One of the better-kept secrets on the American imported-car market is Volkswagen's 1994 Golf III GL model.

Launched with much success in Europe in 1992, a very limited number were sold in the United States as 1993 automobiles.

"They (Volkswagen) had a test program in California," said Ron Vanags, general sales manager for Speedway Volkswagen. "But we never received any cars in the Midwest. It's a brand-new car here."

The 1994 Golf III GL is an automobile that Volkswagen is heralding as its major advancement in automotive offerings. Now on U.S. shores with a fresh European look, more power, better handling and several new safety advancements, the '94 Golf brings its European fame onto the local scene.

Significantly more aerodynamic, the styling of the Golf III GL sports a refined European flair highlighted by flowing frontal lines, a body- colored grille, smooth mirror housings and bumpers, a wider road stance and teardrop halogen headlamps.

As a hatchback, the fifth rear door drops off the roofline for a bit of an aerodynamic Kamm-like effect -- the coefficient of drag is just 0.32. But even with all these changes, it still bears the mark of a Volkswagen.

No matter how good a car looks, it still has to be a saleable item, and VW addresses this issue rather well with a new 2.0-liter (121 cubic inches) engine that provides a broad overall power range for acceleration and cruising.

The powerplant is a single overhead cam four-cylinder, a type with which VW has had years of experience. It's a high- speed engine in that its 115 horsepower is registered at a rather brisk 5,400 rpm. Torque for passing is at a much lower range, 122 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm.

Drivers of a Golf can go two ways on transmission selection. There's a manual five-speed that lets the car get up and run. Then there's an electronically controlled four-speed automatic that is almost a full two seconds slower for 0-60 miles per hour runs.

The optional automatic is, of course, a whole lot more convenient in everyday driving than doing your own shifting. So if you haven't an unbridled passion for being a hot shoe, it probably is the way to go.

The four-speed is designed to automatically adjust to the driving style of the person behind the wheel, and gear ratios have been designed for smoother shifting characteristics. Its fuel mileage of 24 miles per gallon city and 31 on the highway is, however, slightly below that of the manual five-speed.

No matter whether you're running a five- speed or an automatic, an important facet of driving is handling and control. In this area, the Germans have always prided themselves on designing automobiles with which you come out of high-speed, sharp corners still in one piece.

The Golf continues this theme with a body that is 30 percent more rigid and a wide 57.6-inch front track and a 56.9-inch rear track. With new suspension geometry that features negative steering roll radius, this is one front-driver that won't play tricks on you should it be necessary to turn suddenly or stand on the brakes.

The body structure's increased torsional rigidity also improves the overall ride, and VW says that with the prolific use of sound-deadening materials, the new GL is quieter than its predecessor.

The car is a five-passenger automobile that combines the virtues of a station wagon with those of a sedan. The hatchback design provides slightly more overall passenger room for five adults, plus 17 cubic feet of cargo space.

With the rear seat folded down, the cargo space expands to a station wagon-like 41 cubic feet.

"This is almost the last of the hatchbacks," Vanags said. "There are not too many manufacturers making them anymore."

The interior of the Golf III is designed to be more ergonomic, with a restyled dashboard gently rounded and softer to the touch like many expensive European automobiles.

Price-wise, the initial GLs received were without air bags and had a base sticker of $ll,900. Now, however, all ca rs are equipped with air bags and are priced at $12,525.

"We're finding our customers are those who want a hatchback and are safety oriented," Vanags said. "And for them we've got a real winner."

Golf III GL Model year: 1994.Base price: $12,525.Type: Front engine, front- wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback sedan.Engine: 2.0 liters, SOHC 4, 8 valves, fuel injected, 115 horsepower, 122 foot-pounds of torque.Transmission: Five-speed manual.Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 9.4 seconds.Mileage: 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway.Wheelbase: 97.4 inches.Length: 160.5 inches.Width: 66.7 inches.Height: 56.2 inches.Curb weight: 2,577 pounds.Options: Air conditioning, premium AM/FM stereo, automatic transmission, anti-lock braking, power sunroof-closing feature, theft-deterrent system, additional reading lights.