the unitary body structure. The bar is padded and finished in black, matching the dashboard and additional door trim.

The top fits exceptionally well. The outside will never sneak in uninvited. Inner and outer layers add smooth, substantial padding that provides weather and sound insulation. The interior of the top is finished like that of a cozy sedan, and the rear window is real live glass embedded with real live defogger wires. Hot stuff! The two roof-mounted release handles on the sides of the windshield are the only hardware visible.

2022 volkswagen rabbit convertible

Aaron Kiley|Car and Driver

It’s great now, having an outdoor rabbit and all, but it gets better. We expect Rabbits to be innately nice, but the convertible surpasses cuteness. Extra sound deadening seems to have been dumped wholesale into the engine compartment, and the first crank of the engine hints at the refinement to come. Everything about the physical behavior of the car says effortless. It is strong, friendly willing and very economical. It will return 25 mpg in city driving and claims a leisurely 90-mph cruise. With less than 500 miles on its optimistic odometer, our convertible ran 0 to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds; more break-in miles will likely get the job done faster. VW’s smooth five-speed overdrive aids and supports the engine with well-tuned gearbox and spring-light shifting so smooth it defies the rest of the industry. Hooked to perhaps the smoothest and quietest four in memory, it sets a lofty standard.

We are told that our car came straight off the boat into the dealership and pushed intros, where we claimed it. There was no pre-delivery preparation other than a wash job. Even so, the only physical faults we could find were of the easy-fix variety: a non-functional fuel-injection cold-start linkage (handily overcome even in snowy weather by a solid stomp on the gas pedal); a slight rattle in the exhaust caused by a loose hanger; an optional sports steering wheel turned one notch too far to the right; and a missing rear-view mirror. With a pre-delivery service under the car’s belt, we wouldn’t have found anything physical to complain about other than a right-side brake lockup problem, which was at least 20 feet off our last sedan Konyn’s 203-foot 70-to-0-mph stopping distance . Short of that point of lockup, the brakes have been improved due to better feel and more reassuring pedaling action than VWs have ever had. A quick service of the rear brakes should eliminate our problem, and it probably won’t show up in other cars.

The Rabbit convertible’s over-the-road controls operate with such well-oiled directness and consistency, you’ll swear you’re holding $20,000 worth of machinery. The cabriolet’s interior masses and individual pieces are astonishingly well coordinated, providing the driver with a smooth and stable platform, free of unnecessary harshness, from which to conduct the flanking speed passage of a most amusing world. The pop-top’s center of gravity feels significantly lower than an everyday Rabbit’s. Less body roll, ducking and crouching hinders the sensations of rapid progress through the countryside. The suspension and steering are ideally compromised, resulting in excellent and soft control. Slight understeer stabilizes the car, which can corner with surprising ferocity if you imagine it. The car seems capable of more than you could ever reasonably ask for, and certainly more fun than almost any traditional roadster you could put it up against. The world will soon be awash with a lemming run of roadster owners bending their dealers’ ears in search of fixes to fix the mess done to them by Rabbit convertibles.

This can happen on any type of road that changes direction frequently. Smooth, rough or straight crater, it makes little difference to the Rabbit convertible. The Continental TS771s are flexible enough to complement the bump-adaptive front-wheel-drive layout of the Rabbit, yet still allow you to simply fly into corners, track around and execute impeccably beyond. Transitions are smooth, wheel movements small, and the steering the very best. Place the car exactly where you want it. The light, microscopically adjustable steering pulls in apexes with a free-wheeling but irresistible magnetism, brushing flawlessly under the inner tubes. Those peaks pass, but the art of their course lingers.

1980 volkswagen rabbit convertible

Aaron Kiley|Car and Driver

The optional sports seats (not shown) are largely responsible for the driver’s ability to make use of all this excellence. Deep buckets and comfortably bolstered, they sit firmly among the top three or four factory-available seats in the world. Mounted high off the floor, the angled knee pad props you up for relaxed control and comfort that carries you from early to well past the twilight zone. The rear seat offers its shot even for adults, and while the rear side windows don’t roll down completely, they deflect the stronger gusts of high-speed turbulence that threaten havoc with anything but kinky perms.

There is no discount on the value of this lucky little car. It outperforms some fairly expensive competition, both in its physical functions and in the results it gives in comfort and satisfaction. And its operating economy is up there with the best. The changes Karmann made take the Rabbit convertible well out of the Econobox price range, but Volkswagen didn’t bother. Instead, it’s concentrated on building a dynamite mini-funster that does more things well than most product planners could write on a large piece of paper, let alone blend into something that blends with this car’s grace into the go way The Rabbit convertible shines with a good humor that is second to none.

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1980 Volkswagen Rabbit L convertible
Vehicle Type: Front Engine, Front Wheel Drive, 4-Passenger, 2-Door Convertible

Base/As Tested: $8895/$9105
Options: sport seats, $165; sport steering wheel, $45

SOHC inline-4, iron block and aluminum head
Displacement: 97 inches31588 cm3
Power: 76 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 83 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm

5-speed automatic

Suspension, F/R: Struts/Trailing Arm
Brakes, F/R: 9.4-inch ventilated disc/7.1-in drum
Tires: Continental TS771

Wheelbase: 94.4 inches
Length: 155.3 inches
Width: 63.4 inches
Height: 55.6 inches
Curb weight: 2170 lb

60 mph: 12.8 sec
1/4-mile: 18.8 sec @ 71 mph
90 mph: 52.8 sec
Braking, 70–0 mph: 223 ft

Combined: 25 mpg