If Mitsubishi doesn't get its designers some sharper pencils, not to mention sharper imaginations, the world of sport-utility vehicles is going to pass it by.

The 1998 Mitsubishi Montero is a prime candidate for the before slot in any photo of what sport-utility vehicles used to be and what they have become.

Montero is a crude, gruesome-looking machine from the days when styling was secondary to four-wheel-drive function. Montero needs to freshen up its appearance.

When you could count SUVs on your thumbs, Montero was a four-wheel-drive treasure.

Now that you need a pocket calculator to list all the SUV rivals, Montero loses much of its appeal.

A makeover is sorely needed, in sprucing up its bland body panels and in adapting its ride and handling to the demands of today's consumer who favors the four-wheel-drive function in a package that acts more civil and car- rather than truck-like.

The Montero we tested sits very high, which gives you good down-the-road visibility as well as off-road sight lines to avoid dangers lurking ahead.

On the open and clear highway, however, Montero sits so high you feel a tad top heavy from the raised center of gravity and, therefore, wobbly in the twists in the road or on the off ramp.

In a recent snow, though 4WD was engaged, we found ourselves backing off the accelerator because Montero didn't feel as stable of foot as a Lincoln Navigator, Chevrolet Tahoe or even a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Adding to the discomfort factor are narrow bottom seats that need wider, softer cushions and wider side bolsters.

And when Mitsubishi does get around to a makeover, we hope it also will turn an eye to the 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 to squeeze more fuel economy than just 16 miles per gallon city/19 m.p.g. highway out of it.

Of course, Montero is big and bulky and that means heavy and that doesn't make life easy for the 3.5-liter V-6. Montero needs to slenderize for greater comfort, ride and handling and fuel economy.

One other gripe is narrow running boards that fill with snow and ice. Being narrow, you tend to lift your leg over them to enter or exit rather than step on them, and in trying to avoid using them, you rub pant legs against the snow and ice.

Positives include wide outside mirrors that provide good side and rear view, outside temperature reading and a compass in the dash, an easy-to-use transfer case to engage 4WD with a diagram in the dash that lights up two or four wheels to signal what mode you are in, an in-dash power plug for accessories and a swing-out rear door with spare tire (plastic cover optional) attached so you don't need to move the spare to get at the rear door.

Montero comes with dual air bags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, AM/FM with cassette, air conditioning, fold/tumble second-row seats and fold/recline third-row seats, cruise control, digital clock, toolbox, 15-inch all-season tires, power mirrors, rear window washer/wiper/defroster.

Optional upgrades are expensive. The luxury package that adds leather seats, power sunroof (over the rear seat passengers) and power driver's seat runs $2,787; the cold-weather package with heated seats/mirrors, rear differential lock and headlamp washers runs $774; the premium package with adjustable shock settings for softer or firmer ride (we noticed little difference) plus chrome-plated alloy wheels runs $1,110; and the value package with floor mats, roof rack, CD changer, keyless entry and spare-tire cover runs $2,439.

That's more than $7,000 in convenience features added to the $33,530 base price--plus $445 in freight.

>> 1998 Mitsubishi Montero Wheelbase: 107.3 inch s Length: 188 inches Engine: 3.5-liter, 200-h.p., 24-valve V-6 Transmission:4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 16 m.p.g. city/19 m.p.g. highway Base price: $33,530 Price as tested: $40,640. Add $2,787 for luxury package with premium sound system, stereo and cassette, leather seats, power sunroof and power driver's seat; $2,439 for value package with floor mats, cargo net, roof rack, CD changer, wood grain accents, keyless entry, spare-tire cover and wheel locks; $1,110 for premium package with adjustable shocks and chrome-plated alloy wheels; and $774 for cold-weather package with heated seats/mirrors, headlamp washers and locking rear differential. Freight runs $445. Pluses: Four-wheel-drive for Snow Belt. Seven seats and swing-open rear cargo door with spare attached. Minuses: Needs styling overhaul and weight loss to boost mileage.

>>