WE SELDOM use family names for childhood friends in New Orleans. We call them by their personalities.

Li'l Man, for example was exactly that -- a tough, muscular little dude more adult than child. Bebejoon (his family called him Baby Junior) was quite different. A whiny, self-centered fellow, he lived up to his moniker with disgusting regularity.

Nicknames applied to things as well as people, especially if the things had wheels. Like this week's test vehicle. Officially, it's called the 1987 Dodge 350 LE Ram Wagon. I called it Big Red.

Big Red's a rugged, broad-shouldered van, capable of carrying 12 passengers and hauling trailers of up to 7,500 pounds. It had a huge, greedy engine, the optional 5.9-liter, four-barrel V8. It growls. Have mercy! It growls.

You get the feeling when you're riding in Big Red that nobody's gonna mess with you; and in most places, even in Philadelphia and New York, you're right. Other drivers seem to go out of their way to get out of yours.

But there's always some turkey willing to take his chances, like the impatient driver of a Ford 150 pickup who rear-ended Big Red at a stoplight in Northern Virginia.

No sweat. No injuries. Minor damage to the left side of Big Red's rear, steel, chrome-plated, step-up bumper. Major damage to the offending driver's ego.

I wish Li'l Man had been there at the mishap. He'd have summed up Big Red's performance succinctly: "Tough enough, Bro."

Complaints: Big Red had 10,000 miles on it at time of delivery, so maybe its occasional starting problem indicated a need for service. Maybe. Other Chrysler vehicles I've driven exhibited a similar crank-me-twice trait.

And those center-side passenger doors. What stinker decided to substitute two swinging doors for the usual sliding side van door? People invariably close them in the wrong sequence, causing dents and scratches.

Praise: Overall construction and design. Even after 10,000 miles, nearly all of them put on by test drivers determined to find the van's breaking point, Big Red held tight. Only a few fit and finish flaws, mostly caused by driver abuse, could be found. An impressive building job on a vehicle this huge.

Several riders and drivers rated Big Red's general quality and comfort over that of comparable full-size vans from Ford and General Motors. I agree.

Head-turning quotient: Has the appeal of a favorite old sweater. Homely but not unbecoming. Trustworthy.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent acceleration; and the handling, particularly in heavy traffic, is surprisingly good for this 127-inch-wheelbase behemoth. The ride is very smooth on decent roads, but backseat passengers bounce like basketballs on rough streets.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, electronic seek and scan, six speakers by Chrysler, very good.

Mileage: Ugh! Ouch! Choke 'n' croak! A measly 11 miles to the gallon (35-gallon tank, 385-mile range), combined city/highway, running with 12 occupants and about 400 pounds of luggage, with both front and rear air- conditioning units operating full-blast. (Hmmmph. On second thought, maybe 11 mpg wasn't so bad after all).

Price: $18,667 as tested including $3,126 in options and a $540 destination charge. Dealer's invoice price as tested is $15,532.25. Base price is $15,001; and dealers invoice price on base model is $12,875.85.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.