The first thing I'd like to do is apologize to the distinguished-looking bearded gentlemen in the red Mustang GT convertible.

I just had to see if all the noise Volkswagen has been making about its new sports car is just static.

It isn't.

I'm sorry it happened at your expense, but that wasn't your garden variety Volkswagen that you attempted to pass. I was driving the new Corrado, a four-wheel flying machine from Germany.

The Corrado performs about like the space shuttle. If you've seen the shuttle lift off, you know that it leaves the pad slowly and gracefully. Then it quickly picks up speed.

The Corrado also was graceful off the pad, but when the engine wound up to about 4,200 rpm, speed came up in a heartbeat.

If you are not a VW fan, this is what the Corrado is all about: A few years ago VW moguls decided they wanted to build a sports coupe. It had to have the brashness of a Porsche 944, but not the price. It had to look good, handle well and hold four people in relative comfort. But more than anything else, to provide good value for the money, the Corrado had to perform well.

The bright red 1990 Corrado I tested demonstrated that VW engineers more than rose to the challenge.

Power is provided by a supercharged and intercooled 1.8 liter, four-cylinder engine. VW says this power plant delivers 158 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. The Corrado, a front-wheel-drive car, suffers from none of the maladies that affect other high performance front-wheel-drive vehicles. There's no wheel hop and there's no torque steer. The engine pulls strongly without causing undue trauma to the rest of the car.

Handling is the Corrado's strong point. VW got the steering and suspension just right. It feels like a sports coupe should. The seats are firm and comfortable. Minor imperfections in the road were dispensed with easily, though some road noise was present.

The Corrado's shifter is out of character with the rest of the car. It's noisy, notchy and springy and takes a little getting used to.

The clutch pedal lacked springiness and felt vague. The test car only had about 1,000 miles on the speedometer, and it is possible the clutch pedal feel will get better as the car is broken in.

In Central Florida, there is a test all new cars must pass with flying colors: How will it react in a broiling traffic jam? Will the air conditioner continue to blow cold? Does the temperature gauge shoot into the red zone? Will the brakes get spongy in stop and start driving.

The Corrado behaved well between stoplights in 95 degree city driving. The air-conditioning system is superb, and did nothing to upset the smoothness of the engine.

Volkswagen claims the 2,660 pound Corrado will reach a top speed of 140 mph and goes from 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds.

The EPA estimates that the Corrado will return between 17 and 25 miles per gallon in city driving. Highway mileage is expected to range from 25 to 33 m pg.

One of the Corrado's more interesting features is its speed-activated rear spoiler. When you accelerate faster than 45 mph the electrically-operated spoiler automatically extends from its base on the hatch to a position above the rear bodywork. VW claims this reduces rear end lift by up to 64 percent. The Corrado has an aerodynamic drag factor of just 0.32. Wind noise is practically non-existent at highway speeds.

The Corrado is Volkswagen's first shot in the super coupe wars of the '90s. It is competing against bullets like the Plymouth Laser/Eagle Talon, the Ford Probe, the new Toyota Celica and others. Volkswagen has set Corrado's base price at $17,900 but don't go to a dealer expecting to buy one for that price.

For one thing, Volkswagen is only building about 8,000 Corrados this year. That means each dealer will receive about 10 cars. You also can expect to find that dealers are adding a ''market adjustment'' to the price, meaning that they are going to add an extra $1,000 or so.

The bottom line is this: You probably can't drive off the lot without spending about $22,000 for the car. The price goes up even more if you want a leather interior. The Corrado is loaded with performance features such as four-wheel disc brakes and an anti-lock braking system, a very effective rear suspension system and other items that help justify the price tag.

Overall, the Corrado gives the feeling of being solidly built. And that's always been a Volkswagen trademark.