When you've been out of the car-buying market for a while, the escalation of prices comes as something of a shock, even if it's an economy model you're after.

Remember the Volks Beetle you bought in the mid-'60s for $1,800? Now, reports Motor Trend magazine in its June issue, the lowest base-model list price is $4,299 for a Subaru Hatchback.

Today, when deluxe models carry $10,000-plus price tags, even $5,500, writes associate editor Kevin Smith, can be considered a "modest" price. But for beween $4,299 and $5,500 he has found "a surprising array of brand-new, well-engineered, nicely packaged economy cars."

Seventeen, in fact, says the article. They include both American and foreign "bottom-line econocars" that "are likely candidates to offer the most for your transportation dollar."

And for the budget-conscious buyer who nevertheless gets a thrill out of being at the wheel, these lower-cost cars include models that offer "real delight for connoisseurs of engineering and enthusiasts of the driving art.

"Overhead camshafts," says Motor Trend, "5-speed gearboxes and independent suspensions abound in this lineup, and some of the best-balanced, most maneuverable chassis made are here."

It cites Mazda's new-for-'81 GLC (beginning at $4,895) as an auto that "graphically demonstrates that inexpensive need not mean cheaply engineered, and economical need not mean spartan."

The Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt/Plymouth Champ (beginning at $5,053) the magazine calls "a thoroughly modern and crisply styled hatchback with all the credentials of an up-to-date econosportster."

Not unexpectedly, the list includes the Toyota Corolla (beginning at $4,978), which the magazine says is the "bestselling model in the whole world" and "an easy car to drive."

The Datson 210 (beginning at $4,449) headed Motor Trend's "impromptu index of economy," in which it factored base price and fuel economy for a best "miles-per-dollar" figure.

The magazine notes the prices are those currently suggested for base models, and do not include options that can boost the cost to more than $8,000. Charges for freight, dealer preparation, sales tax and license also must be added.

Motor Trend's list also includes: Datson 310, Toyota Tercel, Toyota Starlet, Honda Civic, Subaru DL, Chevrolet Chevette, Renault Le Car, Dodge Omni Miser/Plymouth Horizen Miser, AMC Spirit, AMC Eagle Kammback, AMC Concord and Ford Escort/Mercury Lynx.