When they realized they were having their third kid, Lauri and Jim Pantos swallowed hard and accepted reality: It was time to buy a minivan.

They'd traded up from their Gaithersburg town house to a new single-family home in Germantown. He commuted to work; she was a stay-at-home mom. They lived near Wal-Mart. All the signs pointed in one direction -- it was time to cross the last threshold, to become one with suburbia.

"This is totally not the image we saw of ourselves," Lauri says, giving the familiar we're-really-not-minivan-people refrain that rings through every subdivision.

"It felt like the total suburbanite cave-in."

Yet last December they bought a green 1998 Plymouth Grand Voyager. And -- reluctant and resigned -- they joined the club.

"I was the only person I knew who didn't have a minivan," she says. "I'd go to the preschool and the parking lot was filled with minivans and 4-by-4s. It's more and more rare that you see a car anymore."

After their purchase, she says, the angst subsided. In an eerie way. "I was the norm," she says. "I fit in with everyone."

Nothing puts parents on the analyst's couch like the ubiquitous multiple-seated, sliding-doored hauler of soccer teams and bulk groceries. If the self-delusion associated with buying one had a name in psychology journals, it would be "minivan denial."

One can resist the minivan and all it stands for. One can struggle. One can postpone. But only for so long.

As Americans, we attach great meaning to our vehicles. Some of those meanings are complex enough to carry multiple connotations. A BMW, for instance, can announce a driver's prosperity -- or over-financed attempt to look prosperous. But the minivan -- for those who fear it -- has one, immutable meaning:

Giving in.

Giving in to children: Finally, irreversibly admitting your life is no longer just about you; it is also about your kids.

Giving in to the suburbs: For attitudinal city dwellers, the suburbs are about bailing out, going soft, conforming. Many suburbanites worry about the same things. If they can just avoid buying the minivan, they think, they can avoid complete homogenization.

In a larger sense, minivans are about giving in to honesty: Admitting you're probably never going to trek through Tibet. Instead, the treks you'll take will be across soggy Saturday morning soccer fields in Laurel and mall parking lots in Springfield, environments the minivan was designed to rule.

Larger still, they are about giving in to getting older, middle-age sag and spread; and eventually, yes, death. A minivan is a one-way portal through which there is no return, like those barriers at car rental garages: "Warning: Backing up will cause severe tire damage!"

And giving in, for some men, to a form of nonsurgical but public emasculation. Each time you drive the thing.

Jim Pantos, 34, didn't have too many problems buying the Grand Voyager. But, he admits, that's mostly because his wife was going to drive it most of the time. He commutes to his software design job in Rockville in a manly Ford Explorer.

"I'd joked with her that if the minivan were going to be my car, I'd have some more serious issues with it," he says.

"He'd say, I'm not driving to work in a minivan,' " Lauri Pantos, 34, says. "He was joking, but he was serious, too."

Don Wharton, on the other hand, had some really serious problems with buying a minivan. Until he found one with optional running boards and a spoiler.

He and wife Bobbi, both 37, are planning a family. Strollers. Playpens. Car seats. Moreover, Wharton is a pet food salesman who travels extensively. That's a lot of time away from his Silver Spring home hauling a lot of pet food. They have two cars -- a workweek Honda Accord and a weekend play car, a teal 1993 Thunderbird with spoiler, T-top and 10-disc CD changer. Now, with a kid on the way, both cars seem too small on the inside. Time to get big.

For a long time, Don advocated a sport utility vehicle, or, in auto parlance, a sport-ute.

"I wanted a man-size car," he says. Not a Ford Windstar minivan, like one of his friends has. "I called it a Sissystar,' " he says, laughing.

He's not laughing as much since he had his head turned by one monster-looking Sissystar.

"There was a Windstar at an auto show that had aluminum rims and had running boards on it. And you could get a spoiler, too," he says, dreamily. "I could actually be seen in it. My buddies would say, Hey, that's pretty spiffy.' "

On the Manliness Scale, he says: "You can get a 9 on that. Every other minivan gets a 3."

If he can trick up the minivan sufficiently, he says, he'll be able to delude himself enough to drive it. For instance, he saw an accessory console that fits between the driver's and passenger's seats that accommodates a small TV and VCR.

"On long trips, you can put in The Firm' or The Hunt for Red October,' " he says. Guy paradise: On the road, driving a boss ride, with a submarine movie playing idly in the background.

Still, he fears, he'll look like "every other mommy van coming down the road."

Which is why he has been fighting so hard for a Dodge Durango, the latest entry into the crowded sport-ute field. It is large. It has four-wheel drive. It has a muscular V-8 engine and fender flares. But he's not hopeful, given that it costs more than $30,000 and he can get the Windstar in the low 20s. He's more or less resigned to owning a minivan. But he has to get something in return.

"It's been a major process to fight to save the T-bird as my sports car. I'll keep it under a cover and still have some bit of macho left, something I can actually squeal the tires in," he says. "I'm clinging desperately to my last bastion of masculinity."

If it's any consolation, Wharton should note that Car and Driver magazine wrote of the van: "For the record, partygoers will appreciate that we fit 74 empty beer cases in our Windstar." Everybody In!

Minivan sales rocketed through the '80s and early '90s after Chrysler filled a gaping, hitherto-unknown market void with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983. Chrysler still dominates the field with 45 percent of all minivan sales (the Dodge Caravan is the most popular, with more than 300,000 sold last year). And, even though minivan sales have leveled off somewhat in the past couple of years -- partially because of market saturation and partially because of sport-utes, hailed as a tonic for the minivan blahs -- the minivan is still the quintessential suburban vehicle, much like its predecessor, the station wagon.

The station wagon, it should be noted, served the same role as the minivan and likewise identified an earlier generation's occupants as certifiable suburbanites. For them, the subdivision was an aspiration, the fake-wood Town and Country a status symbol.

Yet their children heap scorn upon their minivans. Why? The answer is probably boomer-based: Their reluctance to admit they're grown-ups. No generation, it seems, clings harder to its youth. And perhaps the greatest reminder of one's mortality is one's children. One can't say -- or even think -- "I wish I hadn't had you kids because you make me feel old" -- but one can hate the thing you drive them around in. The minivan, therefore, has become a rich anxiety reservoir -- and whipping boy -- for baby boomer, cul-de-sac, velvet-coffin regret.

It's amazing how much baggage you can pack into a minivan. A Family Tree

Remember when vans were groovy?

In the '70s, full-size panel vans -- the minivan's progenitor -- were rolling, swinging sex dens just large enough to hold a twin-size mattress. Inside, they were plush caves -- floors, walls and ceilings lined with shag carpeting, outfitted with swiveling captain's chairs, eight-tracks and fur-covered steering wheels. Outside, they were interstate-going murals, with fantastical airbrushed paintings of crashing ocean waves or auburn Western sunsets or impossibly proportioned women. The final touch was the bumper sticker on the back: "If This Van Is A-Rockin', Don't Come A-Knockin." Vans were even elegized in the '70s hit "Chevy Van" by Sammy Johns:

She's gonna love me in my Chevy van

And that's all right with me

Even though the van and minivan are near relatives, they are, psychologically, light-years apart. Here, for instance, is part of a song about a minivan, written by comedian Sean Morey and set to the tune of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride":

I like to dream

That I still fit in my old jeans.

Well, I'm a partying machine

But I go to bed at 8:15

Well, I am still a wild man

So why don't you come with me, little girl,

In my magic minivan?

It is said that cars are an extension of our personalities. Often it is truer that they are an extension of the personality we'd like to be. We accessorize with cars the way we do with clothing, jewelry and even mates, playing dress-up like children. We are rarely honest enough to buy the sort of car that really fits our personality. Otherwise, there would be a lot more Delta 88s on the road. And, quite possibly, minivans.

Car salesmen know better than anyone else the crucial mating of vehicle and owner personality. Talk to minivan salesmen and you'll hear front-line stories of minivan denial. They've seen the identity crises right there on their showroom floors.

Ed Dunn, a sales manager at Fitzgerald Colonial Dodge on Rockville Pike, had one couple recently contemplating a Caravan and a Durango. Among the Dodge family, this is a common choice: Even though it's quite likely that suburbanite Durango owners aren't going to do any four-wheeling in West Virginia, at least they can tell themselves they haven't bought a minivan. It can be argued that much of the appeal of sport-utes is not what they are but what they are not -- minivans.

The couple test-drove the Caravan and Durango. Though they preferred the Durango, it didn't have the interior space they needed. The Caravan did. In fact, the Caravan satisfied most of their requirements. But they just . . . couldn't . . . do it.

"She said, I can't see myself in it. It'll make me like my mom,' " Dunn says. In the end, the couple left, dejected, with neither vehicle.

But there's another side to the story, salesmen and minivan owners say. Once customers buy a minivan -- once they yield to its power -- they keep buying them, auto surveys show. Turns out, the minivan, er, um, happens to meet most of their needs.

Another couple came into Fitzgerald and told salesman Chuck Scott they needed a minivan.

"I'm buying this for the family," the man stated imperiously. "I don't want to have anything to do with a minivan. I drive an Acura."

A few months later, Scott saw the same man bring said minivan in for an oil change.

"You're not going to believe this," he told Scott. "I like this better than the Acura. My wife is driving the Acura."

Indeed, there is an admirable honesty among those who have reconciled themselves to the minivan. People like Tracey King, 33, who lives in Gaithersburg with her stockbroker husband, J.J., and their two children.

When they bought their white 1996 Dodge Caravan, her husband got the requisite jibes from his golfing buddies. But so what?

"There's the whole stigma about moving into middle life and having children," she says of minivan-deniers. "I guess they think they're not hip anymore.

"But I don't care what people think," she continues. "I drive a minivan, I'm a stay-at-home mom with two children and it's good. I don't know why everyone perceives that as a negative. That's the good part of life."

Which is exactly how the execs at Chrysler hope their product will be perceived -- not as the last resort but as the answer to lives that change with age.

"People that don't own a minivan look at the stereotypical idea of it being for a soccer mom and they speak of it in negative terms," says David Bostwick, director of corporate market research for Chrysler Corp. "They say, This person is giving up their time, why don't they get a life?' But if you talk to a {minivan owner}, they say, This is life. Life is very complex and there are a lot of demands and we're going to adapt to it.' "

Women have fewer problems owning minivans, Bostwick says, because -- unlike fathers -- mothers tend to form their lives and schedules around the needs of their children. The children need a vehicle "they can be picked up in, change clothes in and be taken to the next activity in," he says, and the minivan is it.

Then, Bostwick waxes large on the topic of minivans.

Committing to a minivan "is a little bit like getting married. It's a little scary like having a baby," he says. "When you step into a different stage in your life, it's not always an active move, sometimes it's more of an acceptance. When you get on the other side of acceptance, you say, I'm glad I accepted it.' "

Honda, which owns a tiny slice of the minivan market with its Odyssey, is trying an in-your-face TV ad targeted at people who believe they haven't accepted anything. And will never have to.

The 30-second spot shows a young, affluent couple in a smartly decorated house. A baby can be heard gurgling in the background.

She (sarcastically): "Have you seen Dave's new car?"

He: "Yeah, I've seen Dave's new car." Pause. "I was thinking maybe we could get a minivan."

She: Uproarious, sustained laughter.

Voice-over: "If the word minivan' scares you, just say Odyssey,' from Honda."

Researchers at Rubin Postaer & Associates, the California agency that created the ad, came up with the acknowledge-the-phobia tack after conducting interviews with Odyssey and Caravan owners. What they found were two groups that perceive themselves very differently though they own vehicles that look remarkably alike.

Odyssey owners say they make "conscious lifestyle decisions," says Heidi Vail, a vice president at Rubin Postaer. For Caravan owners, "life just happened to people. All of a sudden, they woke up and they have two or three kids and they have to survive.

"Also, Odyssey owners are more likely to socialize with other adults and look for time with themselves, not just with their kids," she notes. Caravan owners "felt that once you have kids, life is all set for you and you have no more choices."

Odyssey owners, she says, believe they are the captains of their lives, not castaways clinging to a lifeboat with three seats and sliding doors.

"Odyssey owners don't want to be stigmatized," she says. Unlike, presumably, Caravan owners, who don't mind. Case Study

Somewhere between the naked honesty of a Caravan person and the self-delusion of an Odyssey person lies, perhaps, Ilisa Bernstein: policy adviser, mother, windsurfer.

She used to own a Chevrolet Blazer, which can almost be called a truck. She would strap her windsurfing board to the roof, head down to Cape Hatteras and ride the waves. "I fit in nicely down there," she says.

But four years ago, she and her husband, David, had twins.

Enter the minivan.

"I got totally sucked into the advertising on TV for the van with the automatic sliding door," she says of her green 1994 Pontiac Transport. "I imagined myself with twins and my hands full with bags of groceries and I told my husband, I want the car that has that button that automatically opens the door. Soon.' "

But there was one thing she didn't anticipate: How the minivan would fit in at Hatteras, among the windsurfers.

"When we got the minivan, we got rid of the Blazer and I had to go down there with my mommy van," she says. "I was totally out of place. I mean, there were vans there, but not minivans." Bummer.

Worse, perhaps, when she and her husband were at home in Wheaton, they were social outsiders as well, thanks to the minivan.

"Nobody I knew had a minivan. None of my friends imagined themselves as minivan drivers. We were the first," she says. Then she adds, laughing, but with a hint of genuine isolation: "I couldn't talk to anybody about it!" Now, she says, everyone comes to them for minivan advice. Great. Just what you want to be known as -- the minivan expert. Four years after buying hers, she's come to terms with it. Sort of. "My view is that as soon as the kids are old enough," meaning when her 4-year-olds no longer require car seats, strollers and so on, "I'm going buy another sport utility vehicle," she says, one like her oft-mourned Blazer.

This is her reckoning with the minivan. Her separate peace. "I can kind of see the end of road," she says. "I'll get back to a sport utility someday."

Right. That's probably what they all say. CAPTION: At one with their minivan: "This is totally not the image we saw of ourselves," says Lauri Pantos, sitting with husband Jim and their three children. "It felt like the total suburbanite cave-in." CAPTION: "Nobody I knew had a minivan. None of my friends imagined themselves as minivan drivers. We were the first," says Ilisa Bernstein. She and her husband own a 1994 Pontiac Transport.