IT WAS ANOTHER of those homely cars, the kind that manufacturers try to make cute with "Mars Red" paint and complementary vinyl molding.

It was a Rabbit-turned-Golf-turned- Volkswagen-GTI, with a narrowed front end for "aerodynamic styling," of course -- and a breadbox rear end with arched backlights.

Truly, there was nothing about this car to excite the automotive libido -- until you sat in the driver's seat and turned on the ignition.

If big things come in small packages, if still waters really run deep, if any of those old sayings have any meaning, then, good buddy, the folks at Motor Trend magazine did right to name the 1985 Volkswagen GTI "Car of the Year."

Some things you gotta judge on character, on guts. The GTI has lots of both.

Outstanding complaint(s): 'Tis a nitpick. But I'm going to keep doing this because I'm getting tired of manufacturers excusing what they call "easily fixed" delivery problems. New-car buyers don't want "easily fixed" problems. They want flawless machines, regardless of price. So, will someone please replace the plastic handle missing from the seatback release lever on the test car's front passenger seat?

And the vinyl backing on the seats could use a little thickening, too.

Outstanding praise: What a marvelous machine on the road! You'd think that a car with a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine couldn't do much in traffic. Some manufacturers stick turbos on small engines like this to give them extra boost. But the GTI engine comes sans turbo, and it still puts many of its pricier, more sophisticated cousins to shame.

The GTI accelerates with the confidence of a racer and handles just as well. There is no wiggle or yaw going into curves at moderate- plus speeds (say, 40 mph). This car holds the road. Credit the Goodyear Eagle GT radial tires for much of that traction.

The gearbox. It should be called the music box in the GTI. Moving from first through fifth gears is sort of like dancing, like directing a symphony, like playing jazz. Hmph. Who said Germans don't have soul?

Sound system: Mediocre. The one part of this car that definitely should have soul doesn't.

Mileage: About 31 miles per gallon, combined city-highway, running lightly loaded and without air conditioner on. Mileage conceivably could have been higher, but I opened the sunroof and windows and created lots of air drag. Fuel capacity is 14.5 U.S. gallons. Use unleaded fuels only.

Price-as-tested: $11,100, including $2,110 worth of options, such as the sunroof and air conditioning.