Everyone out there who is thinking about buying a minivan please raise your hand.

C'mon people, get those hands up. You can't all be lusting for a Lincoln Navigator or some other big sport-utility vehicle.No one? All right, have it your way. I'm going to tell you about the 1998 Chevrolet Venture anyway, and if someone comes in the room you can hurry and turn the page and claim you're just looking for the crossword puzzle or something.

When was it that minivans lost their charm, and why? They're just as useful as they ever were, more so really. All the manufacturers have had a dozen years to figure out that Chrysler Corp. really hit a hot button back in the early '80s with its Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager minis that allowed Mom to schlep all six kids to soccer practice and still have room in the back for a week's worth of groceries.

Maybe that's the problem. We all love Mom, but she isn't really the role model we have in mind when we set out to boost our self-image and impress the guys in our golf foursome. If a big sport-ute can carry just as many kids and cargo as the van and still let the world know that its owner has the right stuff, it's not a tough decision.

And who cares if the sport-ute gets really lousy mileage and you need a ladder to climb in and out. It's only money, and the sport-ute is safer and goes good in the snow and all that.

I have to snicker when I think that Honda is finally coming to the party this fall with its first full-size, Chryslerlike minivan. Should we tell them the party was last night or let them knock on the door and find out for themselves?

But maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe the minivan craze really isn't as dead as a Hudson Hornet. Maybe it's just resting. Maybe there is a minivan renaissance on the way. Maybe the AMC Pacer was really a great car.

Let's see, where was I? Oh yeah, the Chevy Venture. I haven't tested a minivan in quite a while, but I was most impressed with this one, mainly because of its surprisingly powerful engine.

When motorists pull up to a stoplight, they do whatever they can to avoid being behind a minivan, figuring it will take the van a minute or two just to toddle across the intersection.

Imagine their surprise when I leave them eating my dust, perhaps altering their view of minivans forever. "Who is that guy?" I imagine them asking themselves as I roar off, kind of like Butch and Sundance fleeing the Pinkertons.

The Venture's 3.4 liter, 180 horsepower V6, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission turns the Chevy into a stealth-mobile that can pass triple-trailer trucks with ease on the freeway and leave many a sport-ute in the lurch in city driving.

The Venture gets 18 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, which is pretty decent for a vehicle that is, after all, a small bus. In actual driving, it feels like it gets 50 mpg. That's because the huge 25-gallon gas tank affords the Chevy a 525 mile range in combined city/highway driving. I drove the thing about a hundred miles before the needle on the gas gauge ever budged off "full." I loved it.

Pricewise, the Venture seems to be less than a bargain until you consider that it's really a loaded luxury car that just happens to have seats for seven people and the entire contents of their garage. Looked at that way, the $21,669 base price and $26,390 bottom line of my tester didn't seem out of line.

The only minivan I've ever owned was a Mitsubishi I bought back in the mid- '80s. That vehicle handled so badly, especially in a crosswind, that it was literally dangerous. After a couple of months I dumped it for a zippy, sure-footed Acura Integra and wrote off minivan mania as some kind of mass hysteria.

Now I know that I, the auto expert, simply happened to buy the worst minivan ever made. If I had bought a Caravan, or even the rig that really started it all, the Volkswagen Microbus, I may have become a confirmed vanner. Or not.

Anyway, the Venture handles really well, much like any largish four-door sedan. No problems at all, even in crosswinds. It's also extremely versatile and comfortable.

One of the options included with my tester was a $210 touring suspension package with automatic leveling control and auxiliary air inflator. The latter includes a 20-foot air hose that allows you to pump up your tires, inflate rubber rafts, air mattresses and assorted other items. Very handy.

Ventures come in regular or extended lengths, with a choice of sliding doors on one side or both, and a choice of base or LS trim. My review car was an extended LS version with a single sliding door.

I would definitely opt for the second sliding door on the driver's side as it adds greatly to the convenience of the vehicle. I'd also choose the extended body version (8 inches longer than the regular van). One buys a minivan for carrying capacity so shouldn't one get all that one can? One should.