At last count, there were more than 50 sport utility models offered for the 2002 model year, some in styles, sizes and configurations we couldn't have even dreamed of a few years ago. There is now a sport utility vehicle for every possible niche, including niches that didn't exist until there were sport utilities to fill them.

The latest trend is SUVs that drive like cars. Essentially, they are cars except for tall utility bodies, higher ground clearance and sometimes all-wheel drive. They look like the SUVs we've all come to know and apparently love, but the difference is significant: They ride and handle better, and they get better gas mileage.

What they can't do is go bashing along a desert trail, over rocks, up steep grades and through thick mud or deep sand. Of course, hardly anybody takes these things off the pavement anyway.

Here's a truck that takes the middle ground, a two-wheel-drive version of Mitsubishi Montero Sport. It's neither big nor little, and it's certainly not part of the new wave of SUVs. A traditional, trucklike sport utility, Montero offers a solid, well-equipped vehicle that can perform as a suburban station wagon but also fill in as a truck, as needed.

Camping, towing, rough roads - all that jazz. And without the extra weight or complexity of four-wheel drive, the tester handled fairly well and turned in decent gas mileage.

Montero Sport LS also comes fully equipped with all the appropriate power, comfort and convenience features as standard equipment and is priced in the mid-$20,000s.

The only extra on the test LS was destination and handling, which pushed the price just over $26,172. At a time when it's hard to keep any well-equipped, midsize SUV below $30,000, the Montero Sport is something of a value. Certainly not cheap, but all the desirable extras come standard.

Montero Sport is the smaller sibling of the regular Montero, which has grown into a luxury craft of significant proportions. Recently, the big Montero was condemned by Consumer Reports magazine for what test drivers felt was a dangerous propensity for tipping over.

No such concerns were expressed about the Montero Sport, which is about the size and shape of a Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Pathfinder. This is a size I favor, neither too big nor too small, able to carry decent-size loads of humans and cargo while not being too ponderous to drive or difficult to park.

Montero Sport got a face-lift and was updated for 2000, and carries on pretty much into 2002. The look is distinctive, with high doorsills and stylish tailgate.

The test truck was equipped with the standard 3-liter engine, which is barely adequate for this 3,800-pound vehicle. Loaded up with people and gear, the 165 horses lack gusto under acceleration and lose steam on long upgrades. Better to opt for the 3.5-liter V-6, which puts out nearly 200 horsep ower but costs more than $2,000 extra. Gas mileage is sure to suffer as well.

On the highway at 75 mph, the Montero Sport runs quietly and smoothly, with only a hint of road noise or wind roar. Back-road handling is stable, but still trucklike with some understeer and body sway.

The interior is roomy and comfortable, though people accustomed to bigger vehicles may find it narrow. Rear seat passengers will appreciate the extra headroom and legroom. There's also a good amount of space for baggage behind the rear seat, which folds to increase the cargo capacity.

Despite the value pricing, two-wheel-drive models start at $22,777, high level of standard equipment and Mitsubishi's reputation for durability, Montero Sport is pretty much an also-ran among the midsize SUVs.

Montero Sport is not the most sophisticated beast on the SUV map, but it could be the right mix of vehicle for those who want more truck than car in their sport util ehicle.