So what if I didn't have a driver's license? Cruising along at a wonderful speed, hands clutching the wheel tight, eyes locked on the asphalt ahead, I was having way too much fun to fret about my lack of credentials. Okay, maybe I took those turns a bit too swiftly, but it was all in the course of a spin around the block.

Fortunately for all you real drivers, my joy ride took place in the comfort and safety of an air-conditioned auditorium. Strapped in an authentic automobile seat, my friend Alex and I--and several dozen other thrill-seekers--were taking a simulated ride through an automobile assembly plant. With images of a car factory flashing before us and the chairs twisting and turning dramatically underneath us, we whizzed along marvelously, ending with an imaginary--though nonetheless thrilling--ride around a test track.

This was the so-called turbo tour, one of the highlights of the spanking new Spirit of Ford center, located in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn and open to the public. About as high-tech and interactive as museums get, it was conceived as a way for the curious to get a close-up look at how the Fords of today are designed, tested, raced and even repaired.

One exhibit allows visitors to shape a car model out of clay (which they can purchase). Another gives them the chance to sit at a computer screen and fashion their own car, choosing from various chassis and other auto parts designed by Ford employees.

There is a lot here for visitors to put their hands on: night vision and voice activation devices, a crash test analysis screen and an anti-lock brake system, among others.

In contrast to the nearby Henry Ford Museum, whose walls are lined with Model T's and other vintage Fords, the accent here is on cars of the future. Newly designed prototype vehicles, including one that bore a stunning resemblance to the Batmobile, were on display in the glittery showroom in the entrance to the new center.

If my favorite thrill of the day was the turbo tour, Alex's was the NASCAR pit stop. After a simulated breakdown of the race cars, a crew composed of volunteers visiting the center rushed in to fix the tire and put it back on the road. The motley crew that Alex joined completed the repairs in all of 27 seconds, compared with the 21-second record set by a real-life repair crew--not shabby for amateurs.

Although best for teens or auto buffs, the Spirit of Ford is well worth a two- or three-hour visit for almost anyone. Although I am neither car aficionado nor teenager, it would have held my rapt attention, even without the turbo tour.

The Spirit of Ford, 1151 Village Rd., Dearborn, Mich., 313-31-SPIRIT (313-317-7474), Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9.