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The Auto Show courts young drivers with sporty souped-up compacts.

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Steve Vasler tools around Cleveland in the same '96 Ford Escort Pony he drove in college. The cherry-red hatchback with 100,000 miles hasn't failed yet to get the 24-year-old systems analyst from Point A to Point B and back. But maybe he's due for something more.

Auto makers hope the Greater Cleveland International Auto Show will make Vasler and others like him swoon over the latest tricked-out, souped-up sports compacts. The nine-day expo offers a sneak peek at more than 800 models that won't hit dealer showrooms till later this year.

Included is an exhibit featuring "tuner cars," hip models designed to be upgraded with sportier suspensions, tires, spoilers, and other amenities that make young hearts flutter. Take the new Acura TL model (pictured): With a list price of $33,000, it boasts the sound and the fury -- a 270-horsepower V-6 engine and a stereo system that sounds as if the musicians are jamming in your backseat. And that's before the available $5,500 package of extras. "It's a cool car," Vasler admits. "And if I had the cash, I'd consider buying it. But I don't think that'll happen, unless I win the Super Lotto."

Manufacturers are hoping it's not about the money. They count on Gen Y'ers to take out loans, max out credit cards, and drain savings accounts to turn their rides into sporty, high-tech street racers. "They're not cheap," admits Chuck Marcusic, manager of Motorcars Acura in Independence. "These kids are rechipping their cars. They're boosting horsepower. And they couldn't give a crap about gas mileage."

Of course, now is the time to court young drivers, whose loyalty will determine which assembly lines keep rolling for the next generation. Marcusic's money is on the Acura. "I'm hoping to God [they'll] steal the show."

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