As any car enthusiast in a relationship knows, it’s easier to own something boring and inoffensive to all parties than something fun that really gets under the skin of your partner. That, dear friends, is why the Volkswagen GTI Rabbit Edition was less of a rabbit that it was a unicorn. My wife, who usually confuses press cars with one another—citing either their uniform dullness or, in the case of the “fun” ones, their uncomfortableness and/or impracticality—loved the GTI.

(Full disclosure: Volkswagen let me borrow a Golf GTI Rabbit Edition for a week and dropped it off at my house with a full tank of gas.)

We have a child together, my wife and I. And although her assessment of the car certainly had something to do with how much fun it was to drive, there was also the ease-of-use factor where junior was concerned.

The Golf is a small car, but it’s surprisingly roomy. It satisfies the humdrum spatial demands posed by the astronaut seat, stroller and “just-in-case” bag-encumbered child-bearer, while at the same time scratching a deep-buried enthusiast itch (my wife is not among those chomping at the bit to go for a spirited drive on some distant twisty road).

In other words, the GTI is something special.

But how can something so small be useful to a parent, saddled down as he is with piles of things that, in a former life, would never have been necessary? Follow me, friends, and I’ll clue you in.

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It all starts with a healthy dose of simplicity, something every parent can appreciate. Back in the days when I drove up and down the Eastern Seaboard in a bright yellow 1973 Volkswagen Beetle (standard, thanks), I loved the car for one thing, and it was neither speed nor power. It was its purity as a machine. I could drive the thing all day, and if it broke (and it did), I could fix it with the set of tools that never seemed to be absent from the front trunk. I even changed an engine in a parking lot one time.

Naturally, modern Volkswagens are much more complicated machines than my yellow Beetle, but a simple layout and a spare interior keep the busy vibe to a minimum, allowing the task-taxed parental mind to hover over more important things, like when to re-order the periodic giant box of diapers.

Photo: Benjamin Preston

Cabin & Cargo

And that brings us to our first, and arguably most important assessment of this car: cargo volume. Every time I am called to visit my mother-in-law, I know what will happen. We’ll arrive with a full complement of baby gear, and despite the politest of protestations, depart with a tightly packed carload of “things we might need.”

Add in an Apollo-mission certifiable child safety pod, a stroller that could easily be consigned to moon rover service and several bags of “essentials,” and you can see why a small sedan would be a difficult proposition.

And that’s why so many people—not just families, but single and non-kid-having people, too—are snapping up crossovers like they’re going out of style. Although crossovers have more space inside than most cars, there’s a catch: a lot of that space is vertical and is difficult to use in most situations. Fortunately, humanity invented hatchbacks so that motorists could enjoy carlike handling, fuel economy and looks along with station wagon-like interior volume. All without the extra gith.

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With nearly 23 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the rear seats, the Golf already got way more storage space than most sedans—even once-vaunted family car stalwarts like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. (I’m not sure about the Ford Taurus. Remember the Taurus? If you don’t, Robocop does.) Fold the back seats flat and the Golf’s cargo space yawns open to a cavernous 53.7 cu.-ft.

For reference, that’s only a few cubes short of the Mazda CX-5, which sits on the small end of the compact crossover range. Basically, the GTI is on par with the Honda Civic hatch in terms of behind-the-seat space (but outdoes it in the seats-folded category). What I’m trying to say is, Costco toilet paper run, do your worst. You, too, mother-in-law.

Photo: Benjamin Preston

In this age of Radwood-like enthusiasm for ‘80s and ‘90s culture, Volkswagen’s use of plaid seat inserts is well-placed. It’s a retro look that recalls sporty Sciroccos of the decade that brought us leg warmers, “Alf” and all that dayglo crap Millennials love so much these days. Ditto the Rabbit logo, a timely cooption of 1984 VW nomenclature. In plaid’s case, of course, the look is good, and adds a modest touch of luxury to an otherwise spartan car.

Those handsome plaid-clad seats sit in a competitive 93.5 cu.-ft. interior space – a few cubes short of the Civic (which is competitive because it’s the other hatch worth buying). By comparison, the CR-V, Honda’s ubiquitous crossover, has about 10 cu.-ft. more passenger space than a Golf. But if you’ve ever sat in a CR-V, you’d realize that much of that volume appears to be overhead where it’s of little use. By now, my stance regarding the efficacy of crossovers should be pretty clear. I’m a wagon and hatch guy, through and through.

Along with roomy-for-a-small-car backseats, Volkswagen included large, squarish rear doors on the GTI—a boon to any parent who has had to wrestle a writhing, uncooperative toddler into the car.

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The LATCH child safety seat anchors, which are concealed behind easy-to-spot little plastic covers, are simple to use. Some manufacturers force you to jam a bulky clip between seat cushions, but Volkswagen’s engineers have spared us that added layer of child-related tribulation.

Photo: Benjamin Preston

Driving & Fuel Economy

The GTI may have lots of space inside, but it has a small footprint. It doesn’t take up much space on the road. (Or in the driveway, where space for wheeling the stroller, bicycles and other things past is at a premium when I find myself in possession of larger vehicles.) If you’re like most people, you live someplace where rush hour traffic is terrible. Perhaps I’m only theorizing here, but it sure seems easier to negotiate a smaller car through gridlock, if only because you can weasel it into and out of the tiniest “opportunity holes” as you claw your way from one place to the next.

During those shining moments when the road opens up and a few uncluttered curves present themselves, the GTI has few equals in its price range. The car is a blast to drive. Acceleration from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger and slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission is swift, and handling is tight without serving up a harsh ride.

If the giggles coming from the rearward-facing child safety seat were any indication, junior got a kick out of it, too. Volkswagen also likes to tout its also manual transmission-equipped Jetta GLI sedan as a practical, fun-to-drive car. But there’s no substitute in VW’s lineup for the practicality-laced fun offered by the smaller GTI. Seriously, this car does everything but go offroad. If there’s anything to find fault with, it’s that there isn’t an all-wheel drive version – something car buyers in areas with snow and mud might take issue with.

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Fuel economy from the 228-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder is a respectable 27 mpg on average, according to the EPA. As always, actual numbers come down to how you drive. All 258 ft.-lbs. of torque come on at 1,500 RPM, so the temptation to dig into the throttle and feel the engine pull hard through each gear is strong. Of course, that yields lower fuel economy numbers.

Out on the open highway, where the GTI continues to shine as an adept performer, it’s much easier to set the cruise control and see your mpgs creep past 30 and beyond. And that’s good news for parents, who should know that a penny saved (on fuel, in this case) is a penny dumped into the kid’s college fund.

Photo: Benjamin Preston

Safety

In its assessment of the 2019 Golf 4-door hatchback, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the car top marks in most of its crash tests. All except for the small overlap front passenger-side crash test—the one that simulates an offset frontal crash from something such as a telephone pole—in which the Golf hatch received an “Acceptable” rating. IIHS graded the headlights as “Poor,” and didn’t find the LATCH anchors as easy to use as I did, giving it an “Acceptable” rating in that category. The federal government gave the GTI a five-star crash rating – it’s top mark.

Active safety features are available, but not standard on the GTI. The Rabbit Edition I tested came with a bunch of the save-your-own-skin goodies – advance collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking. Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist are optional on all GTI models but the top-of-the-line Autobahn version, in which they’re standard.

Photo: Benjamin Preston

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Verdict

A base GTI can be had for less than $28,000. For a car that checks both the fun-to-drive and fits-the-family boxes, that’s about as good a deal as you’ll find anywhere. The Rabbit Edition I tested, which sits between the base S and the mid-level SE in the GTI hierarchy, adds $1,300 to the base price, and includes LED headlights, fog lights, and a suite of active safety features that don’t come standard on the S.

The cherry on top is a nice dollop of respectability, and I’ll tell you exactly what I mean by that. If you consider the GTI’s competitors—the Honda Civic Type R, the Subaru WRX STI or other hot hatches like the Hyundai Veloster N—they can all be a bit on the loud side, aesthetically speaking.

As a grown-ass man who has to pick up his kid from daycare, where everyone else is driving the most dull vehicles known to humanity, I’m not especially keen to roll up sporting the latest in boy racer style. I’d rather just blend in until it’s time to bust some moves out on the road, where I’m a relatively anonymous motorist.

Although I generally don’t care what other people think about what I’m doing, I’m someone’s dad now, and would rather my son be the focus of everyone’s attention. That’s why it’s nice to stage a sort of secret rebellion against all of that from behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t cost a fortune, doesn’t attract a lot of attention—but can light up my joy for driving when I feel so inclined to indulge. And, you know, maybe even show junior that fun can be had behind the wheel.

Good luck doing that in a CR-V.