Start out in the morning with Volkswagen's turbocharged, 5-valve 1.8L 4-cyl. engine and you feel like you've just signed up for a day of training with an Olympic decathlete: you're a collaborator in an exercise of speed, power, agility and flexibility - all in a neat, compact package that's efficient and effective.

The VW 1.8L is tiny compared to contemporary base 4-cyl. engines. The Passat's import competitors such as Honda's Accord (2.3L), Toyota's Camry (2.2L) and Nissan's Altima (2.4L) all are packing a lot more displacement, yet the VW 1.8L's laudable 83 hp/L and quick-acting, light-pressure turbocharged punch thrash them all. Larger-engined domestic rivals such as the Ford Contour (2L) and Taurus (3L), Chevrolet Malibu (2.4L) or Chrysler Cirrus (2.4L) can forget it, too.

Not only is there the satisfaction of the manner in which this engine fluidly and effortlessly spins its crank and opens its five valves per cylinder - the electronic rev limiter is a device with which our testers became quite intimate - but the light-pressure turbo delivers the peak torque of 155 ft.-lbs. from as low as 1,750 rpm. That means there's low- and mid-range punch all out of sorts with what one expects from a 4-cyl. engine. We've tried plenty of V-6s that should have the kind of urge the VW 1.8L offers.

There are other equally delightful aspects to this plucky 4-cyl. The 9.5:1 compression ratio means it will dine on regular unleaded fuel without complaint. And this is one of the quieter engines you'll find this side of a Lexus; the shortish gearing of our 5-speed manual transmission test car has the 1.8L engine humming along at roughly a 3,400 rpm clip during 85-mph (135 km/h) highway work. Yet little engine noise, save a refined and not unpleasant mechanical whir, threads its way into the cabin.

The 1.8L's displacement deficit becomes apparent only when teamed with VW's optional automatic transmission. Standing-start acceleration with the automatic is somewhat leisurely; those who don't mind depressing the accelerator will find little trouble, but mild throttle openings leave automatic-transmissioned 1.8Ls feeling a little light on genuine thrust.

This is a mild distraction, however. In nearly all driving situations, the turbocharged 1.8L is wonderfully flexible and surprisingly powerful. It's the best standard-equipment 4-cyl. engine in the country's most competitive car segment.