THE DESIGNERS call it "mica blue," but it's much wilder than that. It plays with the sun -- now blue, now violet, now something wonderfully indescribable. It elicits so many oohs and wows, it's obvious that people feel it more than see it. Purple-passion blue, I think, is a better name.

In standard form, the Isuzu Rodeo comes in two-tone paint -- in homage to mid-America's love for state-school colors. But the Isuzu people wanted to show off. They sent me the California version of their 1991 Rodeo LS sport-utility wagon, and I was grateful.

The tested Rodeo is a clever piece, a two-wheel-drive vehicle built like a four-wheel-drive machine. No deception is meant in its presentation. Someone at Isuzu simply realized that most buyers of four-wheel-drive stuff are more interested in form than function. They are victims of the Great American Potency Syndrome -- the uncontrollable desire to flex muscles that, for a variety of reasons, can never be used.

For those who actually do spend more than two weeks a year in the rough, a four-wheel-drive Rodeo is available.

Background: This Isuzu is made in Lafayette, Ind., at the joint-venture Subaru-Isuzu Automotive plant. Politically, that's an important point for Japanese-owned Isuzu, because the Rodeo is going to sell like crazy.

All one has to do is look at the vehicle and check out its price to figure out why. It is a prettier version of the more costly Nissan Pathfinder. It's more fun to drive than the Toyota 4-Runner, Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer. Does it beat the Chevrolet Blazer? I don't know. I've yet to drive the new four-door Blazer.

Isuzu's marketers would have us believe that the Rodeo will be sold indefinitely alongside the venerable, but boxy Isuzu Trooper. Hmph. "Indefinitely" will be short-lived in this case. To quote one Virginia Isuzu dealer: "This thing is going to leave a lot of our Troopers on the lot."

The Trooper has more space, but the space in the Rodeo is better used. The super attractive Rodeo can be outfitted to seat four to six people and to carry up to 74.9 square feet of cargo.

The Rodeo comes in three models: the base S, the better-appointed XS and the luxury LS.

Complaints: The Rodeo comes with a bit of electronic silliness, namely the "power drive" button. It's meaningless. Push it in to get more torque, twisting power, from the engine. Nuts. The discernible power increase is next to nothing. I'm also concerned about fuel efficiency, which tends to be low anyway in sport-utility vehicles. Other than that, it's a buy.

Praise: An overall excellent automotive work in terms of body construction, space utility, general road performance and value for dollar. Isuzu is to be congratulated.

Head-turning quotient: Super knockout. If style is a determinant of your sports-utility buy, this one rates a lusty nod. People swarmed over the Rodeo in Northern Virginia's shopping-mall parking lots.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Superior ride and handling. Good acceleration.

The test Rodeo is equipped with a 3.1-liter, fuel-injected V-6, rated 120 horsepower at 4,400 rpm. It's competent on the highway, but in the test vehicle gave every indication that it would be happier with a five-speed manual transmission instead of the optional four-speed automatic job.

A 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine is available in the base Rodeo. That engine is rated 120 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, which means it must work harder than the six-cylinder model to get similar results.

Mileage: About 16 to the gallon (21.9-gallon tank, estimated 335-mile range on usable volume), city-highway, carrying one to five occupants and light cargo. The engine in the test model had less than 1,000 miles use at delivery, which might have affected mileage.

Price: Isuzu's estimated base price on the Rodeo LS is $13,500. Estimated dealer's invoice price on that model is $12,555. Estimated price of tested vehicle is $15,000, including an estimated $1,100 in options and a $400 destination charge. Firm prices will be set in the fall of 1990 for the 1991 model year.

Purse-strings note: If the dealers resist the urge to add mark-ups, this could be the best-priced, highest-value, four-door sport-utility machine on the market.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.