In my mind, the Mitsubishi Montero used to translate to "also ran" in the crowded sport-utility vehicle segment.

Either that or a "settle" vehicle ... as in, "I wanted the big Lexus but settled for a Montero instead."

Neither slight applies today.

The Montero has evolved to become a legitimate player in the high-end SUV market, with power and amenities rivaling the products made by America's Big Three or well-heeled overseas manufacturers.

One thing that has not changed a lot is the exterior look. The Montero is still jazzy. Mitsubishi's designers have never held back when it came to shaping the Montero.

The 2003 Montero Limited 4WD model I tested had the usual flashes -- a two-layer, chrome-accented grille with low-riding horizontal louvers giving way to angled patterns on top, flares at the wheel wells and the sides, large integrated headlamps, a sharply angled windshield and a front-to-back side-window arrangement that includes a jaunty, rising angle at the back of the vehicle.

The current Montero looks downright saucy. And now, it has an engine to match the look.

Stepping on the gas in a Montero used to be a disappointing experience. In the tested model, it was a rush. A 3.8-liter V-6 packed 215 horsepower, but more significant, it laid down 248 foot-pounds of torque at a relatively low 3,250 revolutions per minute.

To be truthful, the Montero felt more powerful than the advertised numbers.

That can be attributed to the automaker's "ActiveTrac" four-wheel-drive system and its "Active Skid and Traction Control" system. This technological marriage can be explained in lengthy terms that only an automotive engineer could appreciate.

For us laymen, rest assured that power, torque and control are automatically and continually being dished out in doses that make it difficult to screw up and that hold the Montero to the road like iron filings on a magnet.

A five-speed "Sportronic" automatic transmission -- honestly, Mitsubishi has a special name for seemingly every mechanical function -- gives the driver the option of shifting manually without a clutch or simply relying on a traditional, fully automatic gearbox.

A reading of the standard features list surprised me -- a lot. Granted, the tested SUV started at a hefty $36,597, but that included amenities one typically sees on the stickers of SUVs priced at $50,000 and up.

The tested model came with a 315-watt Infinity sound system (with AM/FM radio and compact disc player), ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels, leather seat trim, wood-and leather-trimmed steering wheel, heated front seats and exterior mirrors, three 12-volt accessory outlets, a tool kit, 16-inch all-season tires with eye-catching alloy wheels, roof rails, a power sunroof and illuminated, integrated side steps.

That's just a partial listing. The standard package was augmented with a $1,200 " premium package" that included automatic front-seat climate control, rear-area climate control and a power passenger seat.

Gripes included the usual suspects among seven-passenger SUVs. Interior space in the first two seating rows was fine. As for the third row, let's just say that it would be wise to reserve it for three people who do not mind being real close to each other.

The positive side of the third-row seat is that it can be folded into a floor well or removed altogether -- good news for serious cargo carriers or passengers who perhaps have no problem spreading out on the floor as opposed to wedging into the third-row seat. Hey, it could happen.

Gas mileage on the tested model was a less-than-pleasing 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the open road, with an estimated annual fuel cost of nearly $1,550.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Montero Limited 4WD is that it feels way more expensive than it is. It's likely to be too rich for fans of, say, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer. At the same time, the Montero probably stacks up as a deep-discount special compared with the likes of a Lincoln Aviator, a Lexus GX 470 or a Land Rover Range Rover.

It all depends on what you want.

The good news for Mitsubishi fans is that the current-generation Montero now has a lot to offer.

Mitsubishi Montero at a glance

Make/model: 2003 Mitsubishi Montero Limited 4WD.

Vehicle type: Seven-seat, four-door, four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

Base price: $36,597 (as tested, $38,412).

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6 with 215 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 248 foot/pounds of torque at 3,250 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city; 19 mpg highway.

Transmission: Electronic five-speed automatic with overdrive, clutchless manual shifting .

Steering: Power rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature.

Brakes: Power, ventilated, four-wheel discs with anti-lock.

Suspension type: Independent double-wishbone on front; independent multi-link on rear (stabilizer bars and coil springs front and rear).

Maximum cargo volume: 91.7 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 23.8 gallons.

Curb weight: 4,784 pounds.

Front track: 61.6 inches.

Rear track: 61.6 inches.

Height: 71.5 inches.

Length: 190.2 inches.

Wheelbase: 109.7 inches.

Width: 74.8 inches.

Ground clearance: 8.6 inches.

Maximum towing capacity: 5,000 pounds.

Final assembly site: Minokamo, Japan.