THE SUZUKI Sidekick is a rolling paradox. It can ford streams and climb mountains. It can pull farm loads and plow through snow. But on the highway, where it's used most in America, it's as vulnerable as a baby 'midst charging bulls.

Like other trucks in the sport utility vehicle category, the Sidekick and its General Motors version, the Geo Tracker, have no side-impact barrier protection. Nor rollover roof-crush protection, especially in the tested two-door, soft-top, four-wheel-drive Sidekick JX.

Air bags? None. Seatbelts? Yeah, and you'd better use them in this subcompact, relatively lightweight sport-utility vehicle.

Is the Sidekick dangerous? Hell, walking across the street is dangerous. Life is a matter of accumulated and calculated risks. Fewer risks, longer life, less fun, which raises a philosophical question about the Sidekick JX.

The vehicle very definitely is a whole lot of fun, especially in the rough, where it does its funky stuff. Question is, how do you wanna live your life?

Background: There is nothing more fascinating than automotive marketing when the manufacturer in question is struggling to regain lost ground. That is where we find American Suzuki Motor Corp., which opened for business in 1985 with the introduction of its mini-sport-utility vehicle, the Suzuki Samurai, a beast of a little runner that, considering the way it beat up your body, should've been named the Thug Bug.

Anyway, the Samurai ran into lots of trouble because of allegations that it tended to tilt. The upshot was that Suzuki's U.S. sales took a hit, and the company now finds itself chugging along at 30,000 units -- 12 percent more than the 24,935 cars and trucks it sold in this country in 1992. To make sense of that miniscule amount, Suzuki is positioning itself as a niche marketer, targeting mostly young folks on tight budgets with a yen for adventure. Suzuki's Sidekick line is a key part of that strategy.

There are two basic Sidekicks, hardtop four-door and soft-top two-door. Both are available in two-wheel and four-wheel drive. Both feature standard five-speed manual transmissions and optional three-speed automatics.

Rear anti-lock brakes are standard on the Sidekicks, but keep in mind that these brakes operate only in the two-wheel-drive mode.

The base engine for the two-door Sidekick is a 1.6-liter, inline four-cylinder, single-overhead-cam job rated 80 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Maximum torque is 94 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm. The four-door Sidekick runs with a 16-valve version of that engine, rated 95 horsepower at 5,600 rpm with a maximum torque of 98 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

Complaints: The Sidekick JX's thin, weak doors bother me, putting me on edge in heavy highway traffic.

Praise: Viewed in the context of its original design intent -- to be an affordable, fun, nimble, durable off-road machine -- the Sidekick JX is a wonderful vehicle. I have frie nds in Latin America and in the bayou parishes of Louisiana who swear by the thing, and who'd pop you in the nose if you said one unkind word about their Suzuki.

The two-door Suzuki can pull 1,000 pounds. The four-door model can pull trailers weighing up to 1,500 pounds. The two-door Suzuki has a decent 32.9 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded. Comparable cargo capacity in the four-door model measures 45 cubic feet.

Head-turning quotient: In the city, the Suzuki JX has the same effect on police as does the Nissan Pathfinder. The uniformed types tend to follow it. In the country, it brings smiles and comments like "Nice little truck."

Ride, acceleration and handling: Surprisingly good ride for a short-wheelbase sport-utility model. Acceleration is decent -- you'll have no trouble hitting 55 mph. Braking is very good.

Mileage: Excellent for a sport-utility vehicle, about 27 miles per gallon in the tested five-speed manual Sidekick JX (11 1-gallon tank, estimated 290-mile range on usable volume of unleaded), running mostly highway and driver only with light cargo.

Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, installed by Suzuki. Good boogie that all but disappears as soon as you turn on the engine and start rolling. The Sidekick JX is noisy.

Price: Base price is $13,149. Dealer's invoice is $12,097. Price as tested is $13,479, including a $330 destination charge. (All Suzuki options are dealer-installed; prices and availability vary.)

Purse-strings note: High risk, high fun. It's a judgment call. If you buy it, use good judgment and drive it with common sense.