Pulling a Rabbit out of the hat could be marketing magic for Volkswagen; that is if U.S. execs have learned from the less-than-marquee performance of the New Beetle.
This time, Volkswagen needs more than just baby boomer nostalgia.
Kerri Martin will need to see to that.
Martin is VW's director of brand innovation who defected to Volkswagen from BMW, where she was part of the team that launched the Mini in North America and kept it going with new models and clever marketing.
The Rabbit name wasn't around long enough to build up the same kind of cult following as the Beetle. It was a front-wheel-drive hatchback for practical people who demanded fuel efficiency.
The Rabbit went on sale in late 1974 as a 1975 model when the OPEC oil embargo made everybody think about fuel economy. It was sold only until 1984. When the second version arrived, it was christened the Golf, which it has been for two decades and two more model changes.
As of October, there were still about 66,500 Rabbits on the road in the United States, according to R.L. Polk & Co. About 40 percent had diesel engines.
A friend who worked at Volkswagen of America in the mid-1980s says the name change was Jim Fuller's idea. Fuller, who was VW's U.S. honcho, wanted to leverage Volkswagen's German heritage, so when the second-generation car came to America he insisted it have the same name as the car sold in Europe and everywhere else.
Sadly, Fuller was one of the bright VW execs killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
Fuller wasn't the only luminary linked to the Rabbit.
As group vice president of manufacturing at Volkswagen of America, Dick Dauch was a prime mover behind the assembly plant in Westmoreland, Pa., where Rabbits and Golfs were built from 1978 to 1988. Dauch now heads American Axle.
Fuller might not approve of using the Rabbit name on the fifth-generation car when it goes on sale this summer. But the new model will share something else with the original: an optional diesel.
Depending on what happens with gasoline prices, that could be the real magic trick.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]