We can picture a lot of couples standing in the parking lot of a Suzuki dealership arguing about the merits and flaws of the 1997 Sidekick JLX. It's what we did, after all.

If you're a sport-ute snob, you're going to criticize the rather primitive styling and construction of this Japanese-designed, Canadian-built compact. But if you're used to juggling the family books and budget, you may be able to see past its shortcomings to the fact that this is a fully loaded vehicle that still avoids the dreaded $20,000 mark - by $81.

A real power struggle. But it's what makes car shopping so much fun for couples.

She: You're turning into a sport-ute snob by giving the Sidekick only one star. For a lot of people, the Suzuki is going to represent real value and it may be one of the few sport-utes that's still affordable to the masses. I gave it two stars because Suzuki is trying valiantly to remain competitive with the fresh faces. You were just mad because you couldn't figure out how to open the fuel door on the Sidekick. You had to read the owner's manual. Admit it.

He: Trying valiantly? Gimme a break. The Suzuki/General Motors joint venture has been building the same basic design up in Canada for nearly 10 years, and it still looks and feels coarse and unrefined. Considering all the new models in the segment, the Sidekick doesn't even qualify as middle-of-the-road anymore.

Even the Jeep Wrangler's been redesigned in the past year. And so what if I had to check the owner's manual? It's not like I'm one of those macho guys who's afraid to ask for directions.

Besides, you couldn't find the fuel-door release lever either. It was not labeled and hidden under the edge of the carpeting by the front seat. I was getting ready to give up and ask the gas-station attendant for help.

She: All your complaints about the Suzuki are minor. Look at the big picture. Here's a sport-utility that does a lot of stuff right. The instant I sat in it I was awed by the unusually large windows that give you superior visibility.

You can easily whip in and out of parking spaces, and the styling doesn't look that dated. It's got those two-tone body panels that remind me of the Mercury Mountaineer. Yeah, the shape's boxy. But so what? The Wrangler is boxy, too. And that's considered a classic design.

He: I suppose you're right. Funny, now that I look at it again, the Sidekick seems to have been the styling inspiration for the new 1998 Subaru Forester. But that's kind of damning with faint praise because the Forester looks like a throwback, too. But let's talk about stuff like ride comfort, shall we?

She: No, let's talk about safety. Before I drove it, my big worry with the Sidekick was that it's so tall, it might feel tippy on curves. It didn't. And on the top-of-the-line JLX model that we drove, four-wheel antilock brakes are standard. There are also daytime running lights, plus child safety locks on the rear d oors. I find that comforting.

But I didn't have a problem with the ride either. I had bigger problems with the stereo controls, which were too small to easily read or operate. Not that that's a big issue. Oh, and there's no roadside assistance. Now that's irritating.

He: Not as irritating as the seat of your pants after you've bounced around for 20 miles or so in the Sidekick. This is one ornery mule.

I've driven full-size four-wheel-drive pickup trucks that were far more comfortable and easier to maneuver than the Sidekick.

As for standard features on the JLX, all the fancy equipment in the world can't disguise the fact that this is one of the most unevenly built vehicles we've seen in a while. It took me about five seconds after climbing in to notice the gap between the top and bottom of the console.

You could see the wiring harness underneath! The impression that leaves is one of a crude and primitive vehicle, which the Suzuki is not. But t echnology is dated, and so are the looks and creature comforts.

I can't imagine why anyone in the market for a vehicle like this would rather spend $20,000 on the Sidekick rather than an RAV4 or a CR-V.

She: Because once you start loading up a RAV4 or a CR-V with all the goodies that you get standard on the Sidekick JLX, it's easy to get the sticker up over $20,000. And that might edge quite a few buyers out of the segment.

I agree that the Sidekick isn't as refined on the inside as something like the Honda sport-ute. The Suzuki does have an abundance of black plastic inside the cabin. But I think cost-conscious buyers can handle that. They want the fun ride of a sport-ute - and they are going to get it with the Sidekick.

They are going to get decent power with the JLX's standard 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine. And they get wonderful standard features like air conditioning, cruise control and a rear-window defogger. I think you should lighten up on the Sidekick.

He: I think you should lighten up on Lienert. And thank that gas-station attendant for being so patient. Wonder how many stars he'd give the Sidekick ...

1997 Suzuki Sport JLX 4WD

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

Price: Base, $19,199; as tested, $19,619 (includes $420 destination charge).

What's new for '97: No changes.

Standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows and door locks, remote control side mirrors, dual cup holders, split fold rear seat, carpeting, tachometer, dual front door map pockets, security alarm system with remote control, Alpine AM/FM stereo cassette with four speakers, cruise control, front spotlights, passenger vanity mirror, tinted glass, rear window defogger, intermittent windshield wiper, spare tire cover, 5-spoke alloy wheels, 215/65R16 steel-belted radial tires.

Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes, rear-door child safety locks, daytime running lights.

Options on test vehicle: None.

EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

Engine: 1.8-liter four-cylinder; 120-hp at 6500 rpm; 114-lb-ft torque at 3500 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Geo Tracker LSi, Toyota RAV4, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Isuzu Rodeo.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 97.6 inches; overall length, 162.4 inches; curb weight, 2,954 pounds; legroom, 42.1 inches front/32.7 inches rear; headroom, 40.6 inches front/38.6 inches rear; shoulder room, 50.3 inches front/50.2 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $989. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is age 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Ingersoll, Ontario.