Newspaper columnists who write about a specific subject every week for 20 years eventually become elevated to "guru" status. Their opinions on the subject take on more weight than, say, your neighbor's.

That's not to say the columnist's opinion is more worthwhile than your neighbor's, but it does say something about the power of the news media. Opinions that make it into print carry more weight than those tossed off over the dinner table.Since I am your favorite car columnist (if not, don't tell me; it would break my heart) and my long tenure on this page means I must be a guru, then it follows that I am often asked my opinion on cars. The question is usually framed this way: "Max, what car should I buy?"

I usually weasel out of a direct answer by replying, "Well, it depends. Tell me what you think you need?" They then tell me which car, sport-utility or truck they have their heart set on and I quickly confirm that they have made an excellent choice, thus eliminating any doubts they may have had as to my intelligence and good taste. This is how gurus are made.

But occasionally someone will ask: "Max, what kind of car do you drive when you aren't driving other people's cars?" This is a perceptive question. It's like asking travel agents where they go on vacation when they have to pay their own way (assuming they ever do).

Constant readers of this column know that for many years the Knudson family fleet has consisted of my 1988 Acura Legend (Acura is Honda's upscale division), my wife's 1990 Subaru Legacy, and my eldest daughter's 1992 Honda Civic. Between them, the three cars had logged some 300,000 miles.

But no more. The Subaru has been traded for a 1998 Honda CR-V, thus reducing our total mileage by 120,000 and making us a one-brand family. Let me do the math . . . yep, we now own three Honda products.

The CR-V (Honda says it stands for "Comfortable Runabout Vehicle" which is pretty lame) is one of a new breed of small sport-utility vehicles which include the Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester, among others.

From her years with the Legacy, my wife, Karen, is convinced of the value of four-wheel-drive, and my attempts to dissuade her of this notion came to nothing. She doesn't understand that I am a guru and that my opinion on cars is more valuable than hers.

We chose the CR-V for all the usual reasons. We think it's pretty neat looking - muscular without being overly large (it's built on the Honda Civic platform). It's fun to drive, gets decent mileage for a sport-ute (24 mpg in city driving and 27 on the highway; 15.3 gal. tank) and our EX model (there are five in all) has a surprisingly large array of standard equipment.

Among those goodies are power windows and outside mirrors, cruise control, nice stereo with in-dash CD player, remote keyfob locking, AC, alloy wheels, disc brakes with ABS, air bags, rear window wiper/washers, power steering and adjustable steering column.

Another factor in our "buy" decision was the great reliability we've enjoyed with our Civic and Legend. Finally, we felt the price was right. They're aren't many sport-utes out there in carland available for $20,000 that are equipped in the manner of the CR-V. Nor does it hurt that Hondas traditionally have excellent resale value.

The CR-V is powered by a 126-horsepower 16-valve 4-cylinder engine that is adequate but no more than that. If power and acceleration are at the top of your must-have list, the Forester, with 39 more ponies prancing under the hood, will likely serve you better.

When it first entered the market two years ago, the CR-V was available with only an automatic transmission. If that were true today we wouldn't have chosen the car. But earlier this year Honda added a 5-speed stick as the standard CR-V transmission. It gets the most out of the engine, enhances fuel mileage and makes it more fun to drive. The automatic is still available at extra cost.

The interior layout of the CR-V is top rate. The seats are firm and comfortable, there's a nifty fold-down tray between the seats instead of a center console, and in the back there's a fold-out picnic table that doubles as the floor of the cargo compartment.

I don't know if we'll ever actually use the picnic table, but it's the kind of fun touch that makes this vehicle stand out. Also, under the table is a large plastic well, good for storing wet items, or dry ones for that matter.

We also were impressed with the good visibility afforded by the CR-V's tall windows and the commanding view from the driver's seat. You get the sport-ute experience in the CR-V without having to climb up into it. It's as easy to enter and egress as a car.

Access to the cargo area can be made either by the pop-up window or the rear gate, which swings out like a door. The spare tire hangs on the gate.

The CR-V's four-wheel-drive system, called Real-Time 4WD, is not the lock-the-hubs and head-for-the-hills version found on larger sport-utes and trucks. "Real-Time" is a euphemism for "part-time."

In normal driving, only the front wheels receive power. When the system senses that the wheels are slipping, it automatically spreads the power to all four wheels. It's a good system in that it gives you 4WD only when it's needed and allows the vehicle to be more responsive and steer/handle better on dry pavement.

Speaking of handling, Hondas have always excelled in this department and the CR-V is no exception. Credit goes to the four-wheel, double-wishbone suspension for absorbing bumps with elan.