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Rumble Seat 

Unlike the democratized economy, the car business is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands (all-consuming Ford, for instance, owns Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda and has just bought Rover). But what if you--despiser of the oligarchy that you are--want to opt out of the motoring gene pools of Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler? Then you would have to buy from specialty manufacturers, boutique builders of low-volume cars, companies in the same league as Tucker, Bricklin and DeLorean. Swim at your own risk.

The following is a brief roundup of cottage-industry cars built by renegade American capitalists, brave entrepreneurs with little more than an air-wrench and a dream.

Laforza Speciale Edition: What do a Ford Excursion and a Lamborghini Diablo have in common? Four wheels and rather less gas mileage than Al Gore would hope. The Laforza SUV, on the other hand, is welded up by the very same company (Golden Car in central Italy) that builds the sinuous Lambo. The Speciale Edition's forthrightly orthogonal body is then bolted to a gutsy Fiat truck frame and the whole thing is sent to Laforza's shop in Escondido, Calif., where it is inseminated with a Ford Explorer 4.9-liter V8 and push-button 4x4 running gear and slathered with layer after layer of rich hides. While lacking some of the niceties of current auto tech, like airbags, ABS or rear disc brakes, the Speciale Edition delivers buckets of good, old-fashioned horsepower, from 225 to a supercharger-enhanced 320. The price for this 2.5-ton, sport-ute blunderbuss: $67,385 in blower-equipped trim. In a world of Stepford-wife SUVs, the Laforza has the advantage of being speciale.

Corbin Sparrow: With styling cues drawn from amoebic dysentery, the Corbin Sparrow isn't exactly a thing of beauty, unless you are a member of the Green Party, in which case this composite-bodied, electric one-seat runabout is hotter than Britney. Powered by a 156-volt brushless permanent-magnet-type motor feeding off 13 Optima spiral-cell batteries, the Sparrow can accelerate from 0-60 in about 15 seconds, commute between 30-60 miles (or 20 rounds of golf) between charges and can be topped off in six hours with 110-volt current or two hours with 220-volt current. Under the blister-pack canopy, drivers will find a host of amenities, including CD stereo, heater/defroster and power windows, all for a mere $12,900. Categorized by the Department of Transportation as a motorcycle, the bumper-high Sparrow, alas, must contend with a world of utes like the aforementioned Laforza. Should it ever get hit, the Sparrow will make a very nice hood ornament.

Mosler Raptor: No one ever called it beautiful, but no one ever called it slow, either. Warren Mosler is a self-made, bond-trading kazillionaire whose passion is fast cars. Stealing a page from Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus, Mosler has become the sworn enemy of weight in performance cars. The result: the strange and singular Raptor, the latest in a series of Mosler's featherweight, composite-bodied monsters that straddle the line between race car and road car. Powered by a mid-mounted 383-inch, John Lingenfelter-built Chevy V8 pumping 446 hp and 429 pound-feet of torque through a Porsche 5-speed tranny, the 2,773-pound Raptor can be coaxed to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and crosses the three-digit mark before you can spell "Nolo Contendre." A repeat winner of Car and Driver magazine's One Lap of America, the Raptor has pulled off an interesting trick: The more it wins, the better it looks.

Panoz Esperante: If you follow racing, you know the Panoz name. Don Panoz, pharmaceutical magnate based in Braselton, Ga.--Kim and Alec's hood--came out of the blue in the l990s to first field the Panoz race cars at LeMans, then to buy endurance racing in America outright, founding the American LeMans Series. All of which has been a marketing boon to his son, Danny, whose Panoz Automotive builds the ultra-cool Panoz AIV Roadster. The new Esperante is the company's second car, another hand-built, aluminum-bodied roadster built on an alloy monocoque with many of the mechanical naughty bits of a 4.6-liter, 32-valve Mustang Cobra but with far more emphasis on GT luxury. With 320-hp on tap through a six-speed Ford box, the Esperante promises to give the BMW Z8 all it can handle in stoplight shootouts. Suspension is very nearly pure race, with coilover inboard shocks at all four wheels, bolted to a stiff chassis. Forty authorized Ford dealers will sell the car for about $80,000 a pop. No pun intended.

Shelby American Series 1: Feeling lucky? Shelby American, the Las Vegas-based company founded by racing legend Carroll Shelby, he of the original Cobra, is building a new car, the Series 1. With enough flares and gill plates to make a manta ray feel underdressed, the Series 1 is built around a specially hotted-up Olds Aurora V8 churning out 320 hp of worry-free juice, propelling the carbon-fiber-and-alumimum, 2,640-pound car to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. Pushrod suspension, 18-inch wheels (10-inch wide in front, 12-inch wide in back), and 13-inch vented disc brakes all around help the Series 1s excel in the critical 0-100-0 mph acid test, the measure for all super-performance cars in the shadow of the original Cobra. The Series 1 knocks out the test in 14.7 seconds and hit a full 1 g on the skidpad. Cervical collar not included.

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