Patrick G. Mahoney

For them, it's about exhilaration. The new GTI is a driver's car, with solid handling and performance.

The first thing I noticed about the car is its size. But small doesn't mean slow, and the latest iteration of the GTI is the most powerful yet. Introduced midway through the 2006 model year, the platform represents the fifth-generation Rabbit.

For over 20 years, VW has been turning entry-level two-door hatchbacks into GTIs by adding a more powerful engine and brakes, sport-tuned suspension, and special interior and exterior trim. The first VW Rabbit GTI arrived here in 1983 and is frequently cited for starting the souped-up hatchback market. The new model has a stiffer body, fully independent suspension, xenon headlights, and an optional navigation system. It's also available in a two-door version.

The turbocharged, 2.0-liter four cylinder (2.0T) puts out 200 hp at 5,100 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque between 1,800 and 5,000 rpm. Our tester, luckily for us, came with a six-speed manual transmission, and VW says it can scoot from 0 to 60 in 7.0 sec. The electronically limited top speed is 130 mph.

The manual transmission delivers an EPA-estimated 23/32 (city/highway) mpg. A sequentially shifting six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox is optional.

Driving the GTI stirred my winter-weary blood, making me long for dry, winding roads. Still, despite the icy, slushy conditions and summer performance tires, the hatchback kept its footing.

The xenon headlights turn night into day — terrific for us boomers whose eyesight ain't what it used to be. But you can keep the sport seats. They are a little too firm and make entering and exiting something of an ordeal for the nongymnast. Parallel parking the GTI is a breeze. And there's enough room under the hatchback for a week's worth of groceries or two sets of golf clubs. The rear seat, though not comfortable, has enough room for two adults and their legs.

Standard features include electromechanical power steering, independent-strut sport front suspension, multilink sport rear suspension, electronic stabilization, antislip, electronic differential lock, front, side, and side-curtain air bags, daytime running lights, fog lights, side-protection door beams, front and rear power-assisted disc brakes with ABS, and tire-pressure monitoring. Some other no-charge goodies are 17-in. alloy wheels with antitheft locks, an in-dash, six-disc CD changer, that also reads MP3 discs and alarm and theft-deterrent systems.

The base ($22,600) seems reasonable for this pocket rabbit, but tack on $3,160 for Package 2 (power sunroof, satellite radio, partial leather, Top Sport front seats, dual-zone climate control and cold-weather package); $1,800 for DVD navigation with CD changer in center console; $750 for 18-in. alloy wheels with performance tires; $350 for rear side-impact air bags; $630 (destination charge), and this Rabbit's looking more like a chinchilla, topping out at $29,290.