I like Nissan. The company does much to help groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund. But that's Nissan as corporate citizen.

It's Nissan as auto maker that bothers me.

Take this week's test vehicle, the 1998 Nissan Frontier 4x4 SE King Cab pickup. It's an ordinary truck with an extraordinary price.

That's bad enough. But the Frontier is surrounded by rivals that are overall better values -- the Chevrolet S-10/GMC Sonoma, Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota and Toyota Tacoma SR5, to name a few.

My conclusion is based on test drives of those compact pickup trucks. Any doubts about the rightness of that assessment were erased by talking to consumers at auto shows here and in the District of Columbia.

People at both shows examined the trucks and walked away befuddled. Some wondered why a Chevrolet S-10 had three doors (two on the passenger side), and the higher-priced Frontier didn't. Others liked the idea that a Ford Ranger model came with a V-6 engine, automatic transmission and four-wheel drive for about the same price as the manual-transmission Frontier 4x4 SE King Cab. Still others praised the roominess of the Dodge Dakota's cabin, which they said was superior to the tight, workaday quarters of the Nissan model.

It wasn't supposed to be that way -- certainly not with the Frontier, Nissan's first new truck in 10 years. But somewhere along the road to product development, Nissan veered into mediocrity and came up with a pickup that looks as if it had been designed a decade ago.

The Frontier's exterior is a work of staid linearity, relieved only by a slightly angled grille. Its shiny chrome bumpers, in tandem with abstract, Wild West graphics on its doors, are supposed to brighten its looks. But the combined effect, instead, renders the Frontier a toy.

The interior is equally disappointing. The rectangular instrument panel, with a modest oval inset for gauges, evokes an era when pickups were no more than work trucks. Ditto the placement of the five-speed manual shifter and the 4x4 transfer gear, which vie for space on a floor-mounted center console.

Nissan seems not to have figured out what its competitors know to be true: Nowadays, most pickups -- certainly most compact pickups -- are bought by people who use them as cars and who want them to have the same interior feel and look as family and luxury sedans.

Fortunately, the Frontier performs far better than it looks. But no standing ovation is warranted here. Several of its rivals do better. Others do just as well.

The standard engine for the current run of Frontiers is a 2.4-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead cam in-line four-cylinder job designed to produce 143 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 154 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. It produces nine more horsepower than the previous four-cylinder engine used in Nissan trucks, and it is smoother and quieter than its predecessor.

But the Fr ontier is running among a bunch of six-cylinder compact-to-midsize pickups, which produce comparable or better horsepower with less noise and vibration. Chrysler Corp. is upping the ante this year by offering a 5.2-liter, 230-horsepower V-8 in its midsize Dodge Dakota 4x4 Club Cab. Depending on how you play the options, the beefed-up Dakota can be had for about $22,000, about $520 more than the tested Frontier4x4 SE King Cab. Nissan plans to fight back with a 3.3-liter V-6 Frontier next year.

Current Frontier models are available in seven versions: four rear-wheel-drive and three four-wheel-drive models. Five-speed manual transmissions are standard on all. Four-speed automatics are optional. Standard brakes include power front discs/rear drums with rear antilocks.

1998 Nissan Frontier 4x4SE King Cab pickup

Complaints: Enough said.

Praise: Solid construction. No rattles. Durable. Reliable.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Nothing remarkable in either ca egory, which means nothing to make people turn away from the likes of the Toyota Tacoma SR5, Chevrolet S-10/GMC Sonoma, Ford Ranger or Dodge Dakota. Good braking.

Head-turning quotient: Zilch.

Mileage: About 22miles per gallon, quite decent for a compact pickup. Fuel tank holds 15.9 gallons of regular unleaded. Estimated 339-mile range on usable volume of gasoline, running mostly highway and driver only.

Towing/cargo capacities: Can be equipped to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Inside cargo volume in King Cab is 14.4 cubic feet, vs. zip in the regular-cab version. Cargo bed holds 44.1 cubic feet of stuff in the King Cab model, compared with 45.7 cubic feet in the regular cab.

Price: Base price on the Frontier 4x4 SE King Cab is $20,990. Dealer invoice is $18,900. Price as tested is $21,480, including a $490 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: The Frontier is swamped by the competition. Comparison-shop.