YOUTH is passion. To some, that might suggest recklessness. I disagree. Passion fuels dreams, which can lead to practical or impractical pursuits. In short, to get it, you've got to want it, whether it's a career, lover, family, artistic creation or an invention -- some seemingly foolish thing that you, and perhaps only you, believe can work.

The car began that way.

Two Germans, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, were passionate and foolish enough in the 1880s to embrace the notion of automobility. Their notion became Daimler-Benz, maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, which still rank among the world's best automobiles.

Anyone doubting that should take a spin in my top choice among cars that are more than just simple transportation -- the Mercedes-Benz 300SL convertible coupe. No convertible better combines love and common sense.

The love is evident in the SL's muscular, sensuous body. The common sense, at least in engineering, is everywhere -- a traction control system that virtually eliminates wheel-spin on slippery roads, anti-lock brakes to reduce skidding in panic stops, a driver's-side air bag, automatically tensioning seat belts and a roll bar that pops up if sensors indicate that the car is about to flip.

Unfortunately, most of us will have to work until we're old to afford the 300SL's $74,000 price tag. But according to a hexagenarian gentleman who owns one, it's worth the wait. "I feel like a million dollars when I'm in this car!" he said.

Hmph. Back to Middle America -- and Chevrolet, General Motors Corp.'s "heartbeat" division.

Lots of folks like to beat up on Chevrolet, but I suspect that their hostility has more to do with the passionate pursuit of sophistry than it does with supposedly faulty product quality.

There is, for example, the Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 coupe, as fine a runner as any in the $11,000-$15,000 category.

The front-wheel-drive Z24 lacks an import badge, but it has a heck of a nice 3.1-liter V-6 engine, which is linked to a nimble five-speed manual transmission. It's Detroit metal, surely enough -- delightfully arrogant, pugnacious to the max, an in-your-face car if ever there was one.

The Z24 will get an air bag soon, which should help bring down its currently high insurance costs. In the interim, blue-jeaners will continue to find ways to afford the car, which is popular everywhere in America where Washington isn't taken seriously.

But upwardly mobile sophisticates have their longings, too; and for them, I offer three of my favorites: the 1991 Infiniti G20, the BMW 318i, and Ford's Thunderbird Super Coupe. All three are in the $20,000 performance-car class. All seat four people in reasonable comfort, have shoulder harnesses for front and rear passengers, carry a decent amount of cargo for compact cars and are an absolute hoot on the road.

The Super Coupe and 318i are rear-wheel-drive cars. The Infiniti G20 is a front-wheel-drive car that, surprisingly, performs and handles as well as both the T-Bird and the BMW.

Of the three, I like the Infiniti G20 best. Anybody in the market for an "affordable" sports sedan has got to drive this one. It's light (2,535 pounds). It's tight as all get-out, and it's forgiving. The G20's multi-link, coil-spring suspension system is so well-designed, it keeps bozos on the road when they should be in the briar patch. I know that firsthand.

On a recent, supervised test drive at the Pocono International Raceway near Allentown, Pa., I made several egregiously stupid mistakes that should've sent me and my instructor tail-spinning into the gravel or flip-flopping into a sidewall.

My instructor grimaced, but did not grab the wheel. The G20, which gets 32 miles per gallon on the highway, corrected itself each time and went about its business.

However, my instructor did have a few words: "What you are," he said, "is a low-life early apexer," meaning that I had an unfortunate tendency to turn too early and too quickly into curves.

Passion does not have to be irresponsible, and responsibility does not have to be boring. Witness the Volkswagen Passat and Subaru Legacy station wagons -- that's right, station wagons. Passion begets things, you know.

Anyway, what I like about both wagons is their ability to put a smile on the face of practicality. Both are front-wheel drive. Both are aces on the highway.

The Legacy wagon's price runs from $12,000 to near $18,000, depending on equipment, which can include an automatic four-wheel-drive system (highly recommended for Snow Belt families). The Passat wagon, available in two-wheel-drive only, is priced at $15,885.

I drove both wagons a total of 3,500 miles, fully and lightly loaded, getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 miles per gallon from each machine. Both behaved with poise and confidence under some pretty rough conditions. My favorite of the two is the Passat, primarily because I prefer its styling.

Ah, and then there are those little cars -- pocket rockets and baby convertibles -- that tickle the soul at any age. Of these, I love the Mazda Miata, Chrysler Motors' Eagle Talon TSi, Nissan's sharp 240SX coupe, GM's Geo Storm, Ford's Probe, and that scrumptious little hot rod, Toyota's MR2 coupe.

What these cars lack in cargo space and rear-passenger comfort (for those that have four seats), they make up in road performance and fuel efficiency. Their prices range from about $10,000 to $20,000. Most are front-wheel drive, with the notable exceptions of the rear-wheel-drive MR2 and the Miata convertible.

If I could only choose one from that bunch, I'd take home the MR2. The Miata's nice, but convertibles lose more than a little appeal in the snow. (However, I'm willing to make an exception here if someone wants to donate a Mercedes-Benz 300SL.)

An optional, removable hardtop is available for the Miata, but I prefer to get my hardtop as standard equipment. I mean, hey, youth may be passion, but passion need not mean heavy lifting.

The two-seat MR2 comes with a standard hardtop, but can be purchased with an optional T-bar or removable sunroof. Okay stuff, if you want it. But the essence of the MR2 is the purr of its very spirited, standard 2.2-liter, 135-horsepower engine. A more powerful, turbocharged 2-liter, four-cylinder powerplant is available. Big deal. The standard MR2 engine can get you a speeding ticket just as fast.

That brings us to econo-lust -- relatively inexpensive cars that are attractive to young people because they offer good looks and a good deal. Here, the Plymouth Sundance America gets my vote.

It's hard to find any car in the $8,000 category that offers so much -- a standard driver's-side air bag, decent seating for four, good cargo space, excellent fuel economy (about 33 mpg), and a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that has some guts.

Not sexy enough, you say? Get real. Check your bank book. Youth is passion; but youth without money and an unaffordable car loan grows old fast.