It's Saturday morning at the hardware store and I feel like all the other

suburbanites because I'm driving a full-size SUV: a Lincoln Navigator.

After buying four bags of mulch and two bags of potting soil, I flip up the rear tailgate only to find that the third seat takes up nearly all the cargo space.

I fold the top of the seat forward, cover it with an old bedspread and pile in the bags of mulch.

You'd think a vehicle derived from Ford's full-size F-150 pickup truck would have lots of hauling space, but the seven-passenger Navigator is a compromise. It can haul people or things, but not a lot of each at the same time.

Now, it's true, I could have planned ahead and left the third seat at home in the garage, which is what most folks probably do unless they haul lots of people on a regular basis. It's too bad the third seat doesn't fold into the floor, like in the Dodge Durango.

Other than my mulch-toting experience, the Navigator did whatever I asked of it during my weeklong test drive. It is among the plushest of SUVs, with yards of leather upholstery, genuine wood accents, a cushy ride and 300 horsepower.

Three optional items are new for 2000: an in-dash navigation

system, climate-controlled seats that are cooled as well as heated and the reverse parking aid. The first two items will be available late in the model year, and our test vehicle did not have them. It did have the parking sensors, which are handy not only for parking but for warning you if a child, pet or tricycle is in your path before you back up.

Just because the Navigator has the serenity of a Town Car doesn't mean it can't do serious work, because it can. In fact, it would be great for towing large boats or horse trailers.

The muscular, 5.4-liter DOHC V8 cranks out 300 horsepower and 355 ft.lbs. of torque. Maximum torque, or pulling power, comes at 3,000 rpm, which means it pulls heavy loads or climbs big hills without requiring the throttle to be mashed to the floor. Since it has dual overhead cams, this engine is as quiet and smooth as you would expect in a luxury car. The downside, however, is that it has a sizable thirst, but so do the other full-size SUVs in this segment.

Our test vehicle was a rear-wheel drive (4X2) version because it came from Lincoln's test fleet in Texas. For climates with mild winters, two-wheel drive is adequate on all but the most inclement of days. The 4X2 sits lower, and seems to ride softer, than the 4X4.

Although it looks gigantic, the Navigator is easy to drive. The steering is light, almost too much so, and all the controls are power-assisted and easy to reach. The wood-rimmed steering wheel has redundant fingertip controls for the stereo and climate control, which is handier than reaching across the dash to change radio stations.

The standard seating arrangement consists of four bucket seats, a large center console between the second-row bucke ts and a folding third seat. For more cargo capacity, a fold-down second seat is optional.

Getting into the third seat is not easy, especially for adults, and once there they will feel cramped. This space is best left to small and agile children.

Adjustable pedals, an option, enable shorter drivers to get comfortable without having to be on top of the steering wheel, which can be dangerous in an accident.

Convenience items are abundant:

An overhead console houses bins for sunglasses, garage-door openers, map lights and the readout for the trip computer.

The side running boards have lights that come on when the doors are unlocked or opened at night.

There are numerous grab handles throughout the vehicle to assist in entry and exit.

The six-disc CD changer is mounted in the center console where it is easy to reach rather than being somewhere in the back.

The Navigator is like Paul Bunyan in a tuxedo: big d brawny, yet fancy enough to take to the opera. Just remember to take out the back seat if you want to haul mulch.

Price

The test vehicle had a base price of $42,110. Options included the reverse parking aid, chrome wheels, Alpine audio system with six-disc CD changer and a 3.73 rear axle.

The sticker price was $45,485.

Warranty Four years or 50,000 miles.

To get in touch with Tom Strongman call (816) 234-4349 or e-mail:

strongmn@kcstar.com.

Point: The Navigator is all about luxury. It rides softly, the engine is smooth and it is loaded with standard equipment. For those who want the ultimate, a navigation system and seats that are both heated and cooled are available.

Counterpoint: The engine is pretty thirsty and the fold-down rear seat takes up valuable cargo space.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Engine: 5.4-liter, V8

Transmission: Automatic

Rear-wheel drive

Wheelbase:119 inches

Curb weight: 5,393 lbs.

Base price: $42,110

Price as driven: $45,485

Mpg rating: 12 city, 17 city