IT is ironic that one of the world's largest motor manufacturers was created by this century's greatest dictator and total madman. Volkswagen began as the Kraft durch Freude-wagen, or 'Strength through Joy car', a project initiated by Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. Designed by a team led by Dr Ferdinand Porsche, the KdF was to be 'the people's car' - something every right-minded German would wish to aspire to. The KdF-wagen was first displayed at the 1939 Berlin motor show and although it received general acclaim, its less-than-catchy name was initially its downfall. Prospective purchasers were offered a car by paying five reischmarks a week to the German Labour Front. When they had paid 990 reischmarks, the car was theirs. It would take four years to complete the purchase and any missed payments negated the deal. However, by the end of 1939, more than 350,000 German citizens had paid 110 million reischmarks into the party's account. Although production began slowly, partly because the factory in KdF-Stadt (now Wolfsburg) in Lower Saxony was devoted to the war effort, the Beetle, as it became known, sold more than 20 million. Volkswagen lays claim to the fact that it is now the world's third-largest motor manufacturer, although Toyota may dispute this, with a total of eight brands under its wing, including Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce (until the end of 2002, when it reverts to BMW which has bought the name and intends to produce its own luxury car), Seat, Skoda and VW itself. It sells more than 4.7 million vehicles worldwide, a market share of about 11.4 per cent. The Beetle is still being built, in Puebla, Mexico, alongside the New Beetle which was introduced last year at the Detroit show. And that brings us full circle as the latest incarnation is based on a VW Golf, itself a success story, selling more than 18 million units since its introduction in 1974. The recent launch of the fourth-generation Golf in Hong Kong celebrates the continued production of probably the best-known, and certainly the sportiest, hot-hatch on the market. The Golf GTi was indisputably the top yuppies' car through the 70s and the 80s and, despite serious competition from several Japanese manufacturers and Peugeot with its new 206, is showing no sign of being beaten in the hatchback market. The latest Golf offers a choice of engines: a conventional 1.8-litre chucking out a respectable 125 bhp at 6,000 rpm, or a more technically advanced 2.3-litre V5, which produces a creditable 150 bhp, again at 6,000 rpm. This latter unit is effectively the previous VR6 unit with one cylinder removed, offering improved fuel economy. Torque figures are 170 Nm at 4,200 rpm and 205 Nm at just 3,200 rpm respectively, while both units drive through a four-speed automatic transmission. Both cars are well equipped, with leather upholstery, a leather steering wheel, dual airbags - the 2.3 has side bags, too - and front seats which are adjustable for height. In addition, the larger-engined model has an electric sunroof, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and automatic wipers. While the 1.8 runs on steel wheels, the bigger car has the luxury of alloy rims. If anything, the design of the new Golfs is softer, with more rounded edges and elliptical multi-function front lamps. It retains the distinctive, chunky rear quarter panels, but now has a far cleaner rear section. The 1.8-litre will cost $199,000, while the 2.3 V5 sells for $239,000.