Subaru of America is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and eagerly awaits the sale of its three millionth car in this country. It's possible that sale might take place at a Salt Lake-area dealership, where Subarus have been going out the door at a 40 percent higher rate over the past two years, leading the charge nationally.

But whether that landmark sale occurs in Salt Lake or Sausalito really doesn't matter; Subaru dealers are just glad they'll be in business to enjoy it.Not long ago, that seemed unlikely. Following a long slide that began in 1987 with the severe appreciation of the yen against the dollar, Subaru sales went in the tank for seven consecutive years.

By 1993, when SOA had a 300-day unsold inventory and was losing money at a rate of $20 million a month, Subaru of America's days were clearly numbered.

Enter new SOA president George Muller. In a classic turnaround that will be studied by business majors for years to come, Muller fired SOA's ad agency (Weiden & Kennedy, the folks who turned Nike into the Coca-Cola of shoe companies), cut the product line in half to focus exclusively on its all-wheel-drive market niche, launched a program to rebuild dealer confidence and hired Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan to be their pitchman.

The rest is, if not history, at least one of the more dramatic corporate rescues since Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler.

Subaru is now lean, mean and tightly focused on a dozen versions of its Legacy, Outback, Impreza and Forester all-wheel-drive models.

Which brings us to this week's test ride, a 1998 Subaru Forester. Forester is an all new model for Subaru, and it has been a winner right from its introduction last August when it sold half again as many (3,000) in its first month as Subaru had anticipated in its best-case scenario. In the six months since, it has become official: Forester is a hit.

Count me in as one of the true believers. From the first moment I climbed in and turned the key, I was impressed with my test car, an "acadia green metallic" beauty with velour seats that seemed custom made for my (average-size) body.

After I got under way, and punched the throttle I laughed out loud. Unlike many sport-utility vehicles, whose driving characteristics tend toward the slow and ponderous, the Forester leaps into action like a cheetah on the hunt. If this were a sports car I'd say fine, it's supposed to be fun to drive. But this is a sport-utility; one that's long on sport without sacrificing any of the utility.

Unlike the Legacy-Impreza line of station wagons - essentially cars that Subaru converted into hybridized sport-utes - the Forester has the classic look of the genre that was established by Britain's Land Rover and made famous in those African safari movies of the 1950s.

Not that Subaru started with a clean sheet of paper in creating the Forester; they haven't been profitable long enough for that. Instead, they took the floorpan of the Impreza and the driveline components of the Outback and came up with a vehicle that was relatively inexpensive to develop but stands entirely on its own.

Forester's most direct competition is the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CRV, but unlike those two it meets all federal safety and emissions standards for passenger cars. It also will leave them in the dust when the stoplight turns green.

That's because Subaru has put the same 2.5 liter, 165 horsepower, four--cylinder "boxer" engine in the Forester as it uses in the Outback. Only the Forester weighs only a little over 3,000 pounds, some 1,000 pounds less than most sport-utes, so it has a serious advantage in power-to-weight ratio.

For those times when you want to leave the asphalt behind and take the Forester into the forest, it offers decent 7.5-inch ground clearance and big 16-inch tires, but it could use a low-range set of gears for pulling up steep hills.

No question there are better choices out there for serious off-roading - a 10-year-old Jeep Wrangler that you don't mind beating to pieces comes to mind - but if the only reason you need or want a sport-ute is to navigate the occasional snow storm or dirt road to your favorite fishing hole or deer trail, then the Forester will serve just fine.

For the other 99.9 percent of the time, it does a pretty good impersonation of a four-door sedan, and a pretty nice one at that, what with automatic transmission, power windows and mirrors, a good stereo system with CD player, heated seats, cruise control and a full-size spare tucked neatly under the cargo bay where it stays clean, available and out of the way.

It also has a little computer screen on the dash that features an animated compass (a little video car serves in place of the compass needle), a barometer and an altimeter, the latter two unique to autodom in my experience.

The base Forester starts at $18,695, but the S model, my test vehicle, has a standard price of $22,195. The automatic transmission added $800, a cold weather package was worth $300, a rear cargo cover was $122, the gauge package added $395 and the CD player was $120.

Delivery charges of $495 brought the bottom line of my test vehicle to $24,727 - not cheap, but it includes a lot of luxury equipment. And if all you need in a sport-ute is seating for four, you'll pay a lot more than that for one of the larger sport-utes, and this one will actually fit in your garage and a standard parking place.