I CAN'T SAY MUCH for the morals of thieves, but I gotta give 'em credit for their taste in cars. I mean, let's face it. These folks aren't bargain hunters. They go for the good stuff -- like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Corvette and, er, Volkswagen.

That's right, Volkswagen. Particularly the Volkswagen GTI, which tops the list of most-stolen, most-broken-into cars in the latest auto theft report by the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Yeah, I was shocked, too. So I called up the people at Volkswagen United States Inc. to get the scoop. Instead of a press release, they sent over a 1987 Volkswagen GTI 16-V.

The "V" stands for valves, four for each of the GTI's four cylinders. Talk about hot! This hatchback speedster can hump!

The GTI's been around since 1983, building a good reputation among licit and illicit owners. But this latest iteration, with its 123-horsepower engine, is something else.

Ahm, just a moment. The phone:

"Yeah, Brown here. Volkswagen? Do I still have the car? Yeah. You'd like to get it back? Soon? Real soon? Okay, okay. Of course, I always lock it when I park it."

Complaints: Drivebelt squeal at engine startup. Zapped it with WD-40.

Also, inadequate sideview mirrors: too small, too close to the car's body to help peripheral vision. A potential safety hazard. Surely VW can come up with a better side-mirror package to complement the GTI's nifty subcompact lines.

Praise: Oh my! True story: A 1987 Porsche 944 Turbo arrived at the same time I was running around in this econo-rocket. Sexy Porsche. Red and powerful and all that. But I just couldn't leave the GTI alone. "Fun to drive" has become a hackneyed expression; the GTI restores meaning to the phrase.

This is an exceptionally well-balanced, well-made subcompact car. The test model had 9,200 miles on it at delivery. But it was still tight, right and rattle-free.

So many good points: a five-speed manual gearbox that shifts with alacrity, a clutch gifted with a splendid sense of timing, seats that hug four rumps with authority and affection.

Head-turning quotient: Fetching, cute little rascal.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Super small-car handling. Terrific in curves. Ride's not at all bumpy, a la most small cars. Acceleration is far more than what's needed in an economy car. The GTI's 1.8-liter, fuel-injected, double overhead cam, 4-cylinder engine kicks out 123 horsepower at 5,800 rpm.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, electronic seek and scan, VW "Design" model. Very good.

Mileage: About 26mpg (14.5-gallon tank, 375-mile range), combined city-highway, running mostly highway, driver only, and with windows down.

Price: $14,555, including $1,995 in options and a $320 destination charge; that might be called a bit of a steal, but guess who's getting robbed. Base price is $12,240; dealer's invoice price on base model is $10,500.

Tip: this model is surrounded by many worthy competitors. You have room to argue.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.