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Enter a Second Automotive Golden Age

The 1990s mark the second golden age of the automobile by many measures.

In terms of quality, price -or at least value for the money - and exciting designs, car buyers have never had it better.

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Today's cars from all over the world last well into their second hundred thousand miles, not 80,000 like older ones.

Consumers blanch at new-car prices averaging more than $20,000, but those prices are starting to come down thanks to demanding consumers and production overcapacity of 20 million or more units.

While prices seem to creep up, most carmakers include more and more expensive features each year, such as air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, leather seats, and sophisticated multivalve engines for only slight cost increases. And in the past two years, prices of several popular models and many luxury cars have actually dropped - sometimes dramatically.

At the same time, many new-car designs include greater versatility and functionality than ever before. Others, sports cars and some luxury cars, generate enthusiasm by capitalizing on classic designs and corporate heritage.

Such cars as Volkwagen's New Beetle, the Plymouth Prowler, Dodge Viper, Jaguar XK8, Porsche Boxster, and even the Mazda Miata mirror the designs of popular, classic road or race cars of the first golden age, in the 1950s and '60s: Beetles, hot rods, Cobra race cars, E-Type Jags, Porsche 550 racers, and Lotus Elans, respectively.

The New York International Auto Show, which ended yesterday, marks the final chance each year for carmakers to trot out their latest sculptures.

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The New York Auto Show boasted 12 introductions of all-new cars (1999 models unless noted otherwise), including:

* A bigger Honda minivan.

* Lincoln's entry-luxury LS6 and LS8 sedans (year 2000).

* The compact Pontiac Grand Am.

* Suzuki's Vitara mini sport-utility and V-6 powered Grand Vitara.

* Vitara's twin, the Chevrolet Tracker.

* The reintroduction of the Infiniti G20 small luxury sports sedan.

* The Mitsubishi Galant sedan.

* Audi's 1998 A6 "Avant" wagon.

* The Porsche 911 Cabrio convertible.

* Volvo's new-to-America small car series, the S40 and V40 sedan and wagon.

* The Hyundai Avatar, a replacement for the company's flagship Sonata compact sedan.

* And the next-generation Rolls Royce sedan, the Silver Seraph.

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