One of the strangest-looking new vehicles has to be the 1986 Nissan Stanza Wagon. The first time I laid eyes on one, I immediately thought of the old saying that a camel looked like an animal designed by a committee. Here, indeed, had to be a vehicle designed by the same committee.

In an age of sleek-looking, aerodynamic designed vehicles, the Stanza Wagon is a really throwback. And I'm not sure a throwback to just what era. Obviously, here is a vehicle that was conceived as a cross between a small station wagon and a mini-van. What really saves it, though, is that it is a very successful blending of these two types of vehicles.

Homely it may be, but practical it really is. I learned just how practical on a fishing trip to the shore. In went passengers, fishing equipment, coolers, extra clothing and enough food to have saved the Donner party. There was even enough room left over to haul all the fish I caught. (Actually, the trunk of an MG-TC proves sufficient on most fishing expeditions.)

This once again proved that while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, a thumb in the eye will catch your attention much quicker. And no doubt about it, the Stanza Wagon does grab everyone's attention. People gawk at it, stare at it and even smile at it. But when you're inside of it and riding comfortably, you really don't care. The joke is on everyone else.

What really is somewhat of a surprise about this vehicle is that it shares the same basic platform with the Stanza sedan, Nissan's ''European-type'' sedan. So, while it may have a truck-like appearance, it rides and drives like a front-wheel drive passenger car. Another somewhat surprising feature is that it has dual sliding side doors, which is a first for the auto industry. (Vans have only one sliding side door, while station wagons have none.) The dual sliding doors, of course, allow easy access to the back seats and cargo area from either side of thevehicle. And as a bonus, they prove very easy to operate. In fact, even a child can open and close these doors properly without a huff or a puff.

Like other squared-off vehicles - vans, four-wheel drive utility vehicles - is a good deal shorter than it looks. The overall length is 170.3 inches and the wheelbase measures 99 inches. Some subcompact passenger cars are longer in these two dimensions. But like other squared-off vehicles, the Stanza Wagon's room comes from width and height, which are almost identical - 65.6 inches wide and 64.2 inches high.

The test vehicle had the two front buckets and rear bench seat arrangement, which seated five passengers. Head room measures 38.8 inches up front and 38.3 inches in the rear, which is quite good for a small vehicle. Front leg room is a generous 39.4 inches while rear seat passengers have to make do with a somewhat skimpier 34 inches. For those who need more seating capacity, there are optional jump seats availab le for the cargo area. These seats can be folded out of the way when not in use and even be removed when the area is needed to carry cargo. Also, with or without the jump seats, the bench seat folds forward and provides 80 cubic feet of cargo area.

Obviously, the Stanza Wagon is not a vehicle for everybody. But Nissan is after a piece of the action in rapidly-growing ''multi-purpose'' vehicle segment of the market, which includes high roof wagons, small and mid-sized station wagons and compact vans and buses. Somewhat interestingly, is that the vehicle was initially scheduled for introduction in the United States two years ago, shortly after it made its appearance in Japan as the Nissan Prairie. But the introduction was delayed in this country, according to Nissan, because of the Voluntary Restraint Agreement. But before we shed any tears for Nissan, we have to consider the fact that if the company wasn't selling so many vehicles over here, it wouldn't have un into this problem in the first place. However, Nissan said that the two years gave the company more time to improve and refine it. Who knows? This might even be true.

As mentioned, driving the Stanza Wagon is similar to driving a car. Perhaps even somewhat easier because of the large all-around glass area and short sloping hood that provide excellent visibility. The four-wheel independent suspension features MacPherson struts up front, and trailing arms and torsion bars in the rear, and stabilizer bars front and rear. Steering is via a power rack-and-pinion system and 185/ 70SR 14-inch steel-belted radials are used. Although it looks like a truck, it rides like a car, which is really somewhat of an accomplishment considering its relatively short 99-inch wheel base. The Stanza Wagon does not handle like a sports car or sports sedan but it is quite agile.

The test vehicle was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission that shifted smoothly and didn't display any particular quirks. For those who don't want to shift for themselves, a four-speed automatic is offered as an option.

The Wagon is powered by a 120-cubic-inch (2-liter) four-cylinder engine known as the NAPS-X (Nissan AntiPollution System). This engine has an overhead cam, direct port electronic fuel injection and is rated at 97 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 114 foot pounds torque at 2,800 rpm. Overall performance is quite decent. The whole powertrain (engine and transaxle) is located right up front and is easy to get at for servicing.

The engine and five-speed transmission also provided decent fuel mileage. The test vehicle averaged 18 miles per gallon for city driving and 25 mpg over the highways. Unleaded regular will provide enough octane for the engine's 8.5:1 compression ratio.

Base price for the Stanza Wagon is $9,949. Standard features include power brakes and steering, dual remote control outside mirrors, tinted glass, halogen headlights, child-safety rear door locks, tachometer, quartz digital clock, rear window defroster, rear window wiper/washer, AM-FM ETR stereo, tilt steering column and, a nice level of trim. The only option on the test vehicle was air conditioning at $685. Add to this a delivery charge of $400 and the total price came to $11,034. (The jump seats/sun roof package would add another $700.)