And now for something different:

The name may be familiar, but the Mitsubishi Montero Sport is a new animal among the burgeoning jungle of sports-utility vehicles.

Slimmer, trimmer and more in tune with the 4Runners and Pathfinders of the world, the Montero Sport is completely different than the standard-issue Montero. And it could be one of the best ever.


Well, here's the deal: The Montero started out in the middle '80s as a smaller, less-expensive version of the sports-utility vehicles that were just making their presence felt in the marketplace.

That Montero was a high-profile, short-wheelbase critter similar in character to the Jeep Wrangler. Though it appeared ungainly, it quickly earned an international reputation for tough off-road abilities, as well as decent highway manners.

As the sport-ute market grew, so did the Montero. A longer-wheelbase, four-door version joined the Montero ranks, sold well, and soon spawned the current Montero, a cushy seven-passenger transport that vies for sales against the well-heeled, country-club set, such as Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers.

With the shorty Montero long gone, Mitsubishi found itself with a niche to fill, and has designed the Montero Sport to fill it. But although it wasable to engineer a capable, stylish-looking vehicle with its own, separate character, Mitsubishi apparently was unable to concoct a name to go with it.

So, what you have are the Montero and the Montero Sport, as different as a rhinoceros and a zebra.

The ruts, rocks and water hazards of the Arizona desert were used recently to introduce the Montero Sport to the motoring press, led by Western-garbed members of Wild West Jeep Tours of Scottsdale.

We had eight of the new Montero Sports, and about a half-dozen fully equipped Monteros that were filled with leather interiors, scads of gadgets and fantastic Mitsubishi stereos.

But as cushy as the big Monteros were (especially compared with their spartan forebears), they felt bulky and numb when driven head-to-head with the Sport models. With a lower center of gravity and a well-tuned suspension, the Montero Sport feels lithe and lively, on or off the highway.

This was a two-day tour of natural areas surrounding Phoenix. The first day was spent trundling over the Apache Trail out to Roosevelt Dam, an easy trek for any stout vehicle, then back the long way around over paved roads via Arizona 87.

This was a good introduction for the out-of-towners to the beauty of the Superstition Mountains, including some history of the area. It also demonstrated that the Montero Sport is a stable, long-legged cruiser that handles distance driving as well as a passenger car.

On the dirt-road part of the Trail, the Montero Sport soaked up corduroy surfaces with rattle-free ease, and handled winding sections with aplomb.

The next day, we were dodging boulders and fording streams as we crept over some ancient dirt roads north of Ca ve Creek. Part of this trail was a section of a stage coach route between Cave Creek and Prescott that would take 16 days to traverse. The rest of our route was on old mining roads and cowboy trails used for rounding up cattle.

This is the kind of country where you can really shake out a sports-utility vehicle, and both the Montero and the Montero Sport showed their toughness and agility. Especially since some of the writers had scant experience with this kind of Jeep-trail driving, which requires loads of concentration, coordination and, in some instances, raw courage.

All of the Monteros survived the lengthy trek intact. We did get a horror story about one writer on the same deal several days earlier who was showing off how fast he could traverse a downhill trail, picked up way too much steam and rolled over a Montero Sport into a ditch.

That kind of amazed us, since these vehicles feel wonderfully stable.

With the recent Consumers' Report controversy over the Isuz u Trooper, and its Acura clone, tipping during emergency-maneuver testing, all the sport-utility people are obviously sensitive about the word "rollover." This is certainly not an issue with the well-balanced Montero Sport, nor did Consumers' Report find any handling problems with the taller, heavier Montero.

The Montero Sport is available with a four- or six-cylinder engine, automatic or stick shift, two- or four-wheel drive, and offers a decent range of options from which to choose. The interior is roomy and well-designed, with supportive seats and plenty of leg and headroom.

The four-wheel-drive version is equipped with a two-speed transfer case, making extra-low gearing available for creeping over difficult stretches, a highly desirable feature among serious off-highway drivers. It's a shift-on-the-fly system, making it easier to change with the road conditions.

The Montero Sport's suspension refinements shone on those rugged trails, with everyone arriving back in Cave Creek looking relaxed and cheerful.With a full, trucklike ladder frame, it feels very rugged in the dirt, while still driving as well as a car on the pavement.

This could be the sports-utility vehicle that sets the pace for others to follow.

The Montero Sport also shines in comparison. At about the same price, the ride and handling are superior to similar vehicles from Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Chevrolet, and the Sport compares well with segment leader Ford Explorer.

And, with a base price of $17,700 for the four-cylinder and $21,700 for the V-6, both two-wheel drive, the bottom line puts the Sport as a solid contender.

While Mitsubishi has lagged behind Honda and Toyota in sales, the Montero Sport should boost the automakers' fortunes. The designers and engineers did a great job filling the niche and re-establishing Mitsubishi as one of the top dogs when the going gets rough.

1997 Mitsubishi Montero

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sports-utility vehicle, rear/four-wheel-drive. Base price: $21,700 (two-wheel-drive base model). Price as tested (approx): $30,000 (four-wheel-drive, fully equipped). Engine: 3-liter V-6, 173 horsepower at 5,250 rpm, 188 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,700 pounds. Length: 178.3 inches. Wheelbase: 107.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes. Fuel-economy information not available.