THE PEOPLE at American Motors Corp. needed a home run. After losing $118.5 million in the first nine months of this year, largely because they've been short of new products, they needed an unmistakable hit, a real stunner.

They'll have to wait.

AMC's only new machine for 1986 is the Jeep Comanche, a compact pickup truck that comes with either two-

It's a competent vehicle, and that's too bad. When you're No. 4 and losing ground, you need more than competence: You need a zinger. You need wow-power! You need something that customers can't live without, and that no one else has.

What you don't need is another "me-too" machine, no matter how well done. Unfortunately for AMC, that is what we have here.

Outstanding complaint: The absolute sameness of it all! AMC's strategy with the Comanche is to move forcefully into the small- compact pickup truck market -- a segment that began booming a few years back, mostly because small trucks tended to be less expensive and far more available than import-quota- restricted Japanese cars.

Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Volkswagen have already been selling very worthy small trucks in this country. Any newcomer would have to be very hot stuff to stand out in that crowd. But the Comanche just sort of slips in.

Indeed, the Comanche seems to be a collection of parts from other companies that are doing well. The test model owes its very soul -- the 2.8-liter, V-6 gasoline engine -- to GM, the engine's maker.

Outstanding praise: The suspension. Guest riders, who otherwise were unimpressed with the truck overall, made many favorable comments about the Comanche's ride. Credit AMC/Renault designers and engineers for this feature. They decided to weld two side beams directly to the cab floor pan and to put the whole thing atop well-matched coil and leaf springs. The result is a truck that does not shake, rattle, and roll in legal-speed highway turns, and that does not bounce like crazy over less-than-desirable roads.

Acceleration: Good but nothing exceptional.

Head-turning-quotient: Attractive. But it's like walking into a room full of good-looking women and men. Pretty soon, you start looking for personality, some distinguishing characteristic. It's hard to find those things in the Comanche.

Sound system: Okay boom-box quality, designed to compete with wind noise and the sound of the engine. It does.

Mileage: About 15 to the gallon, combined city-highway, running mostly two-wheel-drive with two occupants and an empty cargo bay. The test truck, which weighed 3,093 pounds, had only 420 miles on the odometer at delivery. The manufacturer says top fuel efficiency begins after 1,200 miles.

Price as tested: $13,331, including about $6,000 in options, among them air conditioning, striping and the 2.8-liter, V-6 engine. The standard engine is four cylinders, 2.5 liters.

P.S. -- PEI Inc., an outfit in Hawthorne, N.J., has come up with a good idea for reducing fuel-robbing air drag in pickup-truck cargo bays. PEI produces "Armor Deck," essentially a fold-away aluminum "door" that fits over the cargo area. When the door is extended and locked into place, it cuts down air turbulence. It also offers some solid protection against would-be cargo thieves.