THE RAIN STARTED, and I laughed. It was time to have some fun. I was in the 1988 Nissan Pathfinder SE V-6, a splendiferous member of the auto industry's growing "sports-utility" family.

Sports-utility vehicles are a little bit of everything -- station wagon, tank, van, pickup truck, sedan. And the Pathfinder easily is among the best of the lot.

The makers of the Jeep and the Ford Bronco had better look out! Nissan is coming after their lunch, breakfast and dinner too.

The beauty of the Pathfinder, designed in Nissan's California studios, is that it looks better than most of the square uglies it competes against. It rides, drives and shifts better than many of 'em, too.

The Pathfinder's sloping low hood and flared fenders are distinctive. Its easy-shifting five-speed-manual gearbox and its equally pleasant four-wheel-drive transfer case are refreshing in a category where unnecessary complexity seems to be the norm.

Also, congrats to Nissan for giving the Pathfinder the longest wheelbase (104.3 inches) in its class. That generous distance between the front and rear wheels, combined with a terrific suspension, helps to give the Pathfinder a stability and smoothness seldom found in the sports-utility group.

Hmph. I can hear it, now: "Real men don't like soft trucks."

Yeah, well, go climb a tree or something. The Pathfinder isn't made for "real men." It's designed for real people; and that's where it beats the pants off of almost everything it runs against.

Complaints: Pathfinder has three doors -- two side, one rear. I prefer five -- four side, one rear. But at least the Pathfinder's side doors are big and wide, allowing relatively free access to the rear seats.

Also, Nissan needs to figure out whether it wants this vehicle to be a racer or a truck. I like speed, but the Pathfinder's gas pedal is a bit touchy. Tap it, and the machine zooms.

Praise: Excellence in engineering and overall vehicle design. Superior fit and finish.

The Pathfinder seats five adults comfortably. The rear seats are of the folding, split-bench type. With rear seats up, cargo space is 28.7 cubic feet. With both seats down, that space grows to 65.2 cubic feet, enough to carry a large bookcase and other stuff.

Everything is accessible in this vehicle -- easy-to-reach and easy-to-use.

Head-turning quotient: You certainly won't mistake it for anything else on the road.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Excellent in all categories. A five-link coil suspension in the rear tempers the hostility of bumpy roads. You gotta really rock this one badly or engage in lots of abusive driving to tip it over.

The standard engine is a 3-liter V-6, rated 145 hp at 4,800 rpm -- enough to tow a 3,500-pound load, enough to earn it respect in the fast lanes of any American highway.

Sound system: AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette with four speakers, by Nissan. Very good.

Mileage: About 17 to the gallon (21.1-gallon tank, estimated 350-mile range on usable volume), running with mixed loads (one to five occupants and heavy cargo) in the great state of Virginia and the well-policed state of Maryland.

Price: Ugh! $20,239, including $2,940 in options and a $250 destination charge. Base price is $17,049. Dealer's invoice price, without options, is $14,754.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.