Not every passenger vehicle is available with four-wheel drive but there are times it seems that way. The latest vehicle to join this ever increasing crowd is the Dodge Colt Vista, a rather homely but very practical little wagon that was doing OK as just a front-wheel drive vehicle. Now, though, you can have it your way.

Four-wheel drive may not be the main topic at every party in the Sunbelt nor is it likely to generate heated arguments in the flatlands, but here in the Northeast, which is not only in the Snowbelt but in the middle of mountains, four-wheel drive is taken seriously. And not only by men but by women who, at latest count, drive more than 16 percent of the nation's four- wheel drive vehicles (up from 7 percent 10 years ago). But you really don't have to read statistics to realize more women are driving these vehicles. Just take a look and count.

According to a recent survey, one of the main reasons women are driving or demanding four-wheelers is the greater peace of mind they provide all types of driving conditions. Because women are generally the ones hauling the kids around most of the time, you can't blame them for their concern. And because the Colt Vista looks like it was designed specifically as a kid hauler, more than likely a lot of women will be driving them. Men could also drive and appreciate this vehicle, but somehow I feel this is going to be a women's car, just as many of the other small four-wheel drive passenger-type vehicles are.

The test car (supplied by Rothrock Motor Sales, 15th Street and Route 22, South Whitehall Township) proved to be a likeable little vehicle that was an absolute snap to drive. If there is a drawback to it, it is the lack of an automatic transmission option. It comes only with a five-speed manual and potential buyers are either going to have to shift for themselves or pass. The four-wheel drive system, though, is bulletproof and could probablybe operated by an untrained gorilla.

The system is activated by an electric button on the gear shift level knob. To get slightly, though not overbearingly, technical, the button operates a manifold vacuum-powered actuator. The actuator engages a selector clutch, transferring power from the front differential via a bevel gear which drives a shaft leading to the rear differential. The system is entirely automatic and can be activated or disengaged on-the-fly. There are no external locking hubs to fool around with and a signal light tells the driver when the vehicle has shifted into four-wheel drive mode. Also, a limited slip rear differential system is available. This is a fairly recent development in small passenger-type four-wheel drive vehicles. It means that if one of the rear wheels loses traction and begins to slip on icy or soft surfaces, the system automatically transfers most of the drive torque to the rear wheel with greatest traction. All neat and sw eet.

The Colt Vista, either in two- or four-wheel drive versions, is billed as a seven-passenger compact station wagon, an apt term, though it really doesn't look like a station wagon nor does it look like a four-wheel drive vehicle. It sort of looks like a cross between a small van and a small wagon. Stylish, it is not. A rather interesting point, though not necessarily a compelling one, is that the Vista - imported by Chrysler Corp. from Mitsubishi Motors Corp. of Japan - is sold though both Dodge and Plymouth dealerships. Several years ago, Dodge and Plymouth models had separate names. But, obviously, that has been changed. (World War II buffs may recall that Mitsubishi manufactured the famed Zero fighter plane. What this has to do with the Vista is even beyond me.)

Although both versions may look alike, the four-wheel drive has a modified suspension system. Both have independent MacPherson front struts and rear independent struts with semi-trailing arms. ut rear torsion bars are used in place of coil springs on the four-wheeler. Also stabilizer bars are used front and rear. In addition to accommodating the four-wheel drive components, the changes increase road clearance from 5.5 inches to 8.3 inches. Power rack-and- pinion steering is standard as are P185/70R14 steel-belted radials. Handling is really decent (for this type of vehicle) and surprisingly, the ride isn't bad at all.

The 4WD Vista has a wheelbase of 103.5 inches, overall length of 174.6 inches, width of 64.6 inches, height of 59.6 inches and curb weight of about 2,400 pounds. As noted, it is a seven-passenger vehicle. The best mix for the seven would be two adults in front and five children in the back. (Seating is 2+3+2.) You could possibly squeeze in seven adults but they better be small and they better be congenial. Obviously, the Vista would make a suitable vehicle for a large family. Kids just love it. The middle seat slides forward to allow rear seat passengers in and the rear seats recline. There's all kinds of storage nooks and crannies and even beverage holders. With all seats in place, cargo space is 14 cubic feet. With rear seats folded, cargo space is increased to 37.4 cubic feet, and to 63.9 cubic feet with rear and second seats folded. Since the test vehicle had a roof rack, everything that can fit inside can be carried on the roof - not, of course, the children.

The Vista is powered by a 2.0 liter (121.9 cubic inch) four-cylinder, overhead cam, Mitsubishi Clean Air Jet engine. The engine develops 88 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 108 foot pounds torque at 3,500 rpm, which is enough to provide decent performance. The five-speed manual is easy to operate but first gear is very low (first is 4.967:1; second, 2.628:1; third, 1.549:1; fourth, 1.166:1, and fifth, 0.896:1). This simply means that you shift out of low fast and don't go back to it until stopped. To get an idea of just how low,first is geared, reverse has a higher 4.699:1 ratio. The engine- transmission combination, along with the relatively low weight of the Vista, provided good fuel mileage. City driving averaged 20 miles per gallon while highway cruising came to 28 mph. All on regular unleaded gasoline.

Base price for the Vista 4WD is $9,913. Considering all the standard equipment it comes with, this really isn't bad. In addition to the powertrain and four-wheel drive system, standard equipment includes: power brakes, console, rear defroster, locking fuel filler door with inside release, tinted glass, power steering, and a nice level of interior trim. Full price on the test car came to $10,687 (including a destination charge of $195). The few options were: carpet protectors, $26; limited slip differential, $158; rear wiper/washer, $100; luggage rack, $100, and AM-FM stereo radio, $195. Again, not a bad price.