From the halls of Montezuma to the . . . foothills of the Wasatch Range. Jeep, the quintessential American marque, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Alas, its wrinkles and gray hair are beginning to show.

While still the king of the sport utility segment, Jeep, the car that invented off-road driving, is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth when compared to its youthful competitors.That was brought home most forcefully to me this week when I was asked to evaluate a Jeep Cherokee Sport right after completing a stint in the new Ford Explorer. It was no contest. Game, set and match to Explorer.

It's not that the Cherokee, wildly successful and profitable for American Motors and its more recent owner, Chrysler Corp., has suddenly gone bad, it's just a victim of advancing technology and improved quality control by newer competitors.

Jeep has had the sport utility vehicle (family division) niche to itself for so long that there has been little incentive for the folks manning the mother ship to update it. Now there is plenty.

Explorer, Olds Bravada, Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Trooper II and Rodeo, Mazda Navajo, Range Rover . . . almost everyone is getting into the "sportute" act with brand-new, state-of-the-art contenders, particularly in the four-door category that Cherokee once dominated but has now become hotly contested.

Chrysler needs to "reinvent" the Cherokee if it expects to maintain the massive market share (40 percent) it enjoys in a vehicle segment (sport utilities) that is expanding at 4 percent a year. The handwriting is already on the wall: while the market expanded in 1990, Cherokee sales declined an ominous 23 percent.

Chrysler knows all this, of course, and has a new "upscale" sportute, code named the "ZJ," due to debut next year. But the top end of the market is already crowded with cars while not so crowded with buyers. Thus, Chrysler says, it will continue to offer the Cherokee alongside the new offering, an obvious attempt to cover all bases.

The success of that ploy remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Chrysler is trying to boost Cherokee sales with a new "Sport" model. A Ferrari-red Cherokee Sport factory car was made available to the Deseret News last week.

In an era when sport utilities are now being equipped with more luxury goodies than your average Cadillac Fleetwood, the Cherokee Sport was surprisingly bereft of all but the basics - no power windows, door locks, mirrors; not even a tach-ometer. This, says Chrysler, is to make Cherokee more affordable to a larger number of buyers.

In its stripped incarnation, it doubtless is: Sport starts at a comparatively reasonable $15,946. But by the time a 4-speed automatic transmission is added (with a "power" button that adjusts the shift points for better acceleration), along with air conditioning, tape cassette, tilt steering and such, you're looking at close to $20,000.

Other amenities, such as anti-lock brakes ($799), skid plates for off-road protection ($144), full-sized spare tire $219) and rear window defroster can push it beyond $20K

The Sport still holds its own with any of the sport utilities when viewed from the outside. Its no-nonsense, squared-off lines have aged well and that 50-year Jeep heritage is worth millions (literally) against the upstart newcomers - particularly in light of the patriotism borne of the war in the gulf.

Unfortunately, it's on the inside where Cherokee owners spend most of their time and that's where the Jeep shows its age.

Take the steering wheel . . . please! This relic of the 1960s auto aftermarket with its three steel spokes seems not only dated but downright dangerous. The edges of the spokes feel sharp, cold and hard. I kept thinking that in an accident I would be rammed against a trio of butcher knives!

Also, the instrument panel and its various knobs and buttons seem anachronistic in the precise "user-friendly" era ushered in by the Japanese manufacturers.

Then there's ingress and egress. Climbing over Cherokee's elevated door sill can be accomplished without stumbling and barking your chins . . . but only about half the time. Also, the seats, particularly the rear bench, are not what you'd term state of the automotive art.

Finally, the lever used to shift from 2wd into 4wd and low range 4wd is crude, imprecise and difficult to use, particularly now that people know how easy it can be as shown by the Ford Explorer with its two neat little dash buttons that accomplish the same thing but ever so much easier.

In the past, these ergonomic deficiencies probably didn't cost Jeep a single sale; after all, wimps don't buy Jeeps. But today, when the baby boomers are all over 40 and they know they can have their macho image and be comfy too. . . .

The Cherokee's 4.0 liter 6-cylinder engine has been beefed up to 190 horsepower in the Sport, giving it the most powerful engine in its class, and it feels it. But there's a price to pay for that extra get up and go; fuel economy is down to 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway.

How has Chrysler reacted to all the pressure it is getting from competitors? By cutting prices. When rebates are included, Cherokee has a price advantage of some $1,500 over Explorer. That, of course, doesn't help Chrysler's bottom line. And judging from the number of Explorers on the road, it hasn't hurt Ford sales, either.