Five years ago, the compact sport utility vehicle market hardly existed. Today, however, it is not only a different game but that game appears to be afoot. This segment of the market is one of the fastest growing in the industry and sales are expected to go over 500,000 this year.

Little wonder then that everyone wants to get in the act. The latest entry in the competition is the four-wheeling Nissan Pathfinder, an upscale compact utility vehicle that is not the least bit utilitarian.

The test vehicle, a top-of-the-line SE model, in fact, had the appointments and accessories of a luxury vehicle and had little fear of being used for anything as mundane as work. But with a price tag of over $18,000, it should have something.

Price alone, however, does not appear to be a deterrent in this market - all sport utility vehicles are relatively expensive. Nissan market research surveys show that the typical buyer of a compact sport utility vehicle is a college-education man in his mid-30s, married with two children and an annual income of around $40,000. The vehicle is used primarily for commuting.

Also, according to the surveys, while buyers are interested in getting value for their money, exterior styling and interior roominess are of greater concern than price when choosing a compact sport utility vehicle. Nissan obviously took these studies to heart since the Pathfinder's interior is quite roomy - it has the usual five passenger configuration; two individual seats up front and a folding bench seat in the rear - and the exterior does have its own distinct styling.

Although there is really not much that can be done with utility vehicle styling - they all look like truck-type station wagons - Nissan certainly gave it a try. The design, a result of a collaborative effort between Nissan Design International of San Diego and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. of Tokyo, features a sloping hood, raked windshield, long doors and a triangular vent window built into the quarter-panel glass. Also, the lines in general are somewhat rounded to give it a more aerodynamic look.

There is no mistaking the Pathfinder for anything other than a Nissan when you slip behind the wheel. The dash, instruments, controls and accessories have a familiar family look to them. The test car's interior had all the comforts of a car, which certainly should make it appealing to women buyers or to the wives of male buyers. The front seats recline, which is no big deal. However, the rear seat also reclines and this is a somewhat unique feature. The rear seat also folds out of the way to increase the fully carpeted cargo area from 31.4 cubic feet to 71.3 cubic feet.

Exterior dimensions of the Pathfinder include a wheelbase of 104.3 inches; overall length of 171.9 inches; height of 66.5 inches, width of 66.5 inches, and curb weight of 3,795 pounds. This makes it a shade bigger than most of its compet ition.

One thing, though, that did cause heads to turn was the huge wheels and tires on the test vehicle. These are truck 31X10.5R15s mounted on 7JJX15 alloy wheels. The big tires - optional on the SE and standard on the SE with sport/ power package - are the largest factory available tires on a compact utility vehicle and give the Pathfinder sort of a miniature monster truck look.

Driving the Pathfinder presents no particular problems. Like other utility vehicles, seating is high to give the driver a good command of the road and the surrounding glass allows good all around visibility. The five-speed manual transmission (standard, a three-speed automatic is optional) shifts smoothly and is geared somewhat on the high side. No doubt the big tires are taking up the gearing another notch. No big deal here but the test vehicle did have to be downshifted sometimes two gears for passing and/or picking up from a slowdown.

What prevented the tall gearing from becoming a problem or annoyance was the good performance of the fuel-injected V-6 engine. The 3-liter/181-cubic- inch engine also is used by Nissan to power its 300ZX, 200SX and Maxima. The version in the Pathfinder is rated at 140 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 166 foot pounds torque at 2,800 rpm. Acceleration, passing and mountain climbing power are all good - but, again, you do have to play the gear box.

The engine also provides good power for the four-wheel drive system. The test vehicle just churned and burned the deep snow. The system features shift- on-the-fly and high and low range. There was plenty of snow in which to test the Pathfinder and it made it though all kinds of hazardous driving situations. However, this is the main purpose of four-wheel drive and this is what you are paying for. The high four-wheel drive range is the only mode most drivers will ever need. Low range is primarily for plowing.

Another characteristic of 4WD utility vehicles is that none of them is especially noted for fuel mileage. EPA rates the Pathfinder with 5-speed and 3-liter V-6 at 15 mpg city and 18 mpg highway. Hardly anything to write home about. The test vehicle was driven through some nasty road conditions and spent a good deal of its running in four-wheel drive so, understandably, it did get lower mileage than the EPA figures. But on dry road driving it should at least get the EPA numbers.

Base price on the Pathfinder SE is $15,399. The base includes a high level of trim and standard features such as power steering, power brakes, rear window defroster, cruise control, tilt steering column, cloth seats and trim and a rear liftgate window that opens independently of the entire rear door. Full price, including a delivery charge of $225, came to $18,294. The two options were air conditioning at $770 and the Sport/power package at $1,900. This package included power windows, power door locks, dual power outside mirrors, AM/FM ETR cassette combo, sunroof, alloy wheels, 31X10.5R15 tires, fender flares spare tire carrier and adjustable shocks.

If you can forego some of the luxury and performance, the standard Pathfinder E has a base price of $12,299. This version, as can be expected, isn't as elaborately equipped. In fact, it comes with a 2.4-liter fuel injected four-cylinder engine and does not have a rear seat.