Jeep Wranglers have never been first-round draft choices among those who do other things while driving. Like listening to Berlitz tapes, whispering last night's sweet remembrances into cell phones, keeping eyelashes untangled, staying dry or shutting out diesel allergens.

On the other hand, Wranglers are proven sanity savers for fortunates who remember the GIs Willie and Joe, will not raise any convertible top until Des Moines is under 3 feet of snow, and don't lose one shred of lettuce while eating tacos at freeway speeds.

Such freer spirits can also recite the 55-year genesis of this beloved crusher of several million kidneys.

Wrangler was a military brat born as the World War II Willys-Overland MB that took the high ground on Iwo Jima before Land Rovers had tasted their first mud puddles. This very first of the tackle-anything, four-wheel drivers gathered civilian fame through the '50s as the M38, which evolved into tough and chunky CJs that survived into the late '80s.

All that heritage is guaranteed to grow with the 1997 Wrangler--if only because today's technology has still not been allowed to muck up yesterday's romance.

OK, so the new Wrangler is a long way from Nellybelle. The horn is no longer a thumb button. Would that one could again fire it up by toeing the starter and heeling the gas pedal.

But on this icon, the windshield still folds flat and doors close like lids on a lunch bucket. Door hinges, bolts, tow hooks and hood latches remain bare, ugly and purposeful from hood to swing gate. The front end is a retrospective with round headlights and a six-bar grille that has been Jeep's signature since the first civilian sod-buster, the CJ2A of 1945.

(Those round headlights, incidentally, are Chrysler's concession to the obsession and Wrangler passion that created a recent flood of rebel T-shirts stenciled with: "Real Jeeps Don't Have Square Headlights.")

Above all, this Wrangler still performs with bulldog push, shows the blocky bad looks of a county jail and retains its unique talent for crashing through all elements while unkinking the frustrations of those bouncing aboard.

Even better, such therapy remains generally affordable.

For students on medium pepperoni pizza diets, prices start at $12,985 for a bare-bones Wrangler SE with manual transmission, direct steering and a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine developing 120 horsepower. Two air bags are standard, but air conditioning, bumpers and even roll-up windows are optional.

For boomers spending their youngsters' inheritances on adult playthings, a Wrangler Sahara with automatic transmission and a 4.0-liter, 181-horsepower in-line six borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee will sell for $19,000. Maxed out by a 60-accessory Mopar wardrobe--including tubular bumpers, brush guards, anti-lock brakes, side steps and mountain bike carriers--the grand total could touch $25,000 .

But expect average prices to hover around $21,000 for a pleasantly appointed Wrangler Sport with the big engine, roll cage, soft top, automatic transmission, fog lamps, air conditioning, premium sound and smart 15-inch alloy wheels shod with grabby Goodyears.

Both engines are about the same as last year. So is the availability of a hard top, full-size or half-height doors, windup windows or side curtains. Also the floor-mounted, shift-on-the-fly,four-wheel-drive system.

But the interior is quite new; handsome in its simplicity with an instrument package and heater / radio controls stacked vertically rather than reaching horizontally across the cabin.

Belts hold driver and passengers well in comfortable bucket seats, except when the ride goes off-road and among the lumps.

With a large glove box, a small dash tray for sunglasses and Lifesavers, door pockets and a center cubby reaching to Sydney, there's plenty of room for the trappings of h avy commuting. But little space for the light victuals of quick picnics.

The canvas top, Jeep says, has been made easier to raise and lower. And dinosaurs are roaming Catalina Island. The owner manual contains 10 pages covering this easier operation, which, first time out, could take 30 minutes, three split finger nails and four teaspoons of knuckle blood.

Yet undeniably improved for '97 are smoother, quieter engines with increased pulling power at low- to mid-range speeds.

The suspension has also been extensively reworked with primitive leaf springs replaced by coils. So on-road, the Wrangler ride is finally free of steering wanders. Off-road, the bouncing will not detach retinas.

Still, this vehicle remains an indulgence for those willing to tolerate huge compromises. With top up, the canvas flaps noisier than Santa Anas across a house bagged for termites. Top down, a day at the wheel might require a week of zinc oxide facials.

A dicey combination of short wheelbase and high profile do not encourage sharp movements at high speed. Polite conversation is a continual bellow. A Wrangler doesn't score well at the gas pumps, its trunk is a footlocker offered as an option, and the average highway construction site generates less road noise.

But the reward is pure automotive pleasure, a total damning of conformity and an overdose of alfresco exhilaration positioned somewhere between bungee jumping and touching a mountain top.

As sport utility prices grope for $40,000 and beyond, as Lexus and Acura head for softer ground populated by Range Rover and companion padded trucks, the tough, inexpensive appeal of Wrangler will not diminish.

But there's fierce yapping among other small-fry sport utes selling for about $20,000.

Suzuki is a contender with its Sidekick convertible and two-seat X-90 puddle jumper. Geo and Kia are improving players with their light, undersized off-roaders.

Onlythree months fresh to American shores, Toyota's RAV4 is already uncomfortably close to matching Wrangler's sales figures. And this month, Honda announced December plans to introduce its CR-V mini sport utility to American motorists.

In the month ahead, Behind the Wheel will wrangle both newcomers.

1997 Jeep Wrangler 4.0L Sport

The Good Same tough, scrappy puppy that brought grandpa back from World War II. New suspension and improved engine add softness and polish to ride and performance. Round headlights in retro grille prove Chrysler-Jeep listens to its customers.

The Bad Easier to wrestle a bear than Wrangler top. Gas greedy.

The Ugly Life without Jeeps.

Cost Base: $16,682 (Includes two air bags, automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, power steering, coil suspension and rear bumper.) As tested: $21,415 (Includes tilt steering, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, si de steps, fog lamps and 19-gallon fuel tank.)

Type Front engine, four-wheel drive, convertible sport utility.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, 10 seconds with automatic. Top speed, 98 mph. Gas consumption, EPA average, city and highway, 15 and 18 mpg.