The nation needs an attractive, sensibly sized, sensibly priced,four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

And that's what folks got--in 1989, when Isuzu brought out the Amigo, acompact, 4WD sport-ute with an open top that captured the fancy of youth andsold for about $11,000.

Those who pay homage to the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Tracker andSuzuki Sidekick should tip their caps to Amigo, a vehicle ahead of its time. But Amigo wasn't around to enjoy the sales success of the RAV4, CR-V,Tracker and Sidekick because Isuzu had to drop the SUV at the end of the 1994model run.

What poor timing. SUVs were just about to really catch on. Consumers werejust starting to trade in their coupes, sedans and 10-speed bikes to acquire asport-ute and rub fenders with the fashion set.

Amigo was a victim of complaints that the Japanese weren't playing on alevel field, which was one of Lee Iacocca's most memorable sayings. (Anotherone, of course, was "Buy a car, get a check.")

The small Amigo sport-ute fell out of favor when the U.S. startedcomplaining that if the Japanese were going to sell here, they should buildhere. And to encourage them to do so, the U.S. levied a 25 percent tax onimported trucks. Two-door sport-utes, such as Amigo, were ruled to be trucksand four-door utes such as the Rodeo built by Isuzu were ruled to be cars.

Amigo couldn't survive the 25 percent tax and bid the U.S. adios.

For 1998 Amigo is back, at least in name.

Isuzu said it would bring Amigo back but would wait until it redid theRodeo so it could build both off the same platform in the same plant inLafayette, Ind. Rodeo has been redone, so Amigo rides again.

In its former life, Amigo was built off Isuzu's compact P'up pickup and wasthe smaller sidekick to the larger Isuzu Rodeo. In its reincarnation, Amigo isbuilt off the Rodeo platform with a slightly shorter wheelbase. Then, as now,Amigo is a sporty two-door alternative to the four-door Rodeo.

Nice vehicle, but Amigo must re-establish itself in a market that has ahost of entries. Rather than being in on the ground floor of the smallsport-ute boom, Amigo is relegated to the freight elevator to work its wayback into the fray.

Amigo also must avoid being labeled a two-door Rodeo. The original Amigohad flaws, but it had its own character and image.

Still, the new Amigo has lots of upgrades. Like Ford with Explorer andChevy with Blazer, Amigo has adopted push-button, shift-on-the-flyfour-wheel-drive. To engage 4WD low for those really treacherous spots,however, there is a floor-mounted lever.

Also, Amigo now has four-wheel anti-lock brakes, most useful in a vehiclethat probably will be driven a bit harder than most economy coupes or familysedans, and in a variety of weather conditions, over a mixture of roadsurfaces. Should you venture off-road, underbody skid plates keep damage to aminimum. Nice touch.

And there are the dual air bags as dictated by federal law. Amigo features a hardtop cover with manually operated pop-open sunroof overthe front seat, a convertible top with zip-out vinyl windows over the rearseat. So it's not just another small SUV.

Built on a wheelbase that is 5.2 inches longer than the original, the '98Amigo is 2 inches wider than its ancestor. Those numbers mean considerableleg, head and arm room and a stable stance.

The original, though cute, also was a bit crude even by early '90sstandards. The suspension system has been stroked to reduce road harshness.But keep in mind the '98 is built off the Rodeo platform and not a subcompactpickup platform, so you would expect a more comfortable ride.

The cabin is far more quiet, thanks to sound deadeners in the floor, cargohold and roof pillars.

The convertible allows for open-air motoring, though to fully appreciatethe open air you have to fiddle with the zippers and Velcro fasteners,a ddoing so without making mush of your fingers is an adventure.

Unfastening the canvas top at the rear to gain entry to the cargo holdshould become an Olympic sport because mastering the feat is worthy of amedal.

Amigo comes with the same 3.2-liter, 205-horsepower, 24-valve V-6 as Rodeo.The V-6 is teamed only with a 5-speed manual until 1999, when an automaticarrives.

Fuel economy is rated at a respectable 18 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway,though after a week testing it, that seems a tad generous.

While designers make the zippers and Velcro easier to use, engineers shouldwork on the brake and clutch pedals. The rubber foot pads are small and thepedals at such a sharp angle that our foot kept touching the metal bars thepads rested on. First time in 30 years that has happened.

Another problem is that Amigo is no longer a blue-plate special. Base priceof the 4WD, V-6 powered unit we tested is $19,350, but base price doesn'treflect what it will cost to get the vehicle out the showroom door.

You have to add $2,300 for a preferred equipment package with airconditioning, power windows and locks, power mirrors, AM-FM stereo withcassette and remote keyless entry--in other words, the popular features thatmake the vehicle worth owning.

Standard equipment includes speed-sensing power steering, tinted windshieldand side windows, four speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette, center console,carpeting, folding rear bench seat and spare tire mounted on the reartailgate. In the original, you had to swing out the spare to open thetailgate. On this one, the spare and tailgate open as one.

If the budget is tight, you can opt for Amigo with a 2.2-liter, 130-h.p.,16-valve 4-cylinder and 4WD starting at $17,500--about a $2,000 savings. Withthe 4-cylinder, of course, you sacrifice some power and quietness off theline.

If you want the V-6, you have to get 4WD for 1998. If you want the4-cylinder, you can get Amigo in rear- or four-wheel-drive.

In addition to adding an automatic transmission for 1999, Isuzu plans tooffer a hardtop version without removable plastic.

>>1998 Isuzu Amigo
Wheelbase: 96.9 inches Length: 168 inches Engine: 3.2-liter, 205-h.p., 24-valve V-6 Transmission: 5-speed manual Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway Base price: $19,350 Price as tested: $23,380. Includes $2,300 for preferred-equipment packagewith air conditioning, power windows and locks, power outside mirrors, cruisecontrol, tilt steering, variable intermittent wipers, center armrest pad,courtesy lamps, AM-FM cassette with six speakers, cargo net, remote keylessentry; $650 for six-disc in-dash compact-disc player; $250 for limited slipdifferential; $500 for 16-inch alloy wheels with oversized p245 tires; $200for fender flares; $70 for fog lamps; and $6 0 for rear cargo mat. Add $445 forfreight. Pluses: Back after a four-year absence. Push-button shift-on-the-fly 4WD.Dual air bags. Four-wheel ABS. Underbody skid plates for off-roading.Convertible top with zip-out vinyl windows. Sporty two-door version of biggerfour-door Rodeo. Minuses: Only a 5-speed manual until 1999 model year. Clutch/brake rubberfoot pads small and angle so sharp your foot touches metal pedal bars the padsare attached to. Options run up the price of what could have been a rival tothe Toyota RAV4/Chevrolet Tracker/Jeep Wrangler.>>