The car columnist for Lear's sets out to determine ``the hold of internal combustion over our imaginations and our lives.'' Although her first name is noncommittal, Hazleton (England, Bloody England, 1989, etc.) happens to be a woman, a fact that she makes much of--and rightly so--in the male world of gear-shifting, engine grease, and torque. Her odyssey into Autoland becomes also a study in ``transgression,'' the crossing of boundaries set not only around gender but also around propriety, fear, death. At first, she sputters along an utterly predictable track: ``road, machine, and driver were blended into a single entity, an unholy union of asphalt and steel and flesh.'' But soon she kicks into fifth gear, roaring in a Formula Ford around a Connecticut racetrack (``I drove through my terror''), even finding ``direct, physical sexual arousal behind the wheel of a powerful car at speed.'' Racing, she learns, is not a matter of taking risks but of gaining control. She steps up to a Lamborghini, and at 155 mph finds the limits of her skill. Here, the book takes a sharp curve- -into a second book, in effect--as Hazleton becomes a mechanic's apprentice in Vermont. The pace slows. She falls in love with her pink mechanic's rag, with exploded diagrams of engine parts, with the tools of the trade. To her astonishment, it appears that the secret life of cars, ``a mystery peculiar to the male gender,'' is but ``a reasonable matter of mechanical cause and effect.'' Still, her conscience is troubled--while cars thrill, they also pollute. Environmental itchiness leads to an anticlimactic finale--a sidebar of sorts tacked on to the two books--as Hazleton tracks down engineering genius Paul MacCready, champion of the nonpolluting electric car. Still, apart from the structural creaks, a sleek, exciting, V-8 performance.