Sometimes you just want to drive a vehicle for fun, like the PlymouthProwler or Dodge Viper or Toyota Paseo.


OK, not even drugged would you mistake the performance of a Paseo with thatof a Prowler or Viper. In fact, it’s probably safe to say the team thatdesigned the conservative Paseo probably wouldn’t be trusted with styling thelug nuts on a Prowler or Viper.

Prowler and Viper are both crowds magnets, but the Paseo barely rates aglance–much less a stop and look–from passersby.

Then again, while Paseo (a really lousy badge that sounds like the name ofthe goalkeeper on a soccer team) doesn’t expect to attract lots of attention,it is a car that’s difficult to bid farewell to after you’ve cruised thecountryside with the top down and let the warm summer breezes refresh mind andsoul.

The ’97 Paseo convertible we tested, the first drop-top in the line, isbuilt off the same platform as the Tercel, an entry-level model that’s a stepbelow the Corolla, which is remade for 1998.

We mention Corolla because we drove the Paseo to Toyota’s preview of the’98 model lineup in Wisconsin, where it unveiled the 1998 Corolla, Siennamini-van and Avalon sedan at the American Club–because all three are built inAmerica–in Kohler. Those Japanese automakers are so subtle in stickingdomestic noses in the cheddar.

But we digress.

This is Paseo’s day–Corolla, Sienna and Avalon will have theirs.

In some respects, Paseo is reminiscent of the Volkswagen Beetle, a vehiclewith a number of faults you tolerate because it never makes any claims ofbeing infallible. What you see is what you get. No pretenses, no promises itcan’t keep, no Hyundai.

The top, for example, is manually operated. Sometimes you can unlatch itfrom the header and drop it back over your head; on occasion, you can unlatchit, push it over your head and have it stop mid-drop. Try, try again. Sure, Toyota could have used a power top, but that would only have added tothe cost of a limited-volume machine.

And then there’s the back seat–or what appears to be one. The Paseo is atop-down, two-passenger cruiser with a couple of cushions in back to lay yoursweater or coat on.

Could have been bigger, but then it would have been costlier and thennonexistent.

Dual air bags are standard, an appreciated touch, but anti-lock brakes area $550 option, again to keep the price down. The thinking is that aconvertible with a base price of just over $17,000 is going to be garaged inthe winter and not plowing snow-covered roadways, so ABS is a secondaryconsideration.

Of course, there are such things as rain, loose gravel and other vehiclespopping out in front of you at any time. But Toyota dictates standardequipment, so we can only point out that ABS would not be a bad feature tohave–at all times.

Then there are a few nuisances, though you may call them nuances. Lots ofwind noise filte rs into the cabin, top down or up. When it’s up, you still geta steady stream of air against a soft top, so occupants must speak an octaveor two higher, and the radio has to be tuned to about the frequency that canbe heard by your stone-deaf teenager.

And anytime you remove a hard top and replace it with a soft top, you findthat the body structure suffers a little. Yes, the Paseo has a few squeaks andrattles and things that go bing and bang in the night–as well as in the day.

But hop in, drop the top–OK, try again–and take off. You will find peaceand tranquility driving along the picturesque side roads of Wisconsin. Until,of course, you see the sign that says “Green Bay” and you realize thatcivilization, as we know it, is about to disappear.

Another Paseo strength comes from its greatest weakness. The 1.5-liter,93-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine is vastly underpowered and noisy, but whatyou give up in the ability to climb hills without hesitation, you ge t backwith a 27-mile-per-gallon city/32 m.p.g. highway rating from the 1.5 teamedwith a 4-speed automatic.

Fun in the sun without having to keep stopping to refuel.

Base price is $17,500 and change. Add the needed options–$925 for air,$550 for ABS, $525 for a power package that includes windows and door locks,$225 for a deluxe sound system to drown out the wind noise and $420 forfreight, and you pass $20,000.

If you are a Toyota loyalist, $20,000 is good. If you are a convertibleloyalist, the Pontiac Sunfire runs just about the same $20,000 with dual airbags, ABS, traction control and a power top as standard. And Sunfire offersoptional 15-inch treads, Paseo only 14-inch tires.

Toyota expects to produce only about 1,500 Paseo convertibles in ’98.There’s speculation that Tercel and, therefore, Paseo will soon be droppedbecause Tercel’s price is too close to that of the much-higher-volume Corolla(and Corolla’s price will be reduced even more for 1998).

Tercel is built in Japan and Corolla is built in the good old U.S. of A. Bydropping Tercel and Paseo, Toyota would have more room on the boat from Japanto toss on some extra 4Runner sport-utility vehicles and Camry sedans, whichcarry much higher profits for the automaker than the subcompact Tercel orPaseo.

The cars will be imported through 1998, Toyota says. And the automakerinsists there will continue to be a low-cost entry-level model in its lineuppriced below Corolla, though not necessarily named Tercel, after ’98. So enjoy the Paseo convertible–while you can.

>>1997 Toyota Paseo convertible Wheelbase: 93.7 inches Length: 163.6 inches Engine: 1.5-liter, 93-h.p. 4 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 27 m.p.g. city/32 m.p.g. highway Base price: $17,528 Price as tested: $19,383. Includes $925 for air conditioning, $415 foraluminum alloy wheels with all-season 14-inch tires, $290 for cruise controland $225 for deluxe sound system with cassette. Add $420 for freight. Pluses: Low-cost, fun-in-the-sun drop top with excellent fuel economy. Dualair bags standard. Minuses: Manual top sometimes halts in mid-drop. Power top not availableand ABS optional to keep price down. >>

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