MEMBER OF THE SERIOUSLY MODIFIED CLUBBack in 1983, the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI stormed onto the scene and created a new market segment: the hopped-up econo-hatchback. Powered by a feisty 90-horsepower 1.8-liter fuel-injected inline four, the GTI sported a five-speed manual gearbox, alloy wheels, full instruments, blackout trim, red accents and sport seats. With nimble handling and brisk performance (the car only weighed around 2,000 pounds), the Rabbit GTI was a hit with driving enthusiasts who appreciated the beauty of low mass and intelligent, efficient engineering. Of course, no one liked the high maintenance and repair costs associated with early GTIs, but fans claimed that once you found a good VW mechanic, you could reap the benefits of an exclusive club. In 1985, the Rabbit was redesigned and renamed (in the U.S.) the Golf, and as before, a sporty GTI version was available. Subsequent years saw the GTI receive a 16-valve inline four, become more expensive, take a hiatus and return in 1995 with an even higher price but with a compact V6 (VR6, that is) stuffed under the hood. A weak-kneed GTI that had a lowly eight-valve 115-horse inline four was offered in an effort to have a lower-priced (and lower-performance) GTI for the masses. Three years ago, the GTI adopted the turbo 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine (then rated at 150 hp) already used in the Passat and New Beetle. At this time, the GTI could be had as either the GLS (with the turbo four) or GLX (an upscale version that had leather, moonroof and the 174-horsepower VR6 engine). This fussy nomenclature made the car confusing to those not versed in automotive history. "So what kind of car is that?" "It's a new Volkswagen Golf GTI GLS." Unlike the old GTI, the more recent versions were out of reach for enthusiasts who lacked fat wallets. So last year, VW decided to restructure pricing and content and market the car simply as the GTI with a choice of either the 1.8T or VR6 engine. No longer do you find extras like leather, seat heaters and automatic climate control on the standard features list -- if you want this stuff, proceed to the options list. Not that today's GTIs are stripped down in the least -- they have features like head curtain airbags and one-touch up-down front windows that are unheard of in other sport coupes and hatchbacks. Reliability has improved since the early days, too; the fourth-generation GTI (and Golf) has earned "average" ratings in Consumer Reports since it debuted in 1999. While unable to match the intensity (and likely, reliability) of cars like the Toyota Celica GT-S and Acura RSX Type S, the GTI is a good buy for enthusiastic drivers who need a fun car that can be driven day in and day out. VW offers two GTI models -- 1.8T and VR6. The 1.8T comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, 16-inch alloy wheels, a full-size spare, side airbags, head curtain airbags, height-adjustable sport seats, eight-speaker stereo with CD player, telescoping steering wheel, keyless entry with alarm, cruise control and power windows, locks and mirrors. The VR6 adds stability control (optional for 1.8T), 17-inch wheels (also optional for the 1.8T) and a trip computer. Options for both models include leather upholstery, a sunroof, seat heaters, the Monsoon sound system and a dealer-installed six-CD changer. Luxury items like automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers and a self-dimming rearview mirror are a package option for the VR6. Engine choices are specific to each trim level. Our favorite is the 180-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter inline four in the GTI 1.8T. Besides providing a broad torque band (174 pound-feet from 1,950 to 5,000 rpm), the 1.8T is lighter than the VR6 engine and better suited to the GTI's chassis. It's available with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic. But if you've got to have the most power, the 24-valve 2.8-liter VR6 -- and its 200 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque -- is unlikely to disappoint. This model targets enthusiast-type drivers and only comes with a six-speed manual transmission. Fuel economy is roughly the same for both models -- 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway on manual-shift 1.8Ts (22/29 automatic) and 23/30 on the VR6. Side and head curtain airbags are standard; stability control is optional on the 1.8T and standard on the VR6. As the GTI is a performance version of the Golf hatchback, the latter's crash test scores apply here: NHTSA gave the Golf a perfect five stars for the driver and front passenger in frontal impact crash tests; the IIHS gave the Golf an "Acceptable" rating in frontal offset crash testing. Each GTI's cabin has a premium feel that isn't to be found in comparably priced sport coupes and hatchbacks. Interior materials are high in quality, and everything is assembled with care. The height-adjustable front seats are roomy with plenty of bolstering to keep you in place on spirited drives. The rear seat is definitely tight for three adults, but the nicely contoured bench can certainly accommodate two, and legroom is surprisingly adequate. Getting in back is easy, thanks to a front passenger seat that flips forward. With the 60/40-split rear seat in use, the hatch provides 18 cubic feet of capacity; with the seat folded, there are 41.8 cubes. The GTI rides on a sport-tuned version of the Golf's independent front strut/rear torsion beam suspension. The VR6 model also has front and rear stabilizer bars to help it manage the extra weight. In practice, both cars strike a pleasant balance between everyday ride comfort and agile, responsive handling on curvy roads. However, the car's weight makes it a less-than-precise tool for maximum handling duties.