Volkswagen started a small-car revolution in 1976 with its first Golf GTI. VW initially planned to build only 5,000 or so in a limited run, but public response was incredibly positive. Since that first car, VW has sold more than 1.5 million GTIs worldwide.

The name is so popular it has almost become a brand in itself, especially in Europe.

By 1983, the GTI was for sale in this country, and it quickly became the cult car of sports car enthusiasts.

Now, the fifth-generation GTI is just now available in Europe. While the new model is a vast departure from the original that sold here 20 years ago, VW insists it has the same energetic character.

The new Golf will be imported to this country in late 2005 or early 2006.

The GTI has grown with time, of course, and it is now much larger and more refined than that somewhat crude car from two decades ago. The key difference is in design, yet there is a familial resemblance that true VW fans will notice. The new car continues with a hatchback body style, transverse engine and front-wheel drive.

The new GTI has a pronounced grille that is rapidly becoming the signature of Volkswagen. It even resembles the larger grille of the new Audis. Volkswagen also owns Audi. The grille is black with a red frame. Twin exhaust pipes, 17-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes with red calipers are also part of the distinctive look. Larger, 18-inch wheels are optional.

The GTI will be available in two-door and four-door models. While hatchbacks are not big sellers over here, they are in Europe.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 200 horsepower. This engine is one of the first to combine direct fuel injection and turbocharging. It has a standard six-speed manual transmission, and a DSG, or double-clutch gearbox, is optional. DSG can be driven like an automatic or it can be shifted like a manual.

VW says the GTI can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds and will have a top track speed of 146 mph. The 1984 GTI was slightly noisy and rowdy, like a teenager with too much sugar. Driving reports from Europe indicate that the new GTI maintains its frisky character without sacrificing the comfort of modern conveniences such as satellite navigation systems and powerful audio options.

The responsive engine is mated to a suspension that has a multilink rear axle. GTIs have always handled well, and VW says the new one is taut and agile.

Volkswagen interiors are works of art. The fit, finish and choice of materials is absolutely first rate for cars with modest prices. This new GTI pays homage to the original with checked cloth seat inserts. The seats are designed to hold the driver and passenger tightly in place. The sides are tall, and the seatbacks have integrated headrests. The GTI logo is stitched into the material.

The three-spoke steering wheel is covered with leather and has aluminum trim. Aluminum also is used for the shift knob, pedals and trim inserts. The GTI also has a black headliner like the original.

Other interior features specific to the GTI include newly designed instruments, automatic climate control, trip computer, auto-dimming rearview mirror and wipers with a rain sensor.

Safety features include antilock brakes, traction control, vehicle stabilization program and six airbags.

It's unfortunate that the next GTI won't be available here for a year or more. Serious enthusiasts will have a hard time waiting for a GTI that packs new levels of refinement into a package that is as fun as the original.