Ford's Excursion is one of the biggest SUVs on the road. While its size may draw the ire of those who fret that SUVs have gotten too big, this is a vehicle meant for work. It can carry up to nine people or tow up to 11,000 pounds. If you need to tow a horse trailer, large boat or haul half of the Little League team, there is nothing like it.

The Excursion, first introduced in 1999, is not just big, it can be loaded with enough luxury equipment to rival nearly any car. That increases its appeal to upscale buyers that have use for its capabilities. For 2002, the Limited Ultimate tops the model lineup with a formidable list of luxury appointments: dual second-row captain's chairs with leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, steering-wheel controls for temperature and audio and a rear-seat entertainment system that has a video screen mounted in the ceiling. The unit in our test vehicle used VHS tapes, but a DVD system will be available later in the year. While most of the attention for 2002 is focused on the Limited Ultimate, all models get clear-lens headlights and new colors.

A two-wheel-drive XLT starts at just over $35,000, and a four-wheel-drive, turbo-diesel Limited Ultimate starts at nearly $47,000. That's the model I drove.

Driving a rig this big has a certain appeal. It is nice to have a vehicle capable of hauling heavy trailers, swallowing all sorts of lawn or home-improvement junk or even a couple of bicycles. Sitting up high gives a commanding view of the road, and its sheer bulk imparts a sense of security. From a practical perspective, the Excursion mixes the people-hauling capability of a minivan with the load-carrying ability of a pickup. It is more than 7 inches longer and nearly 6 inches taller than the Chevrolet Suburban, although on the road it didn't really drive much differently than a Navigator or Expedition. The 137-inch wheelbase inhibits the turning radius, and that in turn required extra care in parking lots and bank drive-ups.

Getting in requires use of the side step, at least for me, and once you're settled inside, its spaciousness is obvious. Because it is based on Ford's Super Duty pickup truck, the cabin is wide and the instrument panel looks more utilitarian than that of the smaller F-150. A large center console separates the front seats. The Limited has five power outlets, including some on the rear of the floor console, so occupants can use laptops, portable CD players and telephones. Woodgrain trim softens the trucklike interior and makes it more inviting. Flipping on the seat heaters takes the chill out of autumn mornings.

Second-row captain's chairs reduce seating capacity to seven, but that is hardly a drawback. The captain's chairs are more comfortable than a bench seat and allow easy passage to the third seat. Easy access to the third-row seat would be handy for parents who put child seats back there. Access to the second seat has been simplified by back doors that are 5.5 inches wider than those of the Suburban. There is 48 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third seat alone. Remove the third seat, fold the second seat flat and a full sheet of plywood slides right in. Around back, the glass hatch tilts up and two side-opening doors take the place of a tailgate. The dual doors allow access to the cargo space while a trailer is attached.

Four-wheel-drive Excursions have two powertrain choices: a 6.8-liter Triton V-10 and the 7.3-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel. The Power Stroke engine is the choice for those who need to do serious hauling because its 500 foot-pounds of torque is available at low rpm. Although the diesel is noisier than the gasoline engine in city driving, it runs very quietly on the highway. Aside from higher towing capacity, it also gets better fuel mileage. Our test truck's computer showed an average of 13.7 miles per gallon in city driving, and that is better than the V-10. On the highway, the diesel should be capable of 17 or 18 mpg, hich is not bad considering the size and weight of the vehicle.

The electronic shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system, activated by a dash-mounted selector switch, allows total disengagement of the front wheels by a vacuum system.

In spite of its engine size, the Excursion qualifies as a Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) that produces 43 percent fewer smog-forming emissions than the maximum allowed by law. Recycled steel, aluminum, plastic and rubber make up about 20 percent of the vehicle, and at the end of its life more than 85 percent is recyclable, according to Ford.

The automatic transmission's automatic tow-haul feature uses a computer module to help adjust transmission shift patterns for hills, changes in altitude or towing heavy loads. A switch on the gear lever locks out the overdrive fourth gear to obtain third-gear braking in downgrades. The transmission also has a standard auxiliary cooler for heavy-duty use.

To counteract concerns that the Excursion poses a danger to smaller cars in a collision, Ford designed a beam under the front bumper, at the same height as a regular car's bumper, to absorb energy and keep the truck from riding up over a smaller vehicle in the event of a collision. The standard Class IV trailer hitch serves much the same purpose in back.

Price
The base price of our Limited Ultimate was $46,905. Power telescoping towing mirrors, second-row captain's chairs, in-dash six-disc CD player and the rear-seat entertainment system brought the sticker price to $50,325.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: For people who need heavy-duty hauling or towing, the Excursion stands ready and willing. It can hold up to nine people, depending on the seat configuration, or tow as much as 11,000 pounds. The Power Stroke diesel is the engine of choice for those who tow. The Limited Ultimate model has luxury-car accommodations, and a rear-seat entertainment system is optional for 2002.

Counterpoint: The size that makes the Excursion ideal for hauling is also a drawback when it comes to city living. In addition to having a sizable thirst, it is tall, wide and bulky, especially in shopping-center parking lots and bank drive-through lanes.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 7.3-liter, 250-hp V-8 turbodiesel
Transmission: automatic Four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 137.1 inches
Curb weight: not available
Base price: $46,905
As driven: $50,325
Mpg rating: 13.7 avg.
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