The 1991 Jeep Cherokee is one fine utility machine.

No disputing that.

The Cherokee offers four doors to make it easy to load the family. There`s no fighting with levers to fold seats so that the kids can crawl over the seats with their snow-caked shoes to get in back.

And Cherokee offers 4-wheel drive, which makes it relatively safe to venture out with the family loaded in the vehicle when a foot of snow is covering the pavement. Best yet, you can shift from 2-wheel to 4-wheel drive on the fly just by slipping the lever on the transfer case down one notch.

No qualms about the importance of four doors and 4-wheel drive.

The Cherokee has lots of power from its 4-liter, 190-horsepower 6- cylinder engine. The engine moves the passengers and their luggage without strain. And the Cherokee protects its occupants from potential road hazards with optional antilock brakes that prevent wheel lockup and skidding on slick roads.

What more can you ask?

How about some new pricing to make the machine more affordable for the masses?

For several years the Cherokee was the only game in town when it came to four-door utility vehicles. Ford and Chevy, in their infinite wisdom, chose to build two-door compact Blazers and Bronco IIs. Finally, for 1991, Ford and Chevy started building four-door models.

The thud you hear in the background is the door slamming at Jeep dealerships, where customers are becoming conspicuously absent. Jeep dealers are hurting from the new competition.

When Cherokee was the only four-door utility vehicle, consumers were willing to pay whatever was asked-$24,000 to $28,000.

Now that Chevy and Ford have two more doors, too, those price tags suddenly can`t be justified. The folks from Chrysler got a bit greedy in pricing the Cherokee, and the pricing policy has begun to backfire on them.

It`s noticeable in calls and letters from readers who say they test-drove a Cherokee but bought a Blazer or Explorer because the Jeep simply cost too much.

The lowest-priced Chevy Blazer S-10 starts at $15,085, and the cheapest Ford Explorer at $15,406. We just finished testing the four-door Cherokee Sport, with a base price of $15,437 and a bottom line of $19,596. Not bad, but this was not a fully equipped vehicle.

To keep the price tag below $20,000, the Cherokee was missing some items that would have made the utility vehicle a more pleasant and functional machine, especially in the Snow Belt.

Missing were rear-window defroster ($147), power seats ($416), power windows ($100) and power mirrors ($582 in a package that includes power door locks). Also missing was a driver-side air bag, a safety feature that won`t be offered in the Jeep utility lineup until 1993, when the new ZJ addition to the lineup appears sporting the safety device.

Tinted glass is standard, which is fine to reduce sun glare coming th rough the glass. But a rear-window defroster provides visibility day or night, sun or snow, rain or frost. The ability to see is a safety factor, and the $147 for the defroster is a small price to pay.

A 4-wheel drive utility vehicle is designed to get you started and keep you moving during inclement weather. That means facing lots of situations in which you have to scrape or clear ice, frost or snow from the glass. Without the defroster, the rear glass on the Cherokee we tested needed frequent clearing, not just an annoyance, but a hazard.

The prices for the Blazer S-10 and the Explorer include some of the items the Cherokee lacks, as well as larger engines.

If you want to keep the price of a 4-wheeler below $20,000, skimping on a defroster isn`t the way to do it. Better the folks from Jeep left off the ``unique sport striping.``

About those power mirrors: While driving the Cherokee during the recent snows, we found rolling down the driver` window to adjust the mirror an annoyance. And having to stop and pull over to adjust the right-side mirror was even more of a pain.

Again, a 4-wheeler is designed to perform at its best when the driving conditions are the worst. You don`t get the full benefit of 4-wheel drive`s foul-weather capabilities when the mirrors become an obstacle rather than a friend.

And power door locks aren`t frivolous on a vehicle that will be called upon to haul the family under less-than-ideal road conditions. It would be nice to press a button and know the little ones in back are secure. Without power locks, how many times have you stopped in your tracks along about Aisle 3 in the grocery to ask little Joey if he locked his back door?

If Jeep wanted to keep the tag below $20,000, better it left off the ``aluminum wheels.``

Power windows, at $100, you can live without-unless you stop at three toll booths each day or don`t have power mirrors and have to keep rolling the glass down to adjust them.

Power seats at $416 you can do without, too. The Cherokee has a handy lever under the front seat that quickly adjusts fore and aft movement to put you within the proper distance from steering wheel and pedals.

Standard equipment includes power brakes and steering, 15-inch radials, a 20-gallon fuel tank, AM/FM stereo, carpeting, fender flares and front air dam. Options on the test vehicle included $799 for anti-lock brakes, $877 for automatic transmission, $394 for selec-trac 4-wheel drive, $836 for air conditioning and $137 for reclining front bucket seats. The preferred option group, which converted a base Cherokee into the Sport by adding decorative wheels and tires, striping and the 4-liter engine, ran $1,009.

By the way, a 4-liter V-6 is standard in the Ford Explorer, and a 4.3- liter V-6 in the Blazer S-10. Base engine in the Cherokee is a 2.5-liter 4- cylinder.