By the mid-1980s, the youth of America had fallen head over taillightsfor utility vehicles-especially those offering four-wheel, off-the-road, down-to-the-beach freedom.

But the love became unrequited when potential buyers looked at the window stickers and realized it would take sole possession of the winning lotteryticket for them to be able to afford one.

Then along came the Suzuki Samurai, a miniaturized four-wheeler with afour-figure price tag. Yet the Samuari solution to the demand/price quandaryfor youth seeking four-wheelers touched off a furor; word circulated that whenit came to safety, the Samurai`s petite size and weight meant that about theonly vehicle you could run into without coming out second best would be a 10- speed bike. (Some still bet on the bike.)

So youth had a vehicle they could afford, but one that Mom, Dad and theinsurance salesman frowned upon.

That little two-door Samurai utility vehicle was built on a 79.9-inchwheelbase and was only 135 inches long. Put a lamp next to it and you`d have alove seat for your den, not a car for the open highway that would have to vie with semis and buses for a patch of concrete.

Things got a bit better when the two-door Sidekick came along three years ago. If the Samurai was a Munchkin, the Sidekick was a slightly larger Smurf, built on an 86.6-inch wheelbase and 142.5 inches long overall. The love seathad grown to a couch.

Now comes another model in the Suzuki stable, the four-door Sidekick.With the addition of two extra doors the wheelbase has swelled to 97.6 inches and the length to 158.7 inches.

The size is now respectable. Unfortunately, the sticker put on somemuscle, too. Base prices start at $11,999 for the four-door JX with 5-speed;$12,599 with automatic; $12,999 for the upgraded JLX with manual; $13,599 withautomatic. We test-drove the JLX with automatic.

All offer four-wheel drive as standard, which is engaged by a floor-mounted transfer case neatly located out of the way of the manual orautomatic gearshift lever.

In graduating from the two-door Samurai to the two-door Sidekick to thefour-door, one of the more pleasant findings is that not only has the vehicle finally gotten bigger, but the fuel-injected 1.6-liter, 80 horsepower engine also seems to have gotten peppier.

The EPA rating is 22 m.p.g. city/23 highway with automatic, 23/25 withmanual.

The automatic provides an added benefit in that by not having a clutch to fool with, you can set the driver`s seat back further for added room andcomfort and the feeling you aren`t so close to any potential point of impact. One drawback to moving the seat back is the fact you`ll fight sun glarefrom the side window. The sun visor either needs to be about 2 inches longeror be equipped with a short pullout extension to more adequately serve thedriver`s side.

While the four-door model is larger than its kin, make no mist ake thatthis might be another Explorer or Blazer. It only takes a few miles of travel along the Kennedy Expressway in the evening rush hour to realize that whenbehind the wheel of a Sidekick, regardless of the number of doors, you keep aneye peeled for those semis coming up from the rear, perhaps less than 158.7inches away.

And tight corners or turns should still be taken as gingerly as in aSamurai or two-door Sidekick. Though the Sidekick doesn`t stand as high offthe ground as an Explorer or Blazer, you still feel the extra height needed toaccommodate the four-wheel-drive hardware and therefore the raised center ofgravity that makes high-speed maneuvering foolhardy.

On the plus side, Sidekick offers antilock brakes to keep it pointedstraight when you hit the binders, regardless of road surface. Too bad itdidn`t carry safety a step further and offer a driver`s-side air bag, too.

One other gripe with the Sidekick was the steering wheel. A handly leverall ows you to adjust it up or down depending on the desire of the driver.That`s good. But the wheel rattled in its housing. That`s not good.

As for the good points, the rear tailgate swings open very wide to allowfor easy entry or removal of cargo. The tailgate lip is low, which makesloading or unloading easy. And the rear seatbacks fold to enlarge thevehicle`s capacity.

The spare tire is enclosed in a lockable plastic case that reduces thelikelihood of theft or vandalism. It also looks neater and cleaner than anill-fitting vinyl dirt-catching cover that`s not easy to wash.

We saved the evaluation of the rear seat for last, fully expecting thetwo rear doors to simply be dressing for what would turn out to be extremelycramped quarters.

Wrong! There`s abundant leg, hip and arm room in the back seat for twoample-sized adults. Head room is voluminous. The folks from Chevrolet shoulddrop Suzuki a note and ask how they got so much room in a small package, andthen apply what they learn to the back seat of the GEO Storm.

Another item that merits attention is the size of the outside mirrors. It seems that in the interest of aerodynamics most automakers are making themirrors more rounded but smaller. The Sidekick mirrors are big, and that makesfor great rear visibility.

Standard equipment in the JLX we drove included power brakes andsteering, rear-wheel antilock brake system, power windows and door locks, AM/ FM stereo with cassette, 15-inch steel-belted all-season radial tires,electric rear-window defroster, rear-window washer/wiper, dual power mirrors, intermittent wipers, and remote fuel lid and rear tailgate release. Airconditioning is a $679 option.