When Mitsubishi decided last year to rethink its rugged, rally-bred sport-utility vehicle, the Montero, it really tore up the original blueprints. In place of the old body-on-frame design, the 2001 model features unitized construction. A new rack-and-pinion steering system replaces the old recirculating-ball unit. To drive home the point that this is a much more civilized off-roader, the new Montero offers such car-like amenities as side air bags and a third-row bench seat that folds flat into the floor. The top-of-the-line Montero Limited ($36,942) that we tested even includes a power moon roof and a 175-watt Infinity audio system.

Does that mean the 2001 Montero is female- and family-friendly? Not by a long shot.

He: OK, before you say anything, let me be the first to admit that this new Montero is still pretty much a guy car - not for sissies. Despite a few idiosyncrasies and oddities, it's pretty terrific. Definitely a vehicle I wouldn't mind taking into the deep woods for some trout fishing and camping. I'm not sure how guys will react to the new styling, though.

She: I'm really turned off by the Ironman exterior and especially by a few key design cues, like the giant chrome side mirrors and the exaggerated fender flares. I am not comfortable with looking out over a vast expanse of hood when I'm driving. I can't get my hand around the scary shift lever that's just too big. And while the Montero claims to be "civilized," it doesn't have such basic comforts as lighted vanity mirrors or a hydraulic strut to hold up the giant hood. Should I go on?

He: And here I thought size didn't matter. Speaking of size, I was really impressed with the ride quality, which is greatly improved, thanks to a longer wheelbase and wider track, plus an all-independent suspension that features double wishbones in front and a multilink setup in the rear. The new rack-and-pinion steering system is more precise, but it still takes too much room to turn this puppy around. You never forget that you're driving a pretty substantial SUV, although not, thank goodness, as massive as the big domestic road hogs.

She: I have to tell you how I tested the Montero - with my female compatriots swarming all over the local landscape company. Yes, you can load hundreds of dollars worth of flowers, flats and hanging baskets into this big SUV. But here's where I feel uncomfortable. I was afraid to get the nice putty-colored leather seats and carpeting dirty with my gardening gear. Now if the Montero is so brawny, why didn't it have rubber mats you could hose off? It's trying to be tough, it's trying to be soft. Basically, it's trying to be too many things to too many people. Besides, I found it quite difficult to parallel park on a busy street. It's a beast.

He: No doubt. Just look at the powertrain. The 3.5-liter V-6 is a single-overhead-cam unit that makes 200 horsepower and a fairly substantial 235 pounds-feet of torque. Hon ey, even you can shift easily from two- to four-wheel drive with the floor-mounted lever, and there's a low range with locking differential for those really rocky mountain trails. I don't get the new five-speed Sportronic automatic, which lets you shift manually without a clutch - and who'd want to in this vehicle? And the fuel economy is nothing to boast about - 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway.

She: Why do I feel like you've got your nose stuck in the newspaper and you're ignoring me? Guess what? You can't have the Montero.

He: You'll notice I only gave it three stars. That's because in this class, the Toyota Land Cruiser is still the benchmark. But the Montero has surely come a long way from the old primitive hulk it used to be. Give Mitsubishi some credit. Their styling department at least had a sense of humor. If you don't believe me, check out that silly cartoon display in the center of the instrument panel.

She: Which I found t e totally distracting, especially since the time is located on it, and you have to take your eyes off the road to look at it. But I was impressed that the new Montero had 10 grab bars in the cabin. Is this a new version on the cup holder wars?

He: Bottom line - if you're looking for a tough off-roader that can do double-duty in the city, I'd definitely consider the Montero. But if you're really looking for something with a little more charm and sophistication - say, along the lines of the Lexus RX 300 or the Buick Rendezvous - I'd steer clear of this macho SUV.

Anita's rating: Acceptable

Paul's rating: Above average

Likes: Smooth ride. Surprisingly easy to maneuver. Clever third-row seat folds flat into floor. Far less trucklike than predecessor. Rugged with outstanding off-road capability. Goofy, out-of-the-box styling (Paul). Not for sissies (Paul).

Dislikes: Mediocre fuel economy. Goofy styling (Anita). Cartoonish LCD display looks cheap.

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, seven-passenger sport-utility vehicle

Price: Base, $35,497; as tested, $36,942 (inc. $545 destination charge).

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 200-hp; 235 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,737 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Japan