There used to be a simpler time in this country: When cars ran like cars, trucks like trucks and the two never crossed paths. Cross-pollination was better reserved for petunias, not people movers. It was like mixing country music and metal, Stephen King with self-help guru Stephen Covey. Scary stuff.

When that ended, the can of worms popped out in the shape of this: the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, a truck that wants to drive like a car, is built like a truck, hauls stuff like a small van and, in many ways, is neither truckish nor carish. To top it all off, for 2002, the good folks at Mitsubishi even decided not to change its model name, opting instead for the same name as its larger cousin that's based on a car-like structure. Poor, Montero. Talk about an identity crisis.

When you begin to understand a few more things about the little SUV that wasn't, you really start to sympathize.

First off, the Montero Sport bears little resemblance to its full-size, seven-seat Montero sibling - and that's not necessarily a good thing. While the full-size Montero received a car-like unibody structure and an independent rear suspension for 2001, the five-seat Montero Sport stayed on the same truck-like track for '02. The problem is, that's not really what people want anymore.

When the SUV craze drove us into sport utility madness, most car companies wised up and delivered truck-like proportions with car-like parts. Not the Montero Sport. It's still very much your grandfather's truck underneath, except with most of the bad habits he'd rather forget - loose around the corners, harsh on rough roads, a little top-heavy and lots of sway.

I guess it never promised to be anything else.

About eight inches shorter than the full-size Montero (and Consumer Reports says less of a propensity for tipping than its bigger cousin), the Sport has a lower profile, is less upright and angular, and is more curvaceous on the exterior with running boards and extra body cladding. We think it's one of the best-looking junior SUVs around - and that's saying quite a bit.

Available in four trim levels - ES, LS, XLS and Limited - the Montero Sport comes with either two-wheel or four-wheel drive and several changes for 2002. The 197-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 is now standard on XLS and Limited models, while the ES and LS keep the 3.0-liter V6 powerplant.

The real bonus this season is a new ALL4-wheel drive (A4WD) system in four-wheel models that makes driving during inclement weather easier, with a setup that automatically applies power to the front wheels when needed. Want to really rough it? In extreme off-road mode, there is the choice of part-time four-wheel drive operation in both high- and low-range. But serious off-roading isn't something we'd feel safe recommending. Enter: the truck qualities.

Although it's called the Sport, the Montero suffers from a soft suspension, vague steering and significant cornering lean that left us wondering whether the Mid west highways had suddenly turned into the Hollywood hills. It's competent, for sure. But in this segment, against all that worthwhile competition, competence is not the goal anymore.

Ride quality is also harsh, more of that truck ride than its rivals and lots of rough-road jiggle. Cross winds are also a problem on the highway, with plenty of road noise.

The standard 3.5-liter V6 in the XLS and Limited is a worthy enough competitor, with good accelerating out of the blocks, and much better than the 3-liter, which seems to lack decent passing punch. The four-speed-automatic transmission is standard on all Montero Sports and reacts well. And the Montero 4WD and 2WD Limited get anti-lock brakes, a real must with a car that takes its time coming to a sudden stop.

Inside, the Montero is a mix of good and bad.

The good is in front-seat comfort and cargo capability that improves drastically when you take down the rear-bench seat. The bad is in its mid-size dimensions that don ke it easy to get in and out of, don't offer a lot of head room and don't present that truck-like size you'd expect. Cramping is a huge problem, especially with six-footers on board, and especially on the back bench seat that has a hard time squeezing in three adults.

The interior is attractive and logical, except for audio controls that are smaller than we'd like. There are multiple cupholders, multiple power outlets and seats with lumbar comfort - all things you look for in a hauler that can haul the family.

But the ride will not be cheap.

Not only does the Montero Sport give you only between 14 and 17 mpg at the pump, you'll also pay at the dealer. The Montero Sport ES starts at $22,747 in two-wheel drive, but quickly escalates all the way to $32,777 (before destination charges) in the Limited edition four-wheel drive. That ranks it slightly ahead of the TrailBlazer LTZ 2WD, but less than all-wheel-drive versions of the Explorer Limited or Envoy SLT.

For 32k, you'll get plenty of standard features, like power windows, mirrors and locks, a luggage rack, tinted glass, fog lamps, remote entry, auto-dimming mirror, power moonroof and heated leather seats. But it does not mean a side airbag, integrated child seat, traction control or stability control. Not good news when the Montero Sport rated "poor" for bumper bashes and "average" in passenger crash tests.

Clearly, there's still room to grow. And the Montero will. Mitsubishi says it's planning a redesign for 2004, as an '03 model, possibly to be produced on North American soil rather than the Far East. And it may even be car-based.

That may be appropriate. When it comes to mid-size SUVs, the Montero could use some tips from its domestic competitors.

By then, it might really know what it wants to be.

2002 MITSUBISHI MONTERO SPORT

Rating: 2

High gear: This smaller version of the Montero is attractive inside and out, offers comfortable seating and good cargo room that make it a willing competitor in a field flooded with other options. Response on the pedal is decent as is build quality.

Low gear: Despite its size, the interior feels cramped and entry/exit into the front and rear seats is awkward. The soft suspension, body motion and sloppy steering need upgrades. Fuel economy is also nothing to brag about.

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, front engine, four door, five-passenger, sport-utility vehicle.

Standard equipment (Limited): Four-speed automatic transmission; on demand four-wheel drive; bucket front seats; leather upholstery; driver seat with lumbar; heated seats; remote power locks; power windows; heated, power mirrors; cruise control; power glass sunroof; rear window wiper; step running boards; anti-lock brakes; front fog lights, power, tilt steering; air conditioning; AM/FM CD stereo.

Competition: Chevrolet Trailblazer, Ford Explorer, GMC Envoy

Engine (Limited): 197 horsepower, 3.5-liter V6

Torqu e (Limited): 223 foot-lbs. @ 3,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 107.3 inches

Length: 181.1 inches

MPG rating: 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway

Manufactured: Nagoya, Japan

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is five years/60,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is seven years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance warranty is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price (2WD, Limited): $32,887

Price as tested (AWD, Limited): $33,447