Comparisons are inevitable and a conclusion appears undeniable.

Last year, the four-wheel-drive Suzuki Samurai, a surfer's best friend ahead of Coppertone and board wax, was condemned by Consumer Reports for its tendency to roll over.

Three months later, Suzuki introduced the four-wheel-drive Sidekick. In a cooperative marketing move with Suzuki, Chevrolet adopted the vehicle as part of its new Geo line and named it Tracker. The Sidekick/Tracker twins are virtually identical. They also are longer, broader, heavier and much more inclined to motor upright.

The conclusion: Here, very quietly and quite subtly, must be Suzuki's covert sport-utility replacement for the wobbly Samurai.

"Not at all," insisted Laura Segall, a spokesperson for Suzuki. "There are no plans to discontinue production of the Samurai."

For one thing, she added, despite the disabling publicity and a subsequent sales crash, the Samurai was not mortally wounded. In fact, after Suzuki's counterattack identified vehicles with worse rollover records, Samurai sales began recovering.

And as for the Sidekick/Tracker coming in as a hastily summoned addition/replacement for the disparaged Samurai . . . well, Segall said, the Samurai was condemned in June and the Sidekick was unveiled in September. It takes a good deal more than three months, she said, and more like three years, to bring a new vehicle from design drawings to assembly line.

With Sidekick/Tracker, Segall explained, the demographics of the vehicle "have gone up 15 years to buyers in their mid- to late 30s, people who want luxury items in their four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"Now there's a choice . . . from a low end (Samurai) at $8,400 to a vehicle (Sidekick/Tracker) in the $12,000 range."

Actually, the choice should be easy--for those who don't have to squeeze nickels.

For what the Samurai did wrong, the Sidekick/Tracker has done right. The Samurai, despite its visual charm and unique place as a plaything, was jouncy, slow and motored with the grace of a rock in a coffee can. The Sidekick/Tracker is smoother, less utilitarian and much more First World.

And those who recently purchased Samurais may be forgiven for considering hara-kiri.

The parallel marques of Geo Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick are the standard omnium-gatherum of vinyl or fabric upholstery, manual or automatic transmissions, carburetion or injection.

Broadly speaking, Suzuki offers a 1.3 liter or 1.6 liter Sidekick and a full list of luxuries from tilt steering wheel to cruise control. Geo's Tracker is bare of the slicker options and is available with only the heftier engine.

Both are sold as hardtops or convertibles--and all versions are delivered with incurable cases of the cutes.

Our Geo Tracker was in ladybug red with a white top. Here was mischief in search of any kid who ever wore a baseball cap backward. It's the kind of car that would follow you home. Its daily want, clearly, is going for walks and playing in the mud.

But if pert and sassy were the requirements of today's marketplace, we'd still be buying Nash Metropolitans.

Fortunately for us, there's a solid vehicle and much seriousness beneath the Tracker's chuckles and visuals borrowed from Tonka.

Seating is high-backed buckets up front and a love seat behind. Front legroom is Laker length. On the road, rolling hard and belted in, there's full comfort for four. Off-road, there's very little shoulder banging.

Look Before You Unlatch

The back seat collapses and locks forward to open a hold large enough for a steamer trunk. But watch out when out of the vehicle and moving those front seats forward to reach into the back. With their oiled tracks and heavy return springs, the seats shoot forward faster than Madame La Guillotine.

Instrumentation and controls offer no surprises--except for the insis ence on a warning light instead of a full oil gauge. There are more grab handles than occupants have hands. Also dashboard recesses sized perfectly for early morning survival rations--two thermal coffee mugs and a box of chocolate doughnuts.

All in all, with its crank windows, carpets, door liners and fabric seats, the Tracker feels much more suburban cruiser than rural puddle stomper--a ratio that makes sense because most 4WD vehicles spend more time at stoplights than they do upsetting the Sierra Club.

What Geo/Suzuki has done with its convertible top is only one trick shy of miraculous. Heated or refrigerated air actually lingers inside the vehicle. Drafts and wind whistles are absent. The tight tenting allows easy conversations and a decent sound system and during February's chilly monsoons, not one drop trickled into the Tracker.

Unfortunately, such snugness is only be obtained by tight engineering. The downside of that is a lid that uses more zippers, snaps, straps, clips, catches and Velcro fasteners than an upmarket space suit.

This is a Rubic's top. Two of us took it down, working without blueprints. Two of us put it back up by educated guesswork. We would not have been surprised to find two zippers left over.

On the road, on a scale of onerous to terrific, the Tracker performs with aplomb.

If you drive a 280Z, the feeling will be of riding high. If you drive a Toyota 4x4 pickup, you'll be noticing light. But when body and mind settle down, here's a sensible balance of suspension, weight, torque, dimensions and vehicle purpose.

Handling is nowhere near as skittish as the Samurai. The roll and lumber factor is far from the discomfort of your father's Jeep.

Steering is true. Power is not blinding, but well up to freeway entry speeds and, once in the fast lane, better than adequate for those drivers who can think ahead. The five-speed gearbox, despite a reluctance to find third from second, has close and friendly ratios allowing fifth gear use at lower speeds.

Off-road, the Tracker doesn't want to play too long in the sand and for serious dune work, Bridgestones with a better bite are recommended. A 7.5-inch ground clearance isn't exactly a pair of stilts but that also is in meticulous keeping with the Tracker's concept--as a two-purpose, town-and-country recreation vehicle more suited for rough meadow than raw wilderness.

Transferring drive from two- to four-wheel is a simple nick and a shove against a stub lever that requires no fumbling with your passenger's kneecap.

The Tracker, however, comes with manually locking hubs. So plan ahead. Or settle for swamp water in your hightops.

Although more stable, although more controllable, the Tracker is not a vehicle that will end the debate over safety of the micro-mini 4x4s.

That argument, somewhat illogically, has been noisily centered on the design aspects of the vehicle . The mental engineering of drivers has been largely ignored.

Yet the essential truth is: No high profile, short wheelbase vehicle is as stable as a low profile, long wheelbase vehicle.

Manufacturers' stickers (there's one on the visor of every Tracker) warn us that sport-utility vehicles are twitchier than commuter cars. It's the identical message we received in our wonder years--when it was obvious that skateboards were more dangerous than roller skates, and motorcycles created more injury than bicycles.

Then, we recognized differences, our limits--and exercised caution.

As adults, we seem to have made caution a function of government. Or presume it to be a responsibility of the vehicle.

1989 Geo Tracker Convertible

The Good More fun than free rides at Disneyland. Snug canvas top keeps conversation in, Alaska blasters out. Enough performance to keep up with freeway meanies. Firm mattress ride, off-road as ell as on.

The Bad Manual locking hubs. Complicated convertible top.

The Ugly All of it--and that's the beauty of it.

Cost Base: $10,195. As reviewed: $11,024.

Engine 1.6 liter, four cylinder, fuel injected, developing 80 horsepower.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, in 14 seconds. Top speed, estimated by manufacturer, 87 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average 23 m.p.g. automatic, 26 m.p.g. manual.

Curb Weight 2,260 pounds.