Now that all the '88 models are out on the road where owners will be eyeing one another, it's time once again to single out those automobiles that can advance their owners in the social jungle. Sure, some people pick cars based on purely pragmatic criteria: reliability, crash worthiness, fuel mileage, handling and such arcana as rear-seat leg room. Such measurements are meaningless in real life. People buy cars to chase women (or men), to impress their neighbors, to intimidate their enemies and to generally elevate themselves in the eyes of others.

The right car is a tool by which status slaves can accelerate up the social ladder. The sooner you accept this fact, the sooner you will be hanging out with the right crowd, joining the right clubs and accruing acceptable levels of debt (which seems to be the ultimate standard by which status is measured in the United States).

Of course, the upwardly mobile must begin their climbs from various echelons in the economic pecking order, and therefore I have segmented my selections to fit every wallet, from the few paupers among us to the increasing numbers with Swiss bank accounts. Let us begin at the bottom:

Biggest Bang for the Buck: $12,000 or Less

Zero Mostel said it in the Mel Brooks classic "The Producers": "If you've got it, baby, flaunt it!" However, if you don't have it, you can flaunt that, too. This is still a world where reverse snobbery works if you go for the gauche. Example: I recommend a truly low-rent Yugo GV, which can be purchased for about $4,000, but I would caution you about a Hyundai for $5,300. Why? Because the Yugo is so bad, so slow, so outrageous, so antique, so outre', so "Third World" that it brands you as a self-confident rake with a sense of humor.

The Hyundai is a decent machine. In the social wars, being known as poor is acceptable, but to be known as both poor and practical is akin to death. (Besides, you'll probably have to pay more like $6,000 for the Hyundai after the dealer gets through with his $400 rustproofing, $100 fabric protection and $200 paint protection nonsense.)

If you can afford the upper end of this category, you'll be better off with the Honda CRX Si, which is so much fun and so "in" that some members of the safety and consumerist lunatic fringe will no doubt be asking that it be declared a controlled substance. It'll cost you between 10 and 12 grand, but the two-seat CRX carries more social clout than a whole fleet of Chrysler New Yorker Landaus with Corinthian leather.

Constant readers may note that several of last year's selections failed to make the list this year. A pair, the Honda Acura Integra and the Volkswagen GTI, not at all helped by exchange rates, simply soared too high on the price scale to qualify. (Yes, technically the lowest priced Integra is $10,950, but you have as much chance of actually buying one at that price as you do of getting a new Countach for 1985's list price.) The Suzuki Samurai, also recommended last year, became the darling of high school students, which, of course, destroyed its cachet overnight.

Upwardly Mobile: $12,000 to $20,000

The drastic decline of the dollar nudged a number of selections out of this category, including a longstanding favorite, the Saab 900 Turbo. However, the slightly cheaper, non-turbocharged 900S remains a viable alternative in that it retains the faintly bizarre styling and rugged Swedish individualism that have made Saabs so appealing to the upwardly mobile for so many years.

With bracket creep, the Integra moves up to this list (it may be the best small car ever built). The pint-size, two-seat Toyota MR2, with the optional supercharger that makes it a killer at stoplights, again qualifies. The Ford Thunderbird, in turbo form, has solid credentials (yes, status slaves, it's difficult to accept, but Ford is a name you will want to be associated with). And several four-wheel-drive machines, namely the Isuzu Trooper and the Nissan Pathfinder, have found great favor among that claque once known as yuppies.

You Are What You Lease: $20,000 to $80,000

It's stodgily styled, it's slow, it's overpriced, and it's British. What more could status seekers ask for? The $34,000 Range Rover is a runaway winner in the prestige sweepstakes, as is that old-timer, the Porsche 911 (now celebrating its 25th birthday). A new entry is the redone Lincoln Continental, surely the finest luxury car ever produced on these shores. Brashly aerodynamic, the Lincoln packs surprising distinction, considering that, for the most part, American automobiles have all the social clout of Nehru jackets and pedal pushers.

At the top of this category, in terms of price, is the new BMW 750iL, a $70,000 home run laden with mechanical goodies such as a 300 hp V-12, anti-lock brakes and rakish styling. The big S-Class Mercedes-Benz used to dominate this category but now trails the new Bimmer.

Let 'Em Eat Cake: $80,000 to $110,000

Two new entries here. The Bentley 8, in its zoomier Mulsanne S and Mulsanne Turbo incarnations, is a muscle-car version of the Rolls-Royce Silver Spur. There is a world of difference between the Mulsannes and the Silver Spur. Bentley's new models are Cinderellas surrounded by maiden aunts. These Bentleys are fast and racy and outrageous, unlike any Rollers in modern times.

How Can You Go Wrong? $110,000 and Up

At the top of the status mountain sits not the new Ferrari F40 or the Aston Martin Lagonda, but rather the thoroughly shocking Lamborghini LM002, a 3.5-ton, 400 hp, V-12, four-wheel-drive monster that looks like something Mad Max would drive to the Iran-Iraq war (at 120 mph!). The LM002 resembles a light reconnaissance vehicle on the outside and a Rolls-Royce on the inside. What could be more "in" than that?