To those people who have spent their lives in cars, why trucks are so popular is a total mystery.

But to those who have driven trucks, the answer is easy, especially with a compact pick-up.

Compact pick-ups offer smaller engines than their beefier counterparts, allowing better fuel economy. This, along with a maneuverable size and available four-wheel-drive, makes a compact pick-up an option as a commuter vehicle. It especially makes sense if you have stuff to haul on the weekends.

Still not convinced? Try Ford's Ranger and you'll be hooked.

The Ranger was totally revamped for the 1998 model year. Late '98 saw the addition of a Super Cab model; this year's biggest change is the deletion of the flashy Splash model from the line-up.

When it comes to looks, this truck has it. It has more presence than the S-10, yet it's not as flashy as the Dakota. It's is rounded subtlety, yet remains substantial-looking. Certainly the Sport Appearance Group, which strips the chrome off the grille and bumpers, helps its looks. The Tacky "sport" decal doesn't.

The line this year includes 3 engine choices: a 119-horsepower 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder, 150 horsepower 3-liter V6 and a 160 horsepower 4-liter V6 available in 4x2 and 4x4 drive-trains. Transmission choices include a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. A five-speed automatic is available with the 4-liter engine option.

Trim levels are base XL and fancier XLT.

Cargo box sizes are 6- and 7-foot lengths with the regular cab, 6-foot only with the Super Cab. A 4x8 sheet of plywood can be carried with the tailgate lowered. Payload rating ranges from 4,320 pounds in the base model to 5,120 pounds on the 4x4 Super Cab.

Ford provided an XLT Super Cab 4x4 with the 4-liter engine and 5-speed automatic transmission. Certainly this is the top of the range, but it proved to be a truck that almost anyone would love.

The engine, while down on power from the Dodge Dakota, still had good grunt to pull this Ranger through the woods. Certainly, the five-speed automatic helped with its smooth shifts. There was always enough power and the transmission behaved better than most Ford automatics. It's also the only pick-up in its class to have this option.

Ditto the four-door Super cab, so convenient, you'll wonder how you lived without it. The almost useless side-facing jump-seats can be deleted as an option.

Braking was uneventful from the front-disc/rear drum brakes. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard with the Super Cab, rear-only with the 4x2.

Although there was a good deal of power assist in the steering, it still provided a little bit of road feel. The four-wheel drive system, like those in other compacts, is a part-time system. Hubs lock automatically and the system can be activated at speed via its dash-mounted knob.

No matter which cab you pick, opt for the 4x4 if you can; it gives an added dose of handling prowess. Certainly when the weather g ets cold, icy and slick, (as it did during the test period) this little Ranger can get you through.

The dash is modern and attractive in the "swoopy" Ford idiom. Interior assembly and quality of materials seemed better than those from GM or DaimlerChrysler, though not exactly opulent. It's surprising to find roll-up windows and manual door locks in a compact pick-up whose price approached 24 big ones.

Otherwise, the cabin was pleasant, with supportive, comfortable cloth bucket seats, a storage console, cupholders and additional storage up front. A 12-volt power point is thoughtfully supplied as well.

Road and engine noise were moderate, making it a decent choice for long distance travel, especially with space available in the Super Cab.

Of course, some of you might find the idea of a pick-up appealing, but hate the gas-guzzling image that it represents. For you, Ford offers electric and flexible fuel versions as well.

Prices start at just $12,295 for a reg ular cab4 x2. That's just $340 more than a Ford Escort. Ranger 4x4s start at $16,175. Our top of the line tester had a base of $19,375 and topped out at $23,435.

With more flexibility than an independent prosecutor and a pleasing amount of choice along with a quality feel, it's little wonder that Ford's Ranger is number one in its class.

The Dakota is flashier and more powerful, the S10 comes in even more iterations, but Ford seems somewhere in the middle -- just right.

1999 Ford Ranger XLT Super Cab 4x4

Engines: 2.5-liter I-4, 3-liter V-6, 4-liter V-6 Transmissions: 5 speed manual, four- or five-speed automatic Tires: P245/75R15 OWL Tires Standard: part-time four-wheel-drive, dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, power rack-and-pinion steering, trailer-tow wiring harness, P235/75R15 tires, aluminum wheels, intermittent wipers, chrome grille and bumpers, front tow hooks, inside box tie-down hooks, spare tire lock, AM/FM/Cassette stereo, split bench seats, rear jump seats, passenger grab handle, cigarette lighter. Options: 4-liter engine, 5-speed automatic, P245 OWL all-terrain tires, stereo upgrades, 4-door option, bucket seats, XLT Sport Appearence Group (fog lamps, 16-inch wheels, color-keyed bumper and grilles, sport decals) air-conditioning. Base price base model: $12,295 Base price test model: $19,375 As tested: $23,435 EPA rating: 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway Test Mileage: 16 mpg Competitors: Chevy S10, GMC Sonoma, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Dodge Dakota