The rules of performance have certainly changed. Hot cars used to be big and brassy, mostly with monster V-8s that bellowed and roared while smoking the back tires.

Or else sexy, streamlined sports cars, mostly from Europe, that swept around curves and raced on weekends.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is basically a box with a hatchback. But it also has an attitude and the power to back it up. This is the prototypical pocket rocket, and its cheeky boxiness is part of its racy appeal.

Golf GTI is perfect for negotiating winding two-lane blacktop, the desert roads that wrap around rock formations and follow jagged ridges. Quick steering response, sharp handling, a subdued howl from the turbocharged engine, and the immediacy of four-wheel disc brakes combine for a feeling of joy and excitement.

Not bad for what starts out as a basic economy car.

VW invented the pocket rocket in the '70s with the sporty GTI version of what was then called the Rabbit. The effect was beneficial, and the popularity was instant.

These days, GTI can hold its own among the Fast and Furious crowd. It comes with a turbocharged four that VW has boosted to 180 horsepower that, in the lightweight Golf, is real pulling power.

The turbo does have noticeable power lag, especially coming out of corners, but picks up the tempo as rpms rise.

Hard acceleration is hampered by pronounced torque steer, which is the tendency for a front-wheel-drive car to pull to one side. Acceleration Slip Regulation, VW's traction control, is marginally effective in controlling it.

GTI can be ordered with VW's narrow V-6, which puts out slightly less horsepower but more torque at lower rpms. The VR6 costs nearly $1,400 more, and I don't see where it's worth it. Watch for a 200-horse VR6 in the future.

The regular, non-turbo Golfs make do with a 115-horse four, which works well enough especially when combined with stick shift, for economy and a base price in the $15,000 range. But the potent turbo engine does make this little car a kick to drive.

Gas mileage is not bad at 22 city and 29 highway, though premium is required.

The test GTI came with automatic transmission enhanced with Tiptronic, which allows manual shifting if desired. I wonder why anyone would order a GTI with automatic, but it takes all kinds. The automatic shifting was just fair, sluggish on upshifts and reluctant on downshifts, so I often rowed my way through the gears using Tiptronic.

The GTI benefits not only from the turbo engine, but also from a stiffened and lowered suspension for better handling and control, and from performance tires. Handling is quick and precise, in the German fashion, though body sway is significant.

The interior of the Golf is VW's usual nicely laid-out, no-nonsense treatment.

I just read in Popular Science where General Motors is examining Volkswagens for hints on designing small-car dashboards. That makes ple nty of sense.

Everything is nicely arranged, and the gauges are attractively backlit in blue. The optional Monsoon stereo system is first rate, as well it should be for the youthful target audience.

Though short, the boxy shape of the Golf has spatial advantages. Front-seat passengers will find headroom, legroom and shoulder room plentiful. Backseat passengers' legs will be cramped, but because of the tall profile of the hatchback design, their heads will have plenty of room.

Space behind the rear seat is tight, maybe enough for groceries, but with the seat folded, there's enough room for a camping trip for two.

The base price is high at nearly $19,000, but the GTI comes complete with nearly every desirable feature. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side air bags and air curtains, and daytime running lights. On the test car, options included a luxury interior package, which included the Monsoon stereo and power sunroof, $1,240; Tiptronic, $1,075 leather package, $900; and the 17-inch alloys, $400.