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10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000

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PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You have no idea what cool is anymore.

Oh, you think you know, but with every passing day your definition of it becomes more antiquated. Your points of reference get dated, your sources fade and your notions of "cool" are decreasingly based in reality and more often grounded in a waning generation's sentimentality.

Let's put it this way, if Burt Reynolds' character from Smokey and the Bandit wanted to renew his license in Georgia after making the last of his beer-smuggling runs with his '77 Pontiac Trans-Am, he'd have to take vision test to do so. If Susan Sarandon's Louise wanted to grab Geena Davis' Thelma and run off to the Utah desert today, the state of Utah would also require her to read the letters on the wall in front of her before taking the wheel of that '66 Thunderbird.

Cool? Even the military-grade SUVs of the past decade are rusting in used car lots and hoping some college kid will pick them up as high-mileage beaters. Ford's Mustang and Chevy's Camaro are increasingly smitten with V6 engines and 30-miles-per-gallon highway efficiency. "Cool" now has less to do with the sound coming from under the hood and everything to do with the apps on the touchscreen display built into the dash.

That assumes anyone under 35 even equates cars with cool. The New York Times discovered last year that less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has dropped and, according to CNW Research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27% of all new vehicles sold in America. That's down from 38%. When even the lowest-priced new car will run you $12,000 and jobs aren't exactly plentiful, suddenly the $200 smartphone in your pocket that can tell you when the next bus or train is coming or where the nearest Zipcar is located seems a lot cooler than a rolling mound of debt that just keeps leeching you for gas, insurance and repairs.

Auto pricing site Kelley Blue Book understands this shift and came up with a list of 10 cars with some relatively cool features that start at a base cost of less than $18,000. They don't include European supercars that drivers stuck in arrested development use as laptop and smartphone wallpaper, and they aren't going to grab a role in the next Fast and the Furious sequel anytime soon. They're efficient, they're electronically muscled and they're just elegant enough to distinguish from the everyday commuter shuttle. Talk about horsepower and sex appeal all you want, old timers, but these days "cool" means anything that can converse with a mobile device, conserve fuel and not leave owners crushed by debt: