For the young (and those who think that way) drivers who want their cars solid, quick, sporty, and affordable, Volkswagen concocts this conundrum: the 2001 Jetta. Why the conundrum? Because while the Jetta, in all its many forms, is a fabulous, snappy, sporty, nicely priced car this year, for 2002 it will only get better.


Consider the 2001 GLS 1.8T I just finished testing. With 150 horsepower, a sport package that includes nifty 17-inch wheels and fine leather seating, it's a great buy at under $25,000 - an above average car at about the average price of a car today. Come 2002, however, that 1.8-liter turbo will be rated at 170 horsepower, and that's no small gain for the tuner set. Consider too, as one Volkswagen insider told me last week, that that 170-horse engine will really produce 180 ponies and it will be billed as 170 only so as not to bump up against certain Audis in a round of inner-company competition.

Of course, that's next year, (more conundrums later) so let's use the 150-horse, four-cylinder turbo we can buy today as our base model. Nice base: It is as solid and dynamic a car as you'll find at the price (and if you don't need the leather and bigger wheels, you can drive this one away for under $20,000). I like the bigger wheels because they give an aggressive stance to what is essentially a racy wedge, from its high trunk to its tucked-down nose. It's a look that befits performance, as the turbo, complete with satisfying whine, spools up very quickly and gets this front-wheel-drive wedge into the wind with only a hint of torque steer.

Comparison shopping among your Jettas? The standard 2.0-liter is a 115-horsepower plant, the 2.8-liter VR6 engine delivers 174 horsepower, and the 1.9 leader TDI (turbo diesel) offers 90 horsepower and fuel economy in the mid-40 miles per gallon range. The four-speed automatic in the GLS did a decent job of holding onto the torque band without shifting prematurely, though I'm sure true enthusiasts would prefer the 5-speed standard.

The ride is smooth and solid straight ahead and downright upright in hard cornering with minimal body roll. That's because of a tight Teutonic suspension system that puts struts, coil springs, telescopic shocks, and a stabilizer bar up front; and, in the rear, an independent torsion beam axle, coil springs, gas pressurized telescoping shocks, and stabilizer bar. Disc brakes all around, vented up front, solid in the rear, aided by ABS bring the Jetta to precision stops with little nose dive and great straight-ahead control.

Interior comfort is well thought out. Headroom is good and the seats are firm and broad. The front buckets are well-bolstered along the legs and up the torso (if the car's not going to roll, occupants are going to have to fight the forces). The rear seat, a bench, is really comfortable only for two since the middle is humped and, even if you can stand the hump, you are pinched from both sides by seat belt clas ps. If you're looking for a full-size sport sedan from VW, you'll have to check out the Passat.

Ergonomically, things don't get much simpler. Window- and door-lock controls are on the armrest of the driver's side door; the audio and climate controls are a good-sized, easily identifiable mix of buttons and knobs; and the dial that operates sunroof aperture is a slick touch. That high trunk that adds to the aerodynamic wedge look also has a utilitarian purpose: beneath it is a huge box of cargo space - made truly vast if you fold down the locking, 60/40 split, rear seat. Opt for the side curtain air bags, to go along with standard front air bags, side impact air bags, seat belt tightening system, and lower attachments for child seats, and you are rolling in an affordable cocoon of safety.

Now, more about those conundrums. Here's what a VW engineer told me: While the 1.8T goes to 170/180 horsepower, bigger changes are coming to the VR6 models (this will include the Golf, , and Jettas). That 174-horsepower engine will have 24 valves and be boosted to 201 horsepower. And further, it will be mated with a couple of new transmission options - a six-speed manual or a five-speed Tiptronic. Choices, choices.

Of course, as Volkswagen seems to be going a bit upmarket even as other companies look for new entry-level ground (Mercedes, Jaguar, Volvo), the 2002s are bound to cost more. And that adds to the conundrum, because that makes the 2001 Jetta a very fine car at a price that likely won't last.