IT'S TRAGIC to steal needlessly -- and then get caught.

The thought occurred to me as I was driving the new Volkswagen Jetta III GL sedan.

It has to do with J. Ignacio (Inaki) Lopez de Arriortua, a brilliant quirk of a man accused of stealing General Motors trade secrets and taking them to his new employer, Volkswagen AG.

Lopez, GM's former chief of purchasing, says he didn't do it. GM says he did. Government investigators in Germany and the United States are checking the charge.

The German snoops have turned up several boxes of GM documents taken from the company without authorization. They were found in an apartment owned by loyal Lopez subordinates who work for VW. The American sleuths are hinting that they have incriminating evidence, too.

Here's hoping that the "evidence" isn't what it appears to be, and that Lopez has done nothing wrong.

Why? Look at the new Volkswagen Jetta III GL. Snappy exterior design. Well-executed interior -- though the absence of an air bag is a serious omission. Excellent handling. An all-around nifty car.

The Jetta III GL was in development long before Lopez decamped from GM last April to join VW. The car is proof that VW is quite capable of coming out with excellent products on its own.

Background: Since its U.S. introduction in 1980, the Volkswagen Jetta has been the subject of love and hate. People loved it because it was an attractive mid-size family car that was also affordable. They hated it because, when it went bad, it went very bad.

I have a good friend in San Francisco, Deborah Medvick, who swears she will never buy another Jetta because of the way her 1986 model dismantled itself. But I also know dozens of aficianados in Volkswagen clubs who'd pop you in the nose if you ever said anything bad about their beloved Jettas.

Thus, the 1993-1994 Jetta III is designed to win back the Medvicks and hold onto the fans. The new car, the third-generation Jetta, has totally new exterior sheet metal. It is a more rounded, more likable design. The interior is more people-friendly. Heck, VW has discovered that cupholders are a good idea! On the serious side, the new Jetta has a more rigid body, better side-impact crash protection, improved "crumple zones" to help absorb the energy of frontal and rear-end crashes, a wider track for better handling and a bigger-than-Lexus trunk measuring 15 cubic feet.

For 1994, there are three Jetta models -- the base III GL, luxury III GLS and sport-luxury III GLX. All Jettas are front-wheel drive sedans capable of carrying five people.

Complaints: The tested 1993-1994 Jetta III was equipped with a door-hinged, "automatic" shoulder harness that sometimes entangled my forehead and neck. Beginning in November 1993, all Jetta III cars on sale in the United States will have a better-designed belt system and standard dual-front air bags. There were no air bags in the test car.

Pra ise: Excellent overall construction and design. A wealth of standard equipment, including power central locking, anti-theft alarm, power rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes. A generally excellent road-runner.

Head-turning quotient: Head-snapper supreme. People really liked the shape of the tested Jetta III GL.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Double aces for ride and handling. One demerit for acceleration. The test car, equipped with an optional four-speed automatic transmission, downshifted once too often for my liking. The Jetta III is better suited for the standard five-speed manual.

The Jetta III GL is powered by a new 2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 115 horsepower at 5,400 rpm with a maximum torque of 122 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm.

Standard brakes include power, vented front discs and solid discs in the rear. Braking is excellent. Starting in November, anti-lock brakes will be standard on the Jetta III GLX, optional on the GLa d GLS.

Mileage: About 25 to the gallon (14.5-gallon tank, estimated 350-m ile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running with one to four occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Optional eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette (with external jack for portable compact disc player), Volkswagen Deluxe system, very good.

Price: Estimated base price of the tested Jetta III GL is $13,125. Estimated dealer invoice is $11,200. Estimated price-as-tested is $13,515, including a $390 destination charge. The 1994 prices for the GLS and GLX models were not firm at this writing.

Purse-strings note: The Jetta III GL and its companions are darned good cars surrounded by darned good competitors, including the Chrysler LH cars, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Oldsmobile (yes, Oldsmobile!) 88 Royale, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable and Nissan Altima. Comparison shop.