THE DETROIT JOKE went something like this: Chrysler Corp. has a minivan. General Motors Corp. has a midivan. Ford Motor Co. has a maybevan.

Okay, it doesn't crack you up. Ford officials weren't laughing either. They delayed introducing their small van so often, folks started calling it a phantom.

Meanwhile, Lee A. Iacocca, who had been tossed out of his former job as Ford president, was having a field day in his new position at Chrysler. His small-van introduction was so successful that, today, when people think minivan, they often think Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager -- the first small vans to hit the U.S. market.

GM took another approach. Seeing that Chrysler and Toyota Motor Corp. had already captured the hearts of individual small-van lovers, GM went after fleet buyers with its Astro and Safari. The strategy worked. Companies, particularly those with urban delivery routes, gobbled up the General's middies -- vans bigger than mini, but smaller than maxi.

Ford slowpoked along, giving new meaning to the term, "all deliberate speed." So, they laughed at Ford in Detroit; and they cackled and grimaced when the company finally came up with a name for its midivan, the "Aerostar."

But, hee, hee, know what? They won't be laughing much longer. The Aerostar is a winner.

Outstanding complaint: This model was not available when many consumers were considering -- and buying -- minivans. Some people are going to feel cheated.

Outstanding praise: First, there is ample space for seven warm bodies, including enough foot room for the front-seat passenger. One small-van manufacturer I know can't make that claim.

Second, there is no disturbing engine-box hump in the middle of the passenger-cabin floor. Another small-van maker I know can't make that claim.

Third, rear-window vision is completely unobstructed. Two small-van makers I know can't say that.

Fourth, overall craftsmanship is superior -- right down to the carefully fitted heat shield underneath the engine hood.

Acceleration, ride and handling: Excellent acceleration from the 2.8-liter, V-6, gasoline engine. The ride is very good. You get some bounce over bumps, but that's the extent of the "truckiness" in this machine. Handling is also excellent. The Aerostar inspires driver confidence in heavy traffic.

Head-turning-quotient: Much controversy here, because of the Aerostar's oh-so-severe sloping front end. Traditionalists hate it. The avant-garde love it. I go with the avant-garde. The Aerostar's is a bold, audacious, imaginative design. It is not another box on wheels.

Sound system: Ford factory Premium series. Superb.

Mileage: About 18 miles per gallon, combined city-highway, mostly running lightly loaded with air conditioner off. Like its GM counterparts, the Aerostar is rear-wheel- drive, which means a front-to-rear driveshaft and more weight and fuel consumption than the Chrysler products. (But rear-wheel-drive gives small vans a hauling advantage over front-wheel-drive models.) Use unleaded fuels only.

Price-as-tested: $15,608, including $6,544 worth of options, such as the 2.8-liter, V-6 engine. The more fuel-efficient 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine is standard.