If you're going to get a Volkswagen Golf with the nifty turbocharged engine, you'll be cheating yourself out of a lot of fun if you don't say no to the optional automatic transmission. This isn't the old knee-jerk, "Real men (and women) don't do slushboxes" thing you still see mindlessly chanted in car magazines. Over the last 10 years I've become more and more an advocate of the automatic transmission. The modern jobs, with their electronic smarts and as many as five forward gears, shift at least as aptly as a skilled driver 99 percent of the time, and, with their varying degrees of manual override, are in some ways better than manual shifters. They're faster and smoother, mainly.

One issue used to be that they rob power. They still do, but most modern powerplants, except at the very low end of a manufacturer's products, produce an abundance of get-up-and-go. In the case instant, the Golf, the four-speed automatic transmission is a good one, if not great, and actually teams up pretty well with the new 1.8-liter turbocharged engine. For those to whom a car is mere appliance, the combo would be quite satisfying, although they might be better served, in an economic sense, with the standard energy source, a normally-aspirated 2-liter four. It comes with both the base, two-door version of the Golf (the GL, which starts at $14,900) and the spiffier four-door GLS (starts at $16,350 with five-speed manual).

If you want the turbo engine, you have to pop for the GLS level, which, so equipped, begins at $17,400. (Diesel fans - you know who you are - can get one in both a GL (base: $16,195) and GLS series ($17,400). The standard 2-liter engine creates 115 horses and 122 foot-pounds of torque. The 1.8 Turbo makes 150 and 155, respectively, quite a significant difference.

In a car that weighs about 2,800 pounds, the base engine provides merely adequate performance, but I do mean adequate, in the sense that you'll neither die of boredom in the 10-plus seconds it takes to reach 60 from a stop nor pump great rushes of adrenaline when contemplating a freeway merge. The gearing is apt enough to both make the car feel responsive and make the most of what's available under the hood. The turbo will put you mid-pack with the ordinary run of cars, with mid-8-second 0-60 times with the manual, slightly worse with the automatic.

The only objection I have to pairing the turbo with the automatic is that if you're shifting for yourself, you can better appreciate the rush of power that comes as the turbo spins up and starts passing air and fuel at a faster pace. Still, the torque curve is relatively flat for a pressurized engine. This is the same one that VW slipped so quietly into its larger Passat model, not even announcing that it was a turbo, and so triumphantly - Turbonium!! - into the New Beetle, when that model needed a little more sizzle.

Be advised, however, that in addition to the entry price, the turbo also demands premium fue l and is a bit thirstier than the normal engine to boot. I logged 24.4 mpg in the test GLS 1.8T, and that was with a lot of freeway cruising. EPA estimates are 22 city, 28 highway with the automatic, and those tend to overstate a turbo's thriftiness.

Since last year's makeover, the Golf seems considerably less austere inside, with nicely contrasting colors and patterns making it feel less plastic-y. The forward cabin offers a sufficiency of room for six-footers, while the rear compartment is of course munchkinville. The cargo area under the hatch is 18 cubic feet - huge for a compact - and the rear seats fold flat for serious cartage.

Ride quality is good and handling is predictable. If that seems like damning with faint praise, you got my drift. VeeDub has saved the real fun for the sporty Golf derivative, the GTi, which offers extraordinarily crisp handling for its class. The 1.8T engine plus five-speed would be the hot ticket for the GTi, except for one thing - with t ermutation you can also get the wondrous 2.8-liter V-6 - now there's a tough choice. In the straight Golf, I continue to argue that either the 2-liter or the diesel would be the way to go for anybody who needs an automatic.

When I exercised the 1.8T Golf, the suspension didn't seem very eager to party, although the body structure felt tight and reasonably rigid. In hard turns, the car felt as if it was at the limit of suspension travel too soon, and there was a graunching sound from the front wheels.

The all-season tires complained pitiably when even modest exertions were required. They are of adequate size for this mass - 195/65s on 15-inch steel rims - but their complaining suggested that they were biased more toward smooth ride than performance. The swift traverse over washboard road was quite unpleasant because of the lack of suspension compliance, never mind that the test drill involves 20 mph over the recommended velocity.

I found the brakes quite obliging. Pedal feel was unusually crisp, and actuation was swift but easily modulated. I found stopping distances quite reasonable, and the standard antilock mechanism did its job without undue fuss. The Golf GLS has discs fore and aft, the fronts, at 11.3 inches and ventilated to boot, quite generous for this application. Dual front air bags are provided of course, along with side bags for driver and co-pilot, a nice bonus in this price range.

Once again, Press Relations provided the kick-butt "Monsoon" audio system, which, for a relatively modest price increment, bumps the power to 200 watts and bundles a sophisticated equalizer component to allow precise sound tailoring. It was excellent in tuner sensitivity, ambience and clarity, though you should probably audition the standard unit, which looks not too shabby. Overall, fit and finish were of a high order.

Base price on the GLS, as I mentioned, is $17,900. This includes a pretty good load of extras, including air conditioning, an anti-theft mechanism for both the vehicle and the stereo, which is an 8-speaker AM-FM-cassette rig, traction control, an electronic front differential lock, power windows, power heated side mirrors and cruise control. The tester also had the automatic for $875, Monsoon sound system for $295, luxury package for $1,175 and cold weather package for $150. (The luxury package gets you a power moonroof, alloy wheels and wheel locks. Cold weather includes heated front seats and windshield washer nozzles.) With freight, total was $20,396.

The Golf 1.8T, even with its extensive list of amenities, is a bit pricey, considering how much more fun can be had for a little more in its relatives. The base engine formulation makes better sense for those seeking just practical transportation.

"The Gannett News Service"