THEY'RE CALLED "sport utility vehicles," or "suvvies" for short. Theidea is that they're supposed to be fun and practical -- part IndianaJones, part Saturday suburbanite. They are vehicles such as the JeepGrand Cherokee, Ford Explorer, Range Rover, Chevrolet Blazer, NissanPathfinder, Mitsubishi Montero and this week's test ride, the 1992 IsuzuTrooper LS.

For years, automakers couldn't figure out how much "sport" and"utility" to give these things. Some suvvies would ride too softly.Others would bust your butt. If you bought the wrong one, you suffered.

Isuzu believes it can boost profits by scrapping that risk, so thecompany is offering two fetching works of mechanical compromise: thefour-wheel-drive Trooper LS and the Trooper S.

The new Troopers are designed to boogie on the highway and get funkyin the dirt. However, given the vehicles' beyond-$20,000 stickers, mostowners probably will keep dirt-hopping to a minimum.

I'm not wild about the Trooper LS. It's hard for me to get pumped upabout anything named Trooper (too many trips to traffic court).

But I do get excited about continuous improvement, which means I'vegotta give a high-five to the 1992 Trooper models. They're so muchbetter than their predecessors, they make me wish they werepresidential candidates.

Background: The first Troopers, introduced in the United States in1984, were Third World machines. They were big, boxy, underpowered,rough and rustic. But they were reliable as all get-out and they wereeasy on the pocket, too. Over the years, the Troopers emerged into cultmobiles, becoming sort of the Saabs of suvvies. Mostly educated peoplebought them, folks who had a college degree or two, or some post-highschool training. Troopers came to be regarded as "intelligent buys" --not physically attractive in any meaningful way, but certainly goodvalue for the money.

But Ford Motor Co. changed all of that with the 1990 introduction ofits Explorer suvvie, a good-looking machine that could bust rocks anddance on the highway with the best of 'em. Now, everybody who is anybodyin the suvvie business is rolling out new metal to knock off theExplorer. It's going to be one hell of a fight. But, judging from thequality of the tested Trooper LS, Isuzu ought to be able to land a fewgood licks.

Complaints: The Trooper still rides a bit high (9.8-inch clearanceframe to ground). The tested Trooper LS waved to and fro in recentwinter storms, but never lifted a wheel from the highway.

Praise: The new Troopers are top contenders for suvvie dollars. The1992 models have new engines -- a 3.2-liter, 175-horsepower, 24-valve,single overhead cam V-6 for the S, and a 190-horsepower, double-overheadcam version of the same engine for the LS. Both engines are morepowerful, yet a heck of a lot quieter, than their predecessors.

There is more passenger and cargo space in the new models -- about 10cubic feet more space than exists in the Explorer. Fi t and finish aresuperior. Interior comfort is excellent for six passengers. Overallvehicle feel -- substantial, solid -- is terrific.

Head-turning quotient: Still conservative after all these years. Butat least Isuzu's designers have discovered curves.

Ride, acceleration, handling and towing capacity: Excellent ride,braking and acceleration. Handling is very good overall.

The suspension system has new pieces, with coil springs and fourlinks replacing the bumpier-than-thou leaf springs in the rear. Theindependent double wishbone suspension is still up front.

Four-wheel disc brakes with rear anti-lock backup are standard.Braking is excellent. The new Troopers also can pull trailers weighingup to 5,000 pounds.

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Installedby Isuzu. Excellent.

Mileage: About 16 to the gallon (estimated 350-mile range on usablevolume of 87-octane unleaded), combined city-highway, running with oneto four occupants and ight cargo.

Price: Base price on the tested Trooper LS (four-speed automatic) is$25,400. Dealer's invoice price is $21,600. Price as tested is $27,049,including $1,280 in options and a $369 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Isuzu clearly is moving out of the realm ofaffordable cultism with its new Troopers, but you're getting lots more.Keep in mind that this is an extremely competitive segment of the U.S.vehicle market. Shop around.