IT'S A sassy little thing, red with black striping, hot as its devilish colors. It'll zip you 'round curves without slipping and sliding, and move with enough speed and agility to put you near the head of the pack.

It's the 1986 Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Wolfsburg Edition, which means it's a little fancier than other Jetta models. Still, it's not a car for people who value cachet over cash. Nor is it one for those to whom destination is usually more important than the fun of getting there.

The Jetta GLI, quite simply, is a fine little runner, well worth its price, particularly when compared with more expensive competitors like the Mercedes-Benz 190E and the entry-level 3-series BMWs.

The "beginner" Mercedes and BMWs, with their upper-$20,000 stickers, are worthy cars. But I find their prices difficult to justify after touring around in the Jetta GLI, which moves and handles as well -- and looks just as good.

Outstanding complaints: Minor. The car's dashboard-mounted, turn-signal indicator is a tiny green light that blinks the same way whether you're turning left or right. Useless.

Also, shutting down the engine and removing the ignition key from the Jetta GLI won't turn off the car's sound system, which must be turned off separately. Forgetfulness here can be a drain.

Outstanding praise: Overall value for dollar. The four-door, front-wheel-drive Jetta GLI is a high-quality machine, one that lives up to the concept of affordable luxury and performance.

Nearly everything about this car is right. It comfortably seats five adults in its leather and vinyl interior (the real leather is applied to its seats, steering wheel and gearshift knob). It has shoulder-harness seatbelts front and rear. And that big 16.6-cubic foot trunk. Takes loads of luggage. It's hard to believe that this is a compact.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Absolutely righteous. The test model comes equipped with a 1.8-liter, single overhead cam, 4-cylinder, fuel-injected, gasoline engine capable of kicking out 102 horsepower at 5,250 rotations per minute. That translates to quick, smooth, sure highway passes.

Indeed, driving the Jetta GLI is like piloting a dart. It goes exactly where you point it, which makes you feel as if you really do know how to drive. That feeling is enhanced by the Jetta GLI's driver-friendly, five-speed-manual gearbox and its very responsive clutch.

Head-turning-quotient: The car gets favorable looks, and it apparently excites some egos. On several occasions, with absolutely no provocation from me, drag-racer types in Chevrolet Camaro models, low-end BMWs, and in one Jaguar XJ6 felt the need to pull up even with me, rev their engines, and take off as if they had some money on the line. Talk about goofy.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by VW. Mediocre tonal quality and cumbersome controls. The only truly below-par component in the Jetta GLI.

Mileage: Easily 29 to the gallon (14.5-gal. tank), combined city-highway, running driver only and with no use of car's climate control system.

Price-as-tested: $14,260, including $2,840 in options, such as $725 for air conditioning and $350 for the manually operated sunroof. Fluctuations in foreign exchange rates might boost this sticker.