Talk about retro. The Jeep Wrangler is about as retro as you can get - a vehicle with direct lineage to World War II - and it still stands out as the ultimate in fun-to-drive, go-anywhere vehicles.

In a world overburdened with luxury sport-utility vehicles, the Wrangler stands apart with a distinctive image - adventurous and macho, maybe even a little risky.

The handling may be skittish, and there may be a cacophony of noises from the tire tread, engine and drive line, but what the Wrangler lacks in comfort and drivability is made up in style and spirit. Plus, it's the most fun for the dollar of any new vehicle that comes to mind, especially one with a canvas roof and a windshield that can be folded flat.

This new generation of Wrangler, unveiled in 1998, is much improved over its square-headlight predecessor. Improved suspension with coil springs and a better front end, beefier chassis, much-better dashboard and styling that succeeds in capturing the old look of the CJs - these are some of the changes that brought new life to the old military-Jeep formula.

Wrangler still feels old-fashioned with its separate front fenders, long-handled shifter and flat windshield. This is all part of the fun stuff, the Jeep image.

The ride is rough and tumble, although tumbling is one thing that's seriously warned against on the sun visor. A wider track and the upgraded suspension are designed to fight the rollover threat of the old CJs. A heavy, rill-cage armament adds protection.

But it's still a high-profile vehicle with a short wheelbase, so you can't zip around like a sports-car driver, even though it might feel like a sports car.

On the freeway, the noise level can get intense, including the rustling of the fabric top. The Wrangler just sails along, though, the smooth-running, tried-and-true straight six humming competently.

But you have to keep on top of the steering or the Jeep will wander all over the road. And the short wheelbase - the rear wheels are just behind your ears - creates a choppy ride over the expansion joints. Around town, the Jeep is loads of fun because you sit high above the crowd in this tough little critter. Unlike the big, clumsy sport utes, the Jeep slips ably through traffic.

Of course, the Jeep is best appreciated off the asphalt, where the short wheelbase is a definite plus and the mountain-goat characteristics of the Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system shine. On a difficult, boulder-strewn trail, the Wrangler climbed over the rough stuff effortlessly, easier than just about anything else I'd had up there. But a front-seat passenger felt buffeted by the stiff suspension.

Naturally, the best way to enjoy the Wrangler is with the top down. But taking down the top, loaded with zippers and plastic parts that clip unto the body, is a chore. As tough as getting it down may be, putting it back up is worse. It's like setting up the Ringling Bros. circus tent. My fi ngers are still healing. Wrangler veterans assure me it gets easier with practice.

The test Wrangler was the top-end Sahara edition, fully equipped at $21,105, which is pretty affordable these days. The entry-level model starts at just $15,020. The Sahara includes such beneficial items as the 4-liter engine, fog lamps, fender flares, side steps, stereo with CD player and four speakers, and 16-inch cast aluminum wheels shod with off-highway tires. Plus, a handsome tan and green upholstery that matches the classic green of the body and tan of the top.

Parked in the desert, the Wrangler presented a picturesque scene that no sport-utility vehicle could hope to match. It's a true American classic, maybe more so than anything else on the road.

2000 Jeep Wrangler

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door utility vehicle, rear/four-wheel drive.
Base price: $20,545.
Price as tested: $21,105.
Engine: 4.0-liter in-line 6, 181 hp a t 4,60 0 rpm, 222 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,800 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Curb weight: 3,333 lbs.
Wheelbase: 93.4 inches.
EPA mileage: 16 city, 19 highway.
Highs: Off-road prowess. Fun to drive. Moderate price.
Lows: Rough, noisy ride. Dicey handling. Troublesome top.