When my best friend and I were growing up in Winter Park, Fla., we used to laugh at any young person who drove a four-door car. He had a '69 Oldsmobile 442. I had a 1970 Pontiac GTO. Our pal across the street was constantly tinkering with a souped-up '68 Mustang convertible. It was a mean car when it ran, and we were scared of what it could do.

Back in the mid-'70s, if you didn't have an AMC Javelin, a Chevy Camaro or some cool Chrysler product, such as a Dodge Super Bee, you were out of it.So now it's 22 years later, and there probably isn't one of us who owns anything with fewer than four doors. But times have changed, not just for those who grew up with muscle cars but also for four-door cars. The cars are hot. They're cool. They're nothing like they used to be.

I can't imagine anyone young or old who'd snicker at the four-door Dodge Intrepid. To my eyes, this is the first car I've seen that looks like it would be right at home in the 21st century.

For most of this decade, Chrysler designers have been belting one home run after another with the cars, trucks and vans they've styled. But quality has been lacking.

The 1998 Intrepid, which is a new car from the wheels up, just may help shore up Chrysler's quality image. This car not only feels tightly made, it also offers an unusual amount of interior room, the type of thoughtful, innovative interior you'd expect to find in an expensive import and great styling. And you can get all this for around $20,000.

If I could gather all my old friends and let them look this car over, I bet it would get a hearty roar of approval. If growing older means having four doors, cars like the new Intrepid make the trip into middle age a heck of a lot easier.

PERFORMANCE

Chrysler engineers have designed two new engines for the Intrepid. Our silver base model car came with a double overhead cam, 2.7-liter V-6. The sportier Intrepid ES is outfitted with a single overhead cam, 3.2-liter V-6 that makes 220-horsepower. Both V-6s have 24 valves and require no maintenance other than regular oil and filter changes.

A computer-controlled, four-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available. ES models come standard with Chrysler's AutoStick, a performance-increasing device that simulates a manual transmission by letting the driver shift gears electronically.

The responsive 2.7-liter engine gives the Intrepid spirited performance. It runs smoothly, and the power is sent to the front wheels with finesse.

But the engine does get one minor demerit - for noisiness. Its pleasing sounds that would be fine in something like the sporty Dodge Avenger seem out of place in a family sedan. Perhaps Chrysler engineers could add extra padding between the engine and the interior to absorb the noise.

The four-speed transmission is excellent. It shifts smoothly and at precisely the right time no matter how hard you step on the gas pedal.

Though the 1998 Intrepid, at 3,400 pounds, is a big mid-size car and slightly larger than last year's model, it has a light, athletic feel.

The power-assisted steering offers crisp response and makes city driving easy. All Intrepids come with four-wheel disc brakes. And anti-lock system is optional on base model Intrepids and standard on the ES. Our test car had ABS brakes, and they worked well.

Chrysler engineers also did some fine work on the Intrepid's four-wheel, independent suspension system. This time, the car is quiet when you ride over deep bumps. You don't hear the shocks and struts banging and clanging like you did in previous Intrepids.

But once again there is a minor demerit to be handed out: The tires make a lot of noise on rough pavement. It could be that the tire tread selected for the Intrepid is not compatible with the sound-deadening system Chrysler uses.

With the recent merger of Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, one could reasonably expect such traits as excessive noise and other quality glitches to disappear. German cars are lauded for their attention to detail.

FIT AND FINISH

Chrysler has done its best work to date with the interior of the new Intrepid.

Parts of the dash and shifter housing have a perforated, black plastic trim that looks and feels great.

Some other high points:

-The analog gauges have red needles that light up at night.

-The firm, supportive cloth seats are the most comfortable yet for a Chrysler vehicle.

-Three large, round knobs control the air conditioner and are simple to use.

-The rear seats not only are able to hold three large adults, but they also are as comfortable as the front seats. There's plenty of leg and headroom in the rear.

-Buttons on the steering wheel operate the cruise control, so drivers need not take their eyes off the road to use it.

-There are plenty of areas to store things, such as the center console, a decent-size glovebox and map pockets in the doors.

-The huge trunk may be the largest in this class.

Most striking is the car's Flash Gordon-esque styling.

The Intrepid's long, wedge-shaped body continues with Chrysler's innovative cab-forward styling. That means the wheels are pushed to the corners of the car to maximize interior room.

The headlights and taillights mold flush with the contours of the body. And from the side, there is no other four-door car that I know of that looks as cool. The shape of the door openings gives the Intrepid a racy look.

The base Intrepid comes very well equipped. Our test car sported $2,100 worth of options, including anti-lock brakes, power driver's seat and an AM/FM cassette with CD player. Everything else, such as power windows, door locks and mirrors, cruise control and air conditioning, is standard.

These days, two-door cars and sports coupes are out of fashion. A four-door such as the Intrepid lets you look cool and still have plenty of fun behind the wheel.