When it comes to autos, many buyers are obsessed with getting the best price and the most value for their money. They'll search the city from one end to the other for the best deal. If it's value you are after, the Cavalier Z24 from Chevrolet is one car that delivers. For right around $16,000 - maybe less if you are a good negotiator - you can buy yourself a tightly built, sharp-looking, sporty coupe and save more than a few bucks over most similarly equipped cars in the compact class. The well-equipped Cavalier is a car you feel good about instantly because you get your money's worth. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Z24 is the sporty version of the Cavalier line. It has a different (read: more powerful) engine and a slightly higher price than the base model Cavalier. Our test car sported a peppy, 2.4-liter, Twin Cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine rated at a respectable 150 horsepower. Regular Cavaliers make do with a pushrod, in-line, 2.2-liter four-cylinder that has 30 fewer ponies. For a few years, this GM four-cylinder engine was rough-running, crude and unreliable. Those days are gone. Since it was introduced nearly a decade ago as the Quad 4, the Cavalier's Twin Cam engine has been smoothed out, refined and improved several times. I'm convinced that this engine is as good or better than those you will find in most imports. The Twin Cam has a rugged, slightly over-engineered feel. I like that, because it feels as if it can be punished with hard, aggressive driving without any harm coming to it. Also, it is engineered for low maintenance. Unlike many imported overhead-cam engines, there is no timing belt. It has a timing chain that never has to be changed. Also, the coolant and spark plugs are good for 100,000 miles. Unlike other16-valve, double-overhead cam fours, you don't have to rev the daylights out of the Twin Cam to get the power to the wheels. GM engineers tuned it so that the power is abundant at the lower end of the6,500-rpm limit. Our test car came with a five-speed manual transmission. In the first three gears, acceleration is quick and strong. In fourth and fifth, cruising is a breeze. The engine is nearly free of noise and vibration, and because it has so much power on the lower end, you don't have to downshift quickly for a burst of power if you want to pass. You may not like manual transmissions, but the one in the Cavalier is about as fuss-free and easy to use as you'll find. The shifter moves easily through the gears, and the clutch pedal is smooth and light. One minor gripe: There is a switch on the clutch pedal that prevents the car from starting unless the clutch is pressed down. That is to keep you from accidentally starting the car in gear. But in our bright red test car, I had to bury the pedal all the way into the carpet to get it to start. Fuel mileage came in at a solid 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving with the air c onditioner running most of the time. FIT AND FINISH Chevrolet completely overhauled the Cavalier in 1995, and sales have increased almost every month the car has been on the market. In fact, Cavalier is GM's best-selling car. Take one for a drive, and you'll know why its combination of value, style and performance has been a hit. The Cavalier Z24 comes with a long list of standard equipment, such as power steering, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and power door locks, and it it is screwed together very tightly. Like a Toyota or Honda, the Cavalier has a smartly designed interior that is designed to be easy to use. (Chevy builds right-hand-drive versions of the Cavalier for Toyota to sell in Japan as the Toyota Cavalier). It only takes a second or two to change the temperature, switch radio stations or turn on the cruise control. All of these functions can be done without taking your eyes off the road. In some compacts, rear seat room i scarce. Not so in the Cavalier. Two average-size adults can ride comfortably in the back. Or, if you have a large item to transport, the rear seat-back can be folded forward to enlarge the trunk area. Our test car came with three options: an electric rear window defogger ($170), a CD player with the stereo ($155) and the preferred equipment group ($975), which added radio-controlled door locks, power windows, cruise control, intermittent wipers and more. The only area where I think the Cavalier could use an improvement is the front bucket seats. The padding is fine, but I never could get the backrest adjusted so that I felt I had enough support for my neck and upper back. In any case, if getting your money's worth tops your list of requirements for an economy car, be sure to give the Cavalier a test drive. Specifications: 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 LENGTH Overall 180.3 FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 37.6 Leg room 42.3 REAR COMPARTMENT Headroom36.6 Leg room 33.2 WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; six-year unlimited mileage rust protection; 24-hour roadside assistance. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transaxle, front-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted front disc/rear drum. Engine: 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter, Twin Cam, in-line four-cylinder. Transmission: Five-speed manual. OTHER MODELS Cavalier coupe, $10,980 Cavalier sedan,$11,180 Cavalier RS coupe, $12,225 Cavalier LS sedan, $13,380 Cavalier LS convertible, $17,765 Inches unless otherwise specified Truett's tip: The 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24, though not greatly changed from the 1996 model, continuesto offer a solid blend of performance, style and value.