The VW Diesel Rabbit (Golf Mk1) really was a game changer, and I’m not using the word lightly. Finally there was an affordable, compact ultra-efficient car that could actually be fun to drive. Up to this point, that had not been a reality, as diesels were just about anything other than that.
Sure, 0-60 in 15.8 seconds sounds pretty lame in today’s world, but that was typical for gas engine small cars of the time, and faster than a Fiat X1/9, Dodge Colt, Datsun B210 and a Chevette. But straight line acceleration isn’t what makes a car fun to drive. The Rabbit had already developed a rep as being the most-fun to drive small car since its arrival in 1975, and the diesel engine only dampened that slightly. The expression “driving a slow car fast beats driving a fast car slow” never applied more to a car. And getting 42 mpg while doing it was the icing on the cake.
The $170 additional cost for the 1.5 L diesel engine, which was rated at 48 hp at an unusually high for a diesel 5000 rpm, was very reasonable. When the second energy crisis hit, I remember seeing folks paying up to $10k for a diesel Rabbit, almost double its list price. There was a popular kit that added a second tank where the spare was, and the spare was mounted continental style, or just done without. It made for close to 1000 mile range between fill ups.
The second reprint is R&T’s 24,000 mile long term test of a Diesel Rabbit they bought. Given that it was VW’s first new diesel engine, and given the Rabbit’s bad start reliability wise in 1975-1976, this one acquitted itself fairly well, considering a few issues were typical with just about all new cars back then.
The early VW diesels weren’t all perfect, but VW worked out the bugs and they became legendarily durable, attested by the numerous ones still on the road in Eugene. They’ve become icons, although in this post-diesel era, the numbers are fading finally.