Having just spent a week with one, I know why there are so many Ford Explorers running around on Utah roads. There just aren't many vehicles that offer so much for . . . well, not so little, not at $20,000 and up, but a lot of value for those dollars.

You've seen them too, of course. Explorers are cutting seriously into sales of the longtime king of the "sport utility" vehicles (family division), the Jeep Cherokee, and seem to be more than enough competition for General Motors' new Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and GMC S-15 Jimmy compact "sportutes" as they are known in the industry.And why not. With four-wheel-drive, seating for five (six if you don't opt for the console between the front seats), a huge cargo space, an eye-pleasing design, lots of available luxury options and a brawny "I'm-a-Westerner" image, the Explorer could have been designed with Utahns in mind.

Might as well admit it. People don't buy Explorers just for utility. I mean if you want to haul 2X4s and sacks of concrete, a pickup truck does it better. And if you want to haul people, a minivan hauls more of them and a sedan does it in more comfort.

Nope, Explorers are bought because they can haul stuff and haul people and look good doing it. In other words, the Explorer is an affordable Range Rover.

For $20,000-$25,000 less than a Range Rover, depending on options and the deal you can cut, you get a vehicle that does virtually everything the RR can do but without breaking down as often (according to frequency of repair reports). Best of all, you get almost as much status.

I know, the Rover has that certain British something (Prince Charles supposedly takes one grouse hunting on the moors) but the Ford comes so close for so much less money . . . You could buy a very nice boat to tow behind your Explorer for that extra $25,000.

The Explorer certainly gives away nothing in quality or fit and finish. It is screwed together about as well as anything the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. When you close the door of an Explorer, it sounds and feels like a bank vault swinging shut.

Explorer's interior is the best I've seen in a sportute; in fact, it's better than many sedans. The dash layout is good, seats are supportive but comfortable and no one, not even 6-footers, will feel cramped. Also, while it is easy to get in and out of, you still rise well above the majority of the other cars. Sportute owners just naturally feel superior to sedan drivers.

Is this a perfect vehicle for Utah families? It comes awfully close. After six days behind the wheel I came away with only two complaints: 1)While the ride quality is quite smooth for a truck it is rough compared to most cars, and 2) its rated gas mileage of 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway makes for a pretty expensive commute to work or run to the store (some published reports put Explorer mileage around town as low as 13 mpg.)

And let's face it, that's what most people use their cars for. Very few Explorer buyers will ever take it into conditions where they really need 4WD, low-range transmission capability, high road clearance and big off-road tires.

Incidentally, I did take it off road for a short stint and ran out of courage long before the Explorer ran out of climbing ability. The point is, you pay for a lot of off-road capability that you will seldom need. The trade-off is mediocre ride quality and poor gas mileage, both of which you always need.

But even if it never leaves the asphalt, there obviously are a lot of people willing to make the necessary ride and fuel economy concessions in order to own one. Ford's compact utility sales, including Explorer and its Bronco II predecessor, are up 84 percent from a year ago and have increased every month since the Explorer was introduced in March 1990.

The combination of trucklike utility and carlike amenities - lighted vanity mirrors, for heaven's sake - seems to be irresistible.

The Explorer lineup includes two-and four-door models but it's the four-door that is logging the majority of sales for Ford. Incidentally, Mazda's Navajo is a rebadged clone of the Explorer - a nice switch on the Japanese - but is only available as a two-door.

Explorer features a 4.0 liter V-6 engine generating 155 hp that can be teamed with a five-speed manual overdrive or optional four-speed automatic overdrive, the tranny of choice for most Explorer buyers.

Other standard equipment includes electronic rear anti-lock brakes; Touch Drive that allows you to switch between two- and four-wheel-drive by touching a button (same for the low-range transfer case) and Twin Traction-Beams on 4WD models. You can get a 2WD model, but that would seem to defeat the whole purpose of buying a sportute.

Base price of the Explorer is $17,219, but I defy you to find one at that price. Virtually all Explorers will have enough luxo options - AC, stereo cassette, power windows, door locks, luggage rack, fancy wheels and so forth, to push the price to $22,000.

Others, with leather power seats, consoles, sun roofs and such can, after "extra dealer profit" is added, move the price beyond $25,000 before you can say "sticker shock."