Big can be better without being bulky or a burden.

That’s the message Chevrolet shouted from 12,500 feet here in unveiling the redesigned 2000 Suburban and Tahoe sport-utility vehicles.

Of course, at 12,500 feet, the air is so thin Chevy might have simply hollered “drinks are on the house,” and we just imagined the rest.

Tough to focus while sticking oxygen tubes in your nose to breathe in a climate in which cigarettes put themselves out for lack of air.

Since Ford introduced the full size Expedition for ’99 and followed with the full size Excursion for 2000, it has lured customers away from Chevrolet, which had the big SUV market to itself for years with Suburban.

Since Chevy began the full-size SUV craze in 1935 with the introduction of the Carryall Suburban, it figured it was time to fight back with fresh combatants–the 2000 Suburban and Tahoe.

Suburban/Tahoe styling changes focus on rounded, more aerodynamic sheet metal and larger glass area for improved visibility attached to front ends that strongly resemble the full-size Chevy Silverado pickup, which provided the platform for both.

Suburban/Tahoe now sport the same choice of V-8s offered in the Silverado truck to replace the 5.7-liter, 255-horsepower V-8. Tahoe offers a 4.8-liter, 275-h.p. and 5.3-liter 285-h.p. V-8; Suburban the 5.3-liter and a 6-liter, 300-h.p. V-8.

No diesels yet, but stay tuned.

The new V-8s boast higher output, yet 4 percent better mileage (about 1 m.p.g.). In testing Suburban and Tahoe here, however, we found the V-8s, like the media, get a little light-headed at 12,500 feet. When driving up the mountain, you must press the accelerator a bit sooner and a bit harder. Should be no problem in any locale not dotted by the Rockies.

Suburban/Tahoe ride on a 1 1/2-inch shorter wheelbase but have 2-inch wider front and rear tracking. The combination improves turning radius to keep from frightening potential buyers who feel big may be too bulky when it comes to SUVs. Wider tracking also improves road holding.

The emphasis is on SUVs that can handle six to nine people and their gear without acting like land yachts when it comes to maneuverability.

However, when you pull up to the stall in the mall parking lot, it will look a lot narrower from behind the wheel of a Suburban or Tahoe than it does in a Cavalier.

To make large SUVs even more manageable, Chevy reportedly plans to offer four-wheel steering on Suburban/Tahoe soon.

“We have a lot of advances in technology planned for the future full-size trucks in our portfolio, but we aren’t saying which vehicles or when for competitive reasons,” said Steve Ramsey Tahoe/Suburban brand manager.

However, insiders say GM plans to make four-wheel steering a $2,000 to $3,000 option on its ’03 full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and Suburban sport-utility vehicle to make the large machines easier to maneuver, primarily when trying to slip a nearly 220-inch long vehicle between the lines in a parking lot.

Ramsey also admitted that “more products will come off this platform” but refused to elaborate.

The Cadillac Escalade is built off the GMC Yukon, a cousin to the Chevy Tahoe. With Tahoe/Yukon redesigned for 2000, it sets the stage for changes to the Escalade for 2001. But there’s more planned .

One future product is expected to be a rival to the Lincoln Blackwood: a Lincoln Navigator SUV with an enclosed bed coming out for 2001. A Suburban or Tahoe with a truck bed like Blackwood has been rumored for months.

The Chevy version will be called Highlander or Avalanche, and there may be an SUV/truck hybrid off Suburban or Tahoe and perhaps even Blazer, since Ford will bring out a Ford Explorer SUV with a truck bed called the Sport Trac for 2001.

“There’s more iterations to come off this platform (Silverado/Suburban/Tahoe) and a lot of opportunity for some new niches that dealers can use for some (sales) leverage,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey wouldn’t talk about Blackwood or Avalanche/Highlander, but one Chevy official noted that “while Ford may be there first with a Blackwood, we will be close behind.”

In keeping with concern over the size of SUVs, Ford has begun offering movable gas/brake pedals on some models such as the Navigator so shorter drivers aren’t intimidated by the vehicle’s size and their inability to reach the pedals without moving the seat all the way forward. Movable pedals also keep drivers at a safe distance from the air bag in the steering wheel hub.

“We don’t see a need for it and won’t offer movable pedals. We are aware Ford has them and will look at the possibility of adding them in the future but they aren’t in our portfolio for now,” Ramsey said.

But we digress.

Suburban/Tahoe offer a couple of features for the first time–sunroofs and one-piece hatch lids. The swingup hatch lid was sorely needed because more SUVs haul people than ladders, the reason Chevy has long insisted on the dual swing-out doors.

Both still offer swing-out doors, but a trip through rainy Telluride pointed out why they are a pain–the center door pillar obstructs rear view and doesn’t allow for a wiper to get rid of road slop splashed onto the glass, which also obstructs rear view.

Also new on Tahoe is an optional third seat.

But Chevy insists the third seat isn’t so much in response to the third seat in the Ford Expedition and Dodge Durango as it is an effort to keep compact Chevy Blazer folks from abandoning the bow-tie brand.

When Blazer owners needed more room as the family grew in size, Chevy said many moved to an Expedition rather than a Tahoe because Expedition has a third seat.

The third seat lets Chevy boast nine-passenger Tahoe seating, though No. 8 better be “Ally McBeal’s” Calista Flockhart and No. 9 her shadow.

To get to Tahoe’s third seat (only with hatchback models), you open the side door and fold down the second-row seat back and walk over it. Not the path of choice for people wanting to preserve the second seat back from wear and tear, not to mention dirty or wet shoes.

As noted, the one fear of those who build and sell large sport-utes is that the buying public will focus on “large” and consider SUVs big and clumsy and difficult to control.

Nei ther Suburban nor Tahoe acted like a land yacht. Suspensions are tuned more to deliver sedan-like ride and handling.

Suburban and Tahoe offer optional Autoride or Premium Ride suspensions to maximize ride comfort and vehicle control under a variety of load conditions.

Both systems limit vehicle motion by automatically varying shock settings at the rear wheels to keep the stance level regardless of roadway conditions and whether you have a full load of passengers or are towing a trailer. The systems stiffen suspension settings to flatten the ride. Autoride uses air-leveling rear shocks; Premium Ride uses normal vehicle motion to automatically pump up and adjust shock settings.

AutoRide focuses more on vehicle handling and minimizing lean or sway on twisty roads, Premium Ride pays more attention to vehicle ride and minimizing up and down movement. Both are aimed at providing sedan comfort in what is a truck.

Big, with no bulk or burden.

Both a lso offer easy -to-use Autotrac four-wheel-drive. Push a button to activate 4WD or punch “Auto 4WD,” and the vehicle operates in 2WD until wheel slippage is detected and 4WD engages.

Autotrac is standard on all 4WD models, which also come with standard speed-sensitive power steering.

The 2WD Tahoe/Suburban offer electronic traction assist that regulates throttle and transmission shift points to keep the vehicle from slipping.

Other goodies include optional second-row bucket seats in Suburban; optional OnStar emergency communications in both; side-impact air bags standard in both; and large outside mirrors with puddle lamps (standard Suburban/Tahoe LT and LS) to light the ground so you don’t step in a puddle.

There’s also a fold/flip-over third seat in Suburban for added cargo room without removing the seat; hidden/locked spare under Suburban; running boards standard on Suburban/Tahoe LT; and four-wheel ABS standard on both.

>> 2000 Chevrolet Tahoe Wheelbase: 116 inches Length: 198.9 inches Engine: 5.3-liter, 285-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: Not available Base price: Not available. Goes on sale in November Price as tested: Not available Pluses: Exterior redesign. Power sunroof and third seat new. Shorter wheelbase for easier turning radius. Side air bags standard. Push-button 4WD. Spare tire now locked underneath. Choice of swing-out doors or single-piece hatch lid in back. Minuses: If traveling in thin air, have to punch the accelerator a little quicker and a little harder up hills. To get to third seat, must fold second seat down and walk over it, not good for second seat wear and tear. >>