The German-built Volkswagen reminds one of the haunting song Somewhere Lost In Time.

As a motorcar whose image virtually was a household name on the American market, the VW of recent years has tended to run in the shadow of other imports despite its superb engineering and quality workmanship.

The 1996 Volkswagen Jetta sedan has the opportunity to assume a leadership role among foreign cars. Offered in three models -- the entry-level GL, the well-equipped GLS, and the highly acclaimed GLX sports sedan -- the Jettas carry updated styling into the '96 model year.

The Jettas are products of the modern age with their aerodynamic styling. A new front end is highlighted by a newly framed three-bar grille. Body contours sweep rearward to a notchback rear deck. Side paneling is broken into two tiers via a central bar.

The GLX sports sedan is an exciting model designed to whet the interest of drivers. The car is powered by VW's 2.8- liter (170.4-cubic inch) VR6, a narrow-angle 15-degree V-6 engine which Volkswagen claims is the only engine of its type in the world.

The GL and GLS models are powered by 2.0-liter (121.1-cubic inch) four-cylinder engines that have been used as the base by specialty performance car builders worldwide.

Volkswagen VR6 is a single-overhead cam per bank engine, with the cams actuating two valves per cylinder. It's a tight little package with the block cast at a 15-degree angle between the banks of three cylinders.

Power output approaches the performance benchmark number of 1-horsepower per cubic inch. The power rating is 172-horsepower, the torque 173 foot- pounds.

The GLX's speed is electronically limited for the U.S. market at 130 mph.

The GLX's five-speed manual transmission is standard, allowing the car to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds.

The V-6 begins delivering 85 percent of its 173 foot-pounds of pulling power as low as 2,000 rpm, and continues all the way up to 6,000 rpm.

For GLX drivers who don't like standard transmissions, there is an automatic to do the shifting for them. The optional four-speed comes with adaptive shift control.

The Jettas are all front-wheel drives, not a bad way to go in this winter's slip- and-slide driving conditions.

When performance drivers can finally find some dry pavement, they will find the GLX's "Plus Axle" front suspension has been further refined for 1996. The suspension has been lowered by 10 millimeters and given a firmer shock setting in order to enhance handling and feel.

At the rear, newly rated gas shock absorbers work in conjunction with a performance-rated stabilizer bar to minimize body lean and vehicle control at high speeds.

And a definite assist under today's driving conditions is a standard electronic traction-control system that helps prevent wheel spin on slippery pavement.

Added standard performance equipment includes ABS (anti-lock) braking, 11-inch front/10-inch rear disc brakes, seven-spoke light alloy wheels, and low aspect-rati o (low rim to ground) tires.

While the GLX is meant to satisfy serious drivers, creature comforts are certainly not neglected.

Cabin accommodations are world-class, with fully reclining and height-adjustable sport seats for the driver and front seat passengers. Together with a height-adjustable leather- wrapped steering wheel, a comfortable driving position is easy to find.

Not all Jetta drivers are the stand-on-the-gas variety, so the GL and GLS cars are powered by 115-horsepower, four-cylinder engine whose strong suit is excellent fuel mileage. In five-speed form, city mileage is 23 mpg and 30 mpg on the highway. With the automatic it's 22/28.

This compares to 19/26 for a five-speed GLX, and 18/24 for an automatic.

Volkswagen regards its Jetta line as America's most-popular alternative. The maker always has doted on excellent German engineering for its products, and this facet certainly is carried forward in all three 1996 Jetta models.