WE WERE parked at a shopping mall, far from lions, tigers and bears, unhampered by rain, mud or snow. We were surrounded by dozens of vehicles such as ours -- sport-utility models, four-wheel drives. Some were equipped with brush guards -- metal protrusions designed to protect headlamps and grilles from undergrowth and low-lying branches.

We were in a 1995 Jeep Cherokee Sport. Like most of the sport-utes on the lot, the Sport was clean, dentless, scratch-free, showing no signs of ever having traversed rough ground.

It was a curious sight -- all of those rugged vehicles, built to conquer the wild, stuck between narrow yellow lines on concrete pavement while their owners stalked store aisles in pursuit of retail purchases.

The genteel safari ended with hunters collecting receipts, bagging booty and dumping it all into the cargo bays of their waiting leviathans. We did the same -- then cranked up the Sport's big V-6 engine and headed into that deep suburban night.

Background: I know why many Americans own guns. It's the same reason they own four-wheel-drive, sport-utility vehicles. It's G.A.P.S. -- the Great American Potency Syndrome, the need to have more than is needed just in case it's needed.

Chrysler Corp. can hardly meet demand for its sport-utes, including the one I tested: the Jeep Cherokee Sport/Country, a square-bodied Jeep that has been around since 1984. Similar situations exist at General Motors, Ford, Nissan and Toyota. Honda was so desperate for sport-utes, it began buying Isuzu Rodeos last year and reselling them as Honda Passports. Now, Cadillac -- Cadillac!!! -- is planning a sport-ute of its own, while Mercedes-Benz actually is building one in Alabama for U.S. and export sales.

I confess. I'm a G.A.P.S. sufferer too! When Chrysler offered me the two-wheel-drive version of the Sport, against all logic, I said, "No way." I wanted the four-wheel-drive. I worried about snow that wasn't in the forecast. California was having mud slides. Japan had an earthquake. I worried that we in Northern Virginia might suffer similar fates. I wanted that four-wheel-drive!

The requested Sport arrived. It was green with a black grille. It looked so . . . tough. It came with a standard 4-liter V-6 rated 190 horsepower at 4,750 rpm, with torque set at 225 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. A driver's air bag was standard. There was no passenger bag.

Standard brakes included vented front discs/rear drums. An optional four-wheel anti-lock system also was included.

The transmission was a four-speed automatic -- standard on Jeep Cherokee models equipped with 4-liter V-6 engines. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard on the base Cherokee SE, which also is equipped with a standard 130-horsepower, 2.5-liter, inline-four cylinder engine.

The Cherokee lineup includes the SE, Sport, Country and the super-cushy Orvis. Two and four-door models are available. The essential diffe rence between the Sport and the Country is that the Country has prettier body-cladding and a bit more gimcrackery.

Note: This Cherokee is not to be confused with the rounder, more luxurious, more expensive Grand Cherokee introduced in 1992.

Complaints: No passenger bag. Dated dashboard. Ride is truly trucklike.

Praise: Fun, practical (but more practical in two-wheel-drive without skid plates, considering the way most Americans use these things). Seats five people in reasonable comfort. Carries lots of stuff (71.8 cubic feet with rear seat folded; 35.7 cubic feet with rear seat up). The Sport can pull a 5,000-pound trailer.

Head-turning quotient: Ain't no mistake. It's a Jeep.

Ride, acceleration and handling: It's also a truck, which accounts for the trucklike ride. Handling also trucklike but quite manageable. Boffo acceleration. Excellent braking.

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Installed by Chrysler. Okay.

Mileage: About 15 per gallon (20.2-gallon tank, estimated 293-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running with two occupants and light cargo.

Price: Base price is $18,808. Dealer's invoice is $17,044. Price as tested is $23,703, including $4,400 in options and a $495 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Overall good value for the money, but this is an exceedingly competitive market. Compare with Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Blazer, Mitsubishi Montero, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover Discovery and Nissan Pathfinder, among others.