There was a time when buying a Volkswagen was a lot like joining a chain letter. You would sign up, cross your fingers and wait to see if you got lucky.

I remember going to a VW dealership in the late '60s, begging for a moment of the salesman's time and asking if he would please be so kind as to take my deposit and put my name on the waiting list.I had heard rumors that some people got themselves pushed up the list by greasing the salesman's palm with some "vigorish," but I could hardly afford to buy the car in those days, let alone try to bribe somebody.

He told me that it could be a year or more before I qualified - moved far enough up the list - to buy a car.

But not just any car. The list represented a chance to buy an odd-looking, rear-engined, under-powered, dangerously unstable, two-door sedan that was noisy, tippy, cold as Anchorage in winter and hot as the Mojave in summer. It was also the most sought-after piece of machinery in North America, or anywhere else as far as I knew: a 1967 Volkswagen "Beetle."

I got the chance to make those car payments sooner than I had dared hope. Due to some people ahead of me failing to qualify for a loan, I moved to the top of the list in only three months and a '67 "VeeDub," black as the inside of a muffler, was mine.

Stories like those are legion, and despite all its shortcomings, loyalty to the "Bug" transcended the faithful's increasing ability to buy something better, more comfortable, faster, more reliable. Some never lost their Beetlemania. I know a guy who drives a Bug to this day, but people like him have become the exception, not the rule.

Volkswagen's fortunes continued pretty strong in the early 1980s as the VW Rabbit seemed to move seamlessly into the position held by the Beetle. But over the past 10 years, things have not gone well for the German marque. From its peak in 1971 when it sold more than 500,000 cars in the United States, (many of them built at its now-closed Westmoreland, Pa., plant) VW bottomed out in 1993 with sales of some 40,000 cars, the lowest since 1956 when it first gained a toehold in this market.

Now Volkswagen is trying to claw its way back, but instead of wooing customers away from Ford, Chevy and Plymouth, it must attract people who are driving their second or third Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima. This is not an enviable task, but sales in 1994 bested 1993 by 120 percent to total 104,000, a nice comeback. VW also made the greatest jump of any marque in the J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey in '94.

To their credit, the folks at Volkswagen are making their charge not on the basis of ad campaigns or rebates but with a whole new stable of cars, including the Jetta III, Golf Cabrio and this week's test car, the '95 Passat GLX.

To paraphrase Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," the GLX is definitely a contender in this segment, even though it can never dominate it as its grandfather, the Beetle, did in the '60s.

The Passat is not a clean-sheet-of-paper car, but 90 percent of the body has been restyled for '95. It has a sweet 2.8-liter VR6 power plant and a lengthy list of standard features, including dual airbags, ABS, electronic traction control, a modified sports suspension, an anti-theft alarm, 15-inch alloy wheels and integrated fog lamps.

It also looks really good. There is nothing radical about the styling, but in the dark green iteration of my four-door test car, it's a look that I could live with for years.

VW is also pursuing value, the all-important V-word of the '90s. At a base price of $20,890 for the sedan (there is also a station wagon) with a 5-speed manual transmission (an automatic is $800 more), the Passat is more than competitive with the top-of-the-line Accords and Camrys.

My test car had the optional leather seats, all-weather package (heated seats and windshield washer nozzles) and the power moonroof. With destination charges, my car's bottom line was $23,280.

If I were buying one, I think I'd skip the leather, all-weather package and the auto tranny, but go with the moonroof. A CD changer is also available for $495.

The GLX is a legitimate five-passenger sedan - VW's largest passenger car - with 99 cubic feet of interior space. That is five more than the Accord and more than any Volvo or C-class Mercedes. The Passat's leg room of 82 inches also bests the Accord, Camry and Max-ima.

It is evident that Volkswagen has taken apart the cars it considers its direct competition - and even a few residing up the ladder from its market niche - and has told its designers and engineers to beat them all in every category.

The heart of the new GLX is its 172 horsepower six-cylinder engine, a power plant that is nothing short of wonderful. It propels the car from 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds (8.3 for the automatic) and keeps right on going to a top speed that is electronically limited to 130 mph. Meanwhile, it sounds all the right auditory cues, has plenty of low-end torque and is exceedingly smooth. The Germans know motors.

If the engine is the heart of the GLX, the suspension is its soul. In a word, it's stiff but not harsh. Corners with warnings of "Reduce speed to 35 mph" can be erased a lot quicker than that with nary a squeak from the 215/50-HR 15 all-season radials.

Bottom line: The Passat is great fun to drive, especially on the open road, and you give up nothing in the way of practicality. Think of it as a sports car with a trunk (and a large trunk at that, 14.4 cubic feet) and room for five passengers.

Styling is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but as noted above, I was favorably impressed. In place of the flat-faced front end of the old Passat is a new grille that VW describes as "waterfall-shaped." Bumpers, side moldings and mirror housings are all color keyed and the rear trunk edge has a subtle suggestion of a spoiler, which I prefer to the real thing.

Inside is the best. New switches and controls are all well-placed and functional, have a nice high-tech look and, best of all, they feel good. Tactile sensation is always hard to describe, but it is one of those things people mean when they say a car has "quality."

The seats and the steering wheel, the most important part of a car in my estimation, are first rate. Seats are firm and supportive in hard cornering but soft enough for a long, boring ride on a freeway. The new steering wheel (with airbag; so long, motorized seat belts, and good riddance) is leather wrapped and nice to hang onto, which is good, because you spend a lot of time doing just that.

It goes without saying that the GLX has all of the comfort, convenience and power goodies you would expect in a $20,000 car. Nice, unexpected touch: the power window system allows all of the windows (and sunroof) to be opened or closed from outside the car by inserting the key in the door lock.

VW has gone the extra mile in making the new GLX state-of-the-art in its safety equipment, but one feature deserves special mention. The new (with the airbag system) three-point safety belts are linked to what VW describes as a "pyrotechnic device" that ignites during a head-on collision, pulling all the belts tight within 12 milliseconds. This is said to reduce injuries caused by loose-fitting belts.

The Passat is covered by VW's "Protection Plus" program, which includes a 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty. It also includes free scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles and a free, two-year roadside assistance program. Corrosion is warranted for six years, no mileage limit.