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On The Road

What's fun to drive at below-average cost

Clyde on Cars

According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the average price of a new 1998 car is $22,263. That's sticker shock.

Many buyers assume they'll have to settle for some second-or third-hand cars to stay within their means so it's hard to reach a comfort level. In the meantime, they see Lexus, BMWs and Mercedes driving by at a price of $70,000 and up.

If you check around, you can meet your transportation needs for a whole lot less than the national average and still have a great time driving down the highway.

Presuming you can't or won't pay the price for the average transaction, there are numerous new cars that are fun and affordable. The sticker price for these base cars do not include taxes, incentives and discounts. Starting at the low end, here are eight cars that start around $11,000 and gradually increase in price and comfort to $20,000:

Plymouth Neon Expresso - Plymouth has done some model shuffling for 1998. Last year's Highline model is not the base car this year. It is now equipped with AM/FM stereo, variable intermittent wipers, a fold-down rear seat, up level cloth/vinyl upholstery, a full center console and an inside trunk release. By adding the Expresso package, Neon comes with a jazzy "Tango" accent in the upholstery. It receives universal praise for handling with it's independent suspension. The standard Neon braking set-up includes front discs, rear drums and anti-locking braking. Price: $11,115.

Chevrolet Tracker 4wd - Sport/utility vehicles of all sizes are popular from the huge Chevy Suburban to its tiny sibling, the Chevrolet Tracker. Sports utility vehicles are all the craze right now and the Tracker fits right in with that. It's a comfortable four-door, people-carrier with room inside for two adults and a couple of kids. It provides all the creature comforts of a conventional small sedan. It has power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, cruise control and an anti-lock braking system. And you sit up high enough to see over the tops of most other vehicles. Price: $15,605.

Ford Contour SE - The 1998 Contour has a host of small refinements that add up to a more modern and distinctive look and the four-cylinder engine has been redesigned for smoother, quieter operation. The Contour SE's quick acceleration, great brakes, nimble handling and top-notch suspension make it a nice vehicle for driving around the Silicon Valley. Price: $15,785.

Toyota Paseo convertible - Since it's debut in the 1997 model year, the Paseo has reigned as the cheapest ragtop in the U.S. market. It's a cute little coupe that is converted into a convertible at it's California factory. The car has an easy-to-operate manual top, nice handling, but a barely adequate power supply (1.5 liter, 93-horsepower four cylinder). The car is well-engineered, feels solid and looks well-assembled. Price: $16,768.

Pontiac Firebird - When you think of a Firebird, you think of a high-performance car that has a high price tab and a huge insurance bill. But going to the base car price, the Firebird can give you a generous taste of Trans Am performance and pizzazz at the lower cost. The 3.8 liter V-6 engine serves up to 200 horsepower and that means "see ya'" when you leave the street traffic light. The 1998 Firebird has received styling revisions that will please many a sport car enthusiast. Price: $18,015.

Mazda MX5 Miata - The Miata is the least practical of all the cars in this list. You can only fit two people in the passenger compartment and your cocker spaniel in the trunk. But, it is the purest brand of automobile fun. The Miata is a study in lean agile automobile fun. It's not a speed merchant, it's topless fun with superlative handling. Price: $19,125.

Oldsmobile Cutlass GLS Sedan - The Cutlass is an excellent cruiser. Its 3.2 liter V-6 engine has plenty of power and torque. The car seems to be made for the drive up highway 280 to San Francisco. It's rated at 155 horse power which is enough for the 2,982 pound car. The Cutlass is more than a match for the top-selling Japanese cars in its class. With it's clean design and practicality, the Cutlass may be the car to bring life back to the Oldsmobile division. Price: $19,911.

Chevrolet Camaro Z28 The Camaro gets a new front end for 1998. By most standards, it is the best performance buy in the world. For about $20,000 you can get a 305-horsepower in the new all-aluminum Corvette engine. It comes with a Borg-Warner six-speed gearbox, four wheel disc brakes, an anti-lock braking system, a sport suspension and 16-inch allow wheels. When equipped with the optional Z rated (higher price) performance tires, it can crowd 160 miles an hour. There are other comparative cars out there on the new car lot, but this selection appealed to me more than others. Price: $20,470.

Clyde Noel is a car afficionado and a longtime contributor to the Town Crier.

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