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WANT TO FEEL YOUNG? FIRE UP A FIREBIRD

When you put down the top on a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am convertible painted ladder company red, you invite more than a warm June sun. You also invite a dialogue with the motorists and pedestrians you meet along the way.

Sometimes the dialogue is spoken: "Nice car," a smiling teenager says as he crosses the street in front of the stoplight-restrained Pontiac.At another traffic light, a young man in an old Chevy Monte Carlo SS pulls alongside, rolls down his window, and asks, "How do you like it?" and "How much is it? I answer "A lot" to the first question and $27,000 to the second.

Sometimes the dialogue is unspoken. Young people in cars and on foot stare and smile and wave when you drive this car. Motorists of my middle vintage look over appreciatively. At one intersection, a contemporary behind the wheel of a dinged-up Buick Regal gave me a thumbs up.

Driving a Trans Am convertible gets you noticed. It also makes you feel young, even if you're not. And it makes you feel like you're having fun, even if you don't deserve to.

In addition to being a lot of youthful fun, the Firebird Trans Am is quintessential '60s nostalgia. Sure, the Firebird is a very "au courant" machine from a technological standpoint. Animated by sophisticated electronics, sheathed in space-age plastics, it is light years removed from the Firebird muscle cars of the '60s.

But spiritually, it is from that earlier automotive time. The heavily sculpted body, the unmistakable Armageddon rumble of that 5.7-liter "small-block" V-8, the live rear axle - these are the ancient insignia of the '60s musclemobile.

And like its '60s ancestors, this guy does have some muscularity. When equipped with its 275-horsepower variation on the 300-horse Corvette engine, the Firebird will vault from 0 to 60 in a cloud of blue tire smoke - and less than six seconds. And it will top out at an honest 157 miles an hour.

That's $40,000 sports-car talent. But in the Firebird, it starts at only $19,344. Except for its sibling, the Chevy Camaro, there is no other car in the world that offers that kind of bang for the buck.

The Firebird is offered in several flavors. The base car, which starts at $15,104 as a coupe and $22,039 as a convertible, is powered by an 160-horsepower V-6 and is for people who want a high-performance look but can't afford the high-performance hardware - and the insurance bill that comes with it.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Trans Am, which is a more aggressively styled, more heavily equipped and much higher-performing car. The Trans Am, with a starting tag of $21,184 in coupe form and $27,239 as a convertible, has a sport suspension, performance tires and the big V-8.

In the middle, at $19,344 in coupe form and $25,229 as a convertible, is the Formula, the best value of all. The Formula is essentially a base Firebird with the Trans Am's performance gear. It's my favorite because it gives you the Trans Am's athleticism without its overly aggressive front-end styling.

Inspired by a Pontiac concept car called the Banshee, the wasp-waisted Firebird is an attempt to combine fresh design impulses with the car's traditional styling cues, notably a long nose, short deck and a lot of sculpturing. The idea is to keep the old guard happy while attracting people who would normally buy sporty imports. That same intention also informed the considerable efforts to refine this car.

The current Firebird is, indeed, a more sophisticated automobile. And it's a lot more pleasant to drive. The new, more-subtle front suspension allowed the engineers to soften the ride without degrading the car's exceptional cornering facility. The new automobile's stronger structure also got rid of the previous car's characteristic squeaks and rattles.

That body strength is particularly evident in the convertible I drove. That guy was remarkably quiet. It had to be one of the most solid open cars I've driven.

Gas mileage in the Firebird with the big V-8 is nearly as noteworthy. The Trans Am, equipped with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, got 19 miles to the gallon. The Formula convertible I had driven just prior to that was equipped with the standard six-speed manual and got 21 to the gallon.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Pontiac Firebird

Trans Am convertible

Base vehicle: Rear-wheel drive, 5.7-liter engine, six-speed manual transmission, limited-slip differential, power steering, power four-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock braking system, 16-inch alloy wheels, P245/50ZR16 all-weather performance tires, dual air bags, anti-theft system, power top with glass rear window, fog lamps, decklid spoiler, power outside mirrors, air conditioning, stereo/cassette, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, cruise control, rear-window defogger.

Test model: Leather seating, four-speed automatic transmission, traction control.

Base price: $27,239

Test model: $29,793

EPA city rating: 17

Test mileage: 19

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.