One of the hottest automotive segments these days is the mini-ute, or small sport-utility vehicle. On the one hand, buyers of standard sport-utes have discovered they are thirsty (duh), and perhaps not the most rational choice, given that they are driven on pavement with only one person aboard much of the time. Plus they've gotten rather expensive, even excluding the Barnumesque luxury-class machines.

On the other hand, as younger buyers move up the affluence scale, they, too, want to be perceived as "with it," and their first new-vehicle purchase is likely to be of the sport-ute persuasion, though the reality of the payment math might necessitate going the mini route.

The big players on the mini scene are the Honda CR-V, which, being all-wheel-drive, is really more of a station wagon; the Toyota RAV4, ditto; the new Ford Escape (if they can ever stop recalling it) and its clone, the Mazda Tribute; Subaru Forester; Kia Sportage; Suzuki Vitara - Grand Vitara, and this week's guest, the Chevy Tracker.

The Tracker is the grizzled veteran of this bunch. It was introduced in 1989. Then, as now, major engineering contributions were made by Isuzu. Today's Vitaras and Trackers come out of the same plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada.

Though Tracker got a total redesign in 1999, it faces strong competition from a soon-to-be revised Honda CR-V and the new RAV4, which is even now dribbling into the supply pipeline. In addition to some trim changes, the 2001 Tracker goes onto the field of battle armed with two new engines. The base powerplant is now a 2-liter, all-aluminum four-holer worth 127 hp and 134 foot-pounds of torque, replacing a more asthenic 1.6-liter.

Also newly available is the V-6 that Grand Vitara has had for a couple of seasons. It's all-aluminum, double-overhead-cammed, and puts out 155 horses and 160 foot-pounds, which gives it bragging rights vis--vis its four-cylinder competitors, although the optional V-6 fitted in the Fordzda vehicles will kick sand in its face.

The Tracker is offered as both a two-door and a four-door, with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. The diminutive two-door is offered as a sort-of convertible - its nether half is covered by a plastic-and-canvas top that has garnered more than its share of curse words from aggravated owners. The others have a steel roof.

The two-door machine is the paradigm of the "cute ute," its stubbiness quite fetching, although, considering its wheelbase is a mere 86.6 inches, I would have serious concerns about its stability.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has crash-tested neither the Chev- nor Suzuki-labeled version of this machine. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted its 40-mph frontal offset crash test on the long-wheelbase version, and gave it an "acceptable" rating, the second-highest. The Subaru Forester gets the best-in-class rating, "good," on this test, the CR- V and the soon-to-be-replaced RAV4 the worst ("marginal"). A study commissioned by USA Today analyzed in mathematical terms the rollover propensities of a wide range of vehicles. The short-wheelbase, i.e., two-door, Vitara, Tracker and RAV4 had the unenviable distinction of being the worst. Don't let your kid talk you into one of these turtles.

Chevy has just released two new trim levels, the sporty ZR2 and the posher LT. I tested an LT four-door, four-wheel drive. The LT treatment includes a four-speed automatic transmission. The most distinctive appearance note is the silver lower side cladding, which makes for a very pretty machine, indeed.

This is as good as it gets - base price $21,230. The cheapest Tracker - the 2WD two-door - starts at $15,235.

I had a sufficiency of headroom and legroom, but felt constrained laterally, getting too familiar with the driver's door, which seemed thin and tinny, though it does have a side-intrusion beam. No attempt is to make the cabin feel luxurious, but contrasting shades and textures of vinyl are used to good effect.

The rear compartment is accessed via a rather narrow portal, but could accommodate a pair of grownups for trips of modest duration.

Cargo capacity is 20 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, 44 with them folded down. That's about triple a large car's trunk, but appreciably less than some of the competition. The Tracker is rated to tow up to 1,500 pounds, minus passengers and cargo. More often, the Tracker is the tow-ee, pulled behind a motor home. Chevy says only the 4WD models can be towed, at 50 mph or less, and the transfer case oil must be circulated every 200 miles. The transfer case is part of the 4WD mechanism. It's the part-time style, only usable on low-friction surfaces, and has a low and high range, as well as a neutral position for the aforementioned tag-along work.

Normally power is sent only to the rear wheels; sliding the lever into 4 Hi at speeds of up to 60 mph (very little effort required) quickly sends half the torque to the front wheels. Disengagement is similarly fast and low-effort. With an 8-inch ground clearance, Tracker could do the light-duty kind of off-roading non-nuts might be inclined to do. The trucklike body-on-frame construction argues for a bit more ruggedness than you'd find in the more carlike opponents.

The Tracker, despite the six-cylinder engine, felt somewhat lethargic until I discerned that the accelerator pedal requires an unusually high amount of pressure and a lot of travel. When I got into the throttle this way, the engine showed its potential. With a curb weight of just under 3,000 pounds and automatic transmission, the Tracker did well to slip in under 11 seconds in the 0-60 exercise.

A fairly high overdrive top gear lets the Tracker cruise at a relatively relaxed 2,500 rpm at 60 mph. Even so, EPA estimates are just 19 mpg city, 21 highway, thanks to the poor aerodynamics typical of the type. I managed 19.7, with a bit of 4WD foolishness, on regular unleaded.

Ride, for such a small vehicle, is decent, although shock suppression could be better. The Tracker felt reasonably stable in slalom tests, although you'd do well not to push it too hard. The machine sits on more-than-adequate 215 - 70 - 15 Goodyear Integrity all-season tires. A front stabilizer bar keeps roll fairly well in check.

The Tracker has hefty disc brakes in front - where most of the braking occurs - and smallish drums rear. Stopping distances were reasonable, and the optional antilock mechanism was reasonably unobtrusive and effective.

The rear hatch opens to the right, revealing a "cargo net" that is suspended, resembling a European hausfrau's mesh shopping bag. A security screen attaches to four hooks - two of which might better be Velcro.

"The included stereo is an AM-FM-CD affair, with decent tonality and middling tuner sensitivity.

The test machine had the antilock brakes, $595, and leather seating, $595. Total, with freight, was $22,845.

"The Gannett News Service"