"Hey, is that some new kind of station wagon or what?" asked John, one of the contractors working on our house. "It kind of looks like a Volvo."

"Or what" is probably as accurate a description as any for the 2002 Isuzu Axiom, a sport-utility vehicle that thinks it's a tall wagon. No doubt that was the Japanese automaker's intent when it first unveiled the Axiom's earliest antecedent, the Zaccar concept vehicle, at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show and its successor, the ZXS.

The most distinctive styling cue that has been carried over from the show cars to the production model is the aggressive front end, which to Anita resembles an angry football player with an oversize facemask. But we both felt the Axiom behaved in a far more civilized manner than your typical NFL linebacker on Monday night TV. We just couldn't decide on exactly what to call it or how to classify it.

That's ironic considering the definition of the name Axiom, which was selected by American Isuzu from thousands of entries in an Internet contest. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, the word axiom means "a statement universally accepted as true; a self-evident truth."

What's not immediately evident from a walk-around and a test drive is just what consumer group Isuzu has targeted with the Axiom.

The two-wheel-drive Axiom XS that we tested was priced at $28,850, which we consider to be the upper end of the affordability range for the average buyer. But it's not clear if Isuzu wants to attract truck owners or SUV owners - or even station wagon owners.

Automakers these days are scrambling to come up with new twists on the old sport-utility theme, in part to accommodate younger buyers, including those with families who are reluctant to purchase more conventional vehicles such as station wagons and minivans.

Some have turned to passenger cars, as did Toyota, when it used its best-selling Camry sedan as the mechanical base for its new Highlander crossover vehicle. Others have started with a minivan as the foundation - precisely Pontiac's path in fashioning the bizarre Aztek crossover from its mundane Montana.

Now Isuzu, a GM affiliate with deep roots in trucks and sport-utility vehicles, has put its own spin on this emerging market segment. The Axiom is built on the body-on-frame chassis of the Isuzu Rodeo, a more traditional SUV. Both models are assembled in Lafayette, Ind., by Subaru-Isuzu Automotive.

The Axiom departs from the Rodeo in significant ways. As our curious contractor observed, it looks more like a car-based crossover than a conventional sport-ute, thanks in part to its edgy styling. Although it has a full frame underneath it, like the truck-based Rodeo, the Axiom could pass for a tall-roof wagon - something like the BMW X5 or the Acura MDX.

We've admired earlier Isuzu sport-utes like the Rodeo and its more expensive cousin, the Trooper, for their ruggedness and feeling of solidity, especially offroa d. With the Axiom, Isuzu has created a more sophisticated spinoff that looks more at home on Woodward than in the northern Michigan woods. So don't let that football-player look scare you off.

Because of its tougher truck underpinnings, the Axiom suffers a little bit in terms of ride quality, but feels quite sturdy and surprisingly nimble, thanks in part to variable-assist power steering. Our test model was fitted with huge Goodyear 235/65R17 tires, yet Anita complained that even the 17-inch rubber didn't fill the wheel wells adequately.

We suspect the four-wheel-drive Axiom might seem even more "trucky" and not so roadworthy, with a slightly bouncier ride than the two-wheel-drive edition.

The Axiom borrows the outstanding twin-cam 3.5-liter V-6 from the Trooper, and it makes all the difference in terms of acceleration and responsiveness. This is one of the more peppy six-cylinder engines in the segment, delivering 230 horsepower.

Although it doesn't make a uch power, at least on paper, as the same-size engine in the Nissan Pathfinder, the Isuzu feels quicker than the Nissan, due in part to more aggressive transmission gearing. The four-speed automatic transmission fitted to our test vehicle also shifted smoothly and seemed nicely geared to take full advantage of the engine's broad power band.

Fuel economy on the two-wheel-drive model is an average 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.

Isuzu backs up the engine and transmission with one of the best powertrain warranties in the business, good for 10 years or 120,000 miles.

While its mechanical features are impressive, it's the snazzy cabin that sets the Axiom apart from many of its SUV counterparts. Where rivals such as the Pathfinder and the Toyota 4Runner lean more toward bland, generic designs borrowed from the companies' compact pickup trucks, the Axiom we tested boasted a splashy black-and-tan cockpit with metallic trim that's inviting and decidedly untrucklike.

Front seats were quite comfortable, although the narrow rear doors make it difficult to climb in and out of the back seat - a potential problem with families toting infant seats and for older passengers.

The cargo bay is noteworthy for its functionality and clever little design details, including a washable rubber mat and a hammock-like cargo net.

We don't know how to label it and we're still not certain exactly who the target audience is for the Axiom, but we're convinced after spending a week behind the wheel that it's a worthy player in the sub-$30,000 vehicle market.

As the Cowardly Lion once proclaimed: "Ain't it the truth? Ain't it the truth?"