When it comes to the GMC Jimmy compact sport-utility vehicle, the best is yet to come.

That's because Jimmy undergoes a styling change for 1998 that will add a long-awaited passenger-side air bag and, after the first of the year, will add a new model called Envoy, a luxury version of the four-wheel-drive GMC hauler.

Envoy was previewed at the Chicago Auto Show with the Yukon Denali. Envoy will be the luxury version of the compact Jimmy, Denali the luxury version of the full-size Yukon, as GMC makes good on its promise to go more upscale and let Chevrolet handle value-for-the-dollar customers.

The restyled Jimmy will arrive in the fall; Envoy will appear after the first of the year. Denali arrives for the 1999 model year. When Envoy arrives, GMC plans to carry the Jimmy name only on two-door compact sport-utes. GMC still is debating whether to drop the Yukon name and go with Denali.

Air bags have been a sore point with Jimmy and its cousin, Chevy Blazer. GM has been very slow, many consumers say too slow, in bringing the inflatable safety cushions into its compact sport-ute lineup.

The Ford Explorer has them, the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee have them, even the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota RAV4 subcompact sport-utes have them.

For a time, GM was insisting customers didn't care whether they had two bags as long as they had four-wheel anti-lock brakes, which they considered a far more important safety item than dual bags. Not to downplay the importance of ABS, but if you were to run into a tree head-on at 45 miles per hour with a passenger aboard, the value of a bag would become clear.

We tested the '97 Jimmy four-door with 4WD that comes with an electronic push-button transfer case as standard. To engage all four wheels, you simply need to press the button in the dash. No levers to fiddle with. A very nice system.

Jimmy comes with a 4.3-liter, 190-horsepower V-6, rated at 16 miles per gallon city/21 highway. The power is ample, the city fuel economy a bit disappointing. Rumors are that Jimmy and Blazer will offer a new V-8 engine for 1998 to increase towing capability and stop Ford from boasting it has a V-8 in Explorer, while GMC and Chevy don't in Jimmy or Blazer.

Considering the 5-liter V-8 in Explorer forces the fuel gauge to move anytime Explorer does, GMC and Chevy should focus on a more fuel-efficient V-6--like Ford did in putting a 4.6-liter V-6 in Explorer that has nearly as much power yet even more mileage than the V-8.

We hope the '98 Jimmy also will upgrade its suspension system. "Smooth ride" suspension is standard; our test vehicle came with "luxury ride" suspension. Whatever you call it, it felt a bit stiff at times. GM long has boasted that Jimmy/Blazer feature car-like ride and handling compared with Explorer's more truck-like road manners. Not this time.

If GMC wants to provide more car-like ride and handling, in addition to smo other suspension, it should focus on speed-sensitive power steering for Jimmy that provides quicker response to wheel input. We've driven the GMC Yukon and Chevy Suburban with revisions to their steering systems and, though both are much larger and heavier than Jimmy, both were more nimble and limber and easier to maneuver and park than the compact.

About the only other gripe with Jimmy is the complaint we've had with this vehicle and the Blazer since Day 1: The floor under the front passenger sports a huge bulge where the catalytic converter rests. It reduces comfort and at times makes it a bit warm for your passenger. It would be nice if the '98 solved that problem.

The four-door, 4WD Jimmy we tested starts at $24,362. A hefty $5,399 option package was added that included popular power goodies--door locks, windows and mirrors. The best option was the $695 power sunroof that allows fresh air into the cabin--and lets out some of the heat from the convert er under the passenger's floor.

Should you wait for the '98 Jimmy?

Well, it will have that much-needed second bag, plus the Envoy will offer leather seats and OnStar, the GM satellite communications system that automatically summons help via your cellular phone if an air bag deploys.

>> 1997 GMC Jimmy 4WD Wheelbase: 107 inches Length: 181.2 inches Engine: 4.3-liter, 190-h.p., V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 16 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway Base price: $24,362 Price as tested: $30,816. Includes $5,399 for option package 1SL with SLT decor, power windows, power door locks, dual power mirrors, tilt wheel, speed control, roof rack, luxury ride suspension, AM/FM stereo with compact-disc player and clock; power sunroof $695; heavy-duty trailer towing $210; and gold appearance package $150. Add $515 for freight. Pluses: Gold appearance package on cherry red body is very rich looking. Driver-side air bag and four-wheel ABS standard. Electronic transfer case to engage 4WD, simply push a button. Minuses: No passenger-side air bag until 1998 model year, when vehicle undergoes minor styling change that hopefully will remove the catalytic converter hump under the front passenger floor. Steering a bit stiff, more so than on the larger Yukon or Tahoe. >>