OLD JEEPS never die; they become 1987 Jeep Wranglers. Thank goodness.

There was much wailing earlier this year when American Motors Corp. discontinued the Jeep CJ-7, a World War II workhorse that entered civilian production in 1946.

Macho men cried. U.S. veterans who fought on Okinawa in the Pacific and on Omaha Beach in Normandy called to complain about the decline of American values. News organizations dispatched reporters to Toledo, Ohio, to cover the roll-out of "the last Jeep."

The reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.

How else to explain the appearance of the Wrangler -- a more sophisticated, more luxurious, more stable, and just-as-rugged version of the good ol' four-wheel-drive CJ-7?

Ohhhh, I can hear it now -- the din of indignation from the rough 'n' ready crowd: "More luxurious? You mean, like optional automatic transmission and that kind of stuff? You call that a Jeep?"

I do. And so will thousands of other people who will buy this tough little sports utility vehicle.

Outstanding concern: About the soft-top, non-lockable test model only. Buying this particular Wrangler requires a great deal of faith in one's fellow man. Sorry, I flunk. Thieves love opportunity. This one offers too much of it.

Outstanding complaint: Instrument panel layout. The test model is equipped with an array of analog gauges -- laid out in a straight line, left to right. 'Twould be nice if AMC would find a way to cluster these. As they are, the gauges on the far right are hard to see and read.

Outstanding praise: Vehicle stability.

The old CJ-7 models ran into trouble around curves, where some of them tilted and rolled over in sharp turns. AMC, as a result, has stuck warning labels in the new Wranglers advising drivers that, under certain conditions, these models can also tilt and flip.

I ran into one of those conditions -- very high winds atop the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. To make matters worse, I had neglected to remove the canvas soft top and side panels, all of which caught the wind like a kite. But the high-riding Wrangler did not tilt or flip. It didn't even sway. It just plowed along.

I was, and remain, impressed.

The Wrangler also is a solid piece of craftsmanship. Make that doubly impressed.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Utility vehicles are members of the truck family. Most ride like trucks. So does the Wrangler. But the ride in this model is smoother than that in the CJ-7, thanks to an upgraded suspension system. Smooth does not mean wimp in this case. In four-wheel drive, the Wrangler can go through slop and muck as well as any CJ-7.

Acceleration is excellent with the optional 4.2-liter, straight 6-cylinder gasoline engine used in the test model. What a roar!

Head-turning-quotient: It's a Jeep.

Sound system: Yeah, yeah, I know. But this Jeep does have a superb AM/FM stereo radio made by MGA, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi.

Mileage: About 17 to the gallon (the standard tank is 15 gallons; there is a 20-gallon option) on mostly interstate highways and rural back roads, running driver only and with the wind-catching soft top up half of the time.

Price-as-tested: $12,601, including $2,311 in options, such as the 4.2-liter engine and three-speed automatic transmission. The standard engine is a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder. Standard transmission is five-speed manual.