Street-Spotted: VW Rabbit Cabriolet, but Not on a College Campus

a green car parked on a road
Street-Spotted: VW Rabbit CabrioletAutoweek

For a car that was seemingly everywhere in the 1980s and beyond, the Volkswagen Rabbit is hard to spot on the road today, at least outside of Portland neighborhoods still well stocked with machinery from that era under a few pounds of pine needles.

But there's a good reason for the Rabbit Cabriolet's popularity: It was offered stateside from the 1980 model year through 1993, which assured its status in the GenX College Car Hall of Fame, while overlapping with sales of the Mk2 and Mk3 Golf.

But like the VW New Beetle Cabrio, the Rabbit Cabriolet was not in the lineup from the start. In fact, it took a while for this version to materialize.


The base Mk1 Golf itself debuted in 1975 as a hatchback, quickly winning over Europe and, given enough time, Malaise-weary US buyers seeking to escape the indignities of downsized domestic fare. The arrival of the Golf, sold as a Rabbit stateside, was a landmark event for VW and for European hatchbacks that's kind of difficult to appreciate today, or even explain to a younger audience.

A full four years into Golf/Rabbit production, a cabriolet version was created by Karmann GmbH alongside a similar Jetta cabrio prototype, both featuring the now-familiar roll bar.

The Rabbit Cabriolet was not a lavish car on the inside even by the day's standards, but VW by now had fully figured out how to play up a car's appeal to sell it as something far more premium than it really was.

a green car parked on the side of the road
The Rabbit received some fearsome bumpers from the DOT upon landing stateside, as well as giant orange side markers that actually seem endearing today.Autoweek

"The Cabriolet is as much a frame of mind as it is an automobile. For it harkens back to a time when open air touring was the epitome of automotive excitement," ad copy of the time whispered.

"Yet there is nothing old-fashioned about the Cabriolet. It has been meticulously crafted by the Karmann Coachworks of Osnabrück, Germany, as a true, up-to-date convertible. And it is endowed with the most sophisticated German engineering."

Yes, Wolfsburg reached for images of the golden age of open-top cars, perhaps traveling down to the French Riviera, along with promises of German engineering as only a city with an umlaut in its name can deliver.

The Rabbit Cabriolet was going to be a success even without such a marketing effort, offering a solid interior that one should have certainly ordered in a tough leatherette upholstery, on the chance of leaving the top down in the rain.

Speaking of water, another selling point was a three-year unlimited mileage warranty on rust perforation, which should serve as a sober reminder of what era in engineering this really was. A two-year warranty on the entire car (except for the tires) was also somewhat generous for the time.

A 1.8-liter four-pot with fuel injection paired with a five-speed manual provided the soundtrack, with a four-speaker AM/FM stereo cassette system providing the tunes. VW knew what standard features the buyers wanted in these, and it helped that the interior looked crisp and modern for the time.

VW promised "performance that's positively exhilarating," but we suspect that with the top down any small car was bound to feel fast, especially on the way to spring break.

The Cabriolet only left production in 1993, assuring these would be everywhere on US college campuses through the end of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s their numbers appeared to fade noticeably.

By the time production of the Cabrio exited in 1993, the Mk3 Golf was already on sale in hatchback form, with VW sticking close to Karmann's original formula in creating a model based on the third-generation Golf.

But it's this original model that enjoyed the status of a tidy and attainable drop top, in a way that only the New Beetle could recapture years later.

Do you know anyone who had one of these back in the day? Let us know in the comments below.