THE GMC Sonoma wouldn't start. Blown fuse. I felt sorry for thelittle truck. All of the neighbors saw it arrive. They were impressed.It was pretty with its slanted front end and end-capped rear bumpers.The paint job, silver and red beneath a clear polyurethane coat, wastops. The interior, the most car-like of any pickup I've driven, wasinviting. But the darned thing died in the driveway.

It didn't just die. It loudly announced its demise. It cranked, wentvarrrooommm. Then pitter-patter, cough, choke. Nothing. Fuel-pump fusefried. No pump action, no fuel. No fuel, no go.

All of which was too bad, because the 1994 GMC Sonoma is one of thebest compact pickup trucks available. But people see what they see; andwhat they saw was a pretty General Motors truck that wasn't goinganywhere.

"American quality, eh?" a neighbor asked.

Not really. These things happen -- like the gear-shift knob that cameoff in my hand in a 1994 BMW 5-series car; like the tested 1993 ToyotaTercel that couldn't stay straight in panic stops; the tested 1993Jaguar with a faulty fuel gauge; and the upper interior, driver's-sidedoor panel of a 1993 Mercedes-Benz S-class car that dislodged itselfalong with its accompanying power-seat control buttons.

Anyway, GM fixed the Sonoma's fuse -- and the crimped wire thatcaused it to blow. I headed toward the Shenandoah Valley, where the fallleaves were bright crimson and orange. It was a beautiful, trouble-freedrive.

Background: The Sonoma was introduced in 1982 as a rear-wheel-drivepickup. Changes have come almost every year since then, including in1991, when the little truck's designers went on a romp and produced thehigh-performance Sonoma Syclone.

But the 1994 truck is best of all. It's tighter and quieter than anySonoma ever built. It's wider than previous models by nearly two inches.But interior space, enhanced by redesigned doors and windows, includesan extra three inches of shoulder room and modest increases in head andhip room.

Standard features include side-door guard beams, power steering,heavy-duty shocks, 15-inch wheels/tires, anti-lock brakes and afive-speed manual transmission on most models. A four-speed automatic isoptional.

Seven different suspension systems, affecting ride and handling, areavailable for the Sonoma, which can be bought as a rear-wheel orfour-wheel-drive pickup. There are three wheel-bases, ranging from 108.3inches to 122.9 inches; two cab styles, regular and extended; twocargo-box sizes, six feet and 7.4 feet; and three trim, or decorativestyles, the base SL, tested SLS and luxury SLE.

The test truck was equipped to haul a maximum payload, the maximumallowable weight of cargo a vehicle can carry, of 1,519 lbs. It couldpull a trailer weighing up to 6,000 lbs.

Buyers with serious off-road intentions can opt for the specialSonoma Highrider.

Complaints: Besides the startup glitch, there's the two angled jumpseats in the Sonoma SL S extended cab. No adults should use them on anytrip more than two blocks long.

Praise: An excellent overall compact pickup truck, both in terms ofdesign and construction. It replaces the Ford Ranger as my favorite inthis product segment.

Head-turning quotient: Highly attractive, moving or standing still.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Superior small-truck ride andhandling. Excellent acceleration. The tested rear-wheel-drive Sonoma SLSextended cab was equipped with an optional 4.3-liter V-6 rated 165horsepower at 4,000 rpm, with a maximum torque of 235 foot-pounds at2,400 rpm. That engine is standard on four-wheel-drive Sonomas. BaseSonomas get a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 110 horsepower at5,200 rpm, with a maximum of 130 foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 rpm.

Braking was excellent. Standard brakes include vented frontdiscs/rear drums with rear-wheel anti-lock backup. A four-wheelanti-lock system is standard on four-wheel drive models.

Mileage: bout 18 miles per gallon (20-gallon tank, estimated348-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running mostlyhighway and driver only without cargo.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette withgraphic equalizer, by GM/Delco. Good.

Price: Base price for the tested Sonoma SLS is $12,113 with a dealerinvoice of $10,962. Price as tested is $15,133, including $2,550 inoptions and a $470 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with any compact pickup at any price.It's a buy.