Environmental protectors and custodians of the public conscience have been having a field day with that stretched, overweight, bloated blunderbuss called Excursion.

Know it as the Ford Subdivision, suggested one outraged keeper of our mores. Or the Excursion Valdez. It is not available in chrome yellow, because some buyers might be tempted to paint "Los Angeles Unified School District" on its sides. And if more is less, how come you can't park the damned thing without a ground crew, radar and curb feelers?

On the other hand, maybe we've been pounding too hard on the big guy. Put another way, the traveling public may be guilty of not seeing the forest for the mass.

There is no denying that the Excursion is a mastodon that slurps more gas than a pair of Cadillacs. It has a 44-gallon tank that in smaller Texas communities might be classified as a minor oil field. Even though its front end has been engineered not to ride over the top of a Honda Civic in the sorry event of a rear-end collision, the Excursion still looks like it could squash most state capitols. Even Jesse Ventura's.

Stretching 19 feet with a towing capacity of 10,000 pounds and seats for nine adults plus their kit, the Excursion is a category of one. It is taller than me, and I played military basketball. And it weighs close to 4 tons, which is heavier than just about anything except your uncle's 18-wheeler.

All of which is politically unthinkable.

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Yet in our haste to debase, we have completely overlooked the 2000 Excursion's basic concept. It has very little to do with being a standard sport-utility suburbanite in competition with the Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee or Lincoln Navigator. It has everything to do with going up against the bulky, big-footed and venerable Chevy Suburban as an outdoorsman, a puller of stumps and hauler of pipeline crews.

The Excursion's engine options--ranging from a 255-horsepower V-8 through a 310-horsepower V-10 and a 7.3-liter diesel V-8 delivering an elephantine 500 foot-pounds of torque--clearly state that this vehicle is happier at home on the range. Or in commercial fleets serving ski resorts, construction sites and high-country rescue and recovery teams.

The Excursion, based on Ford's Super Duty F-Series pickups, carries up to a ton of stuff, which is pretty close to three cows. Everything about the vehicle, from its four-speed automatic transmission through its trailer hitch to its steel frame, is industrial-strength and triple-welded.

It was conceived, says Gurminder Bedi, vice president of Ford's Truck Vehicle Center, as the ultimate heavy-duty utility vehicle for personal and commercial use, with "more space and convenience for passengers, more utility for activities such as towing and more versatility for carrying cargo and luggage."

And that certainly doesn't sound very much like the intracity profile and purpose of an Isuzu Trooper.

Our test vehicle--a candy-apple-red V-10 with a base price of $40,880 (compare that to the smaller, less-muscular Lexus LX 470 that carries less cargo and fewer people for $60,000)--arrived as a perfect foil.

How big was it? Well, the change holders would probably take $250 in quarters. How heavy? Overturn this puppy and it would peg temblor needles at Caltech. How huge the ride? Like climbing aboard Shamu. How large the appearance? Put a Thanksgiving Sale sign in the window and passersby might think they were standing outside Macy's.

Yet the Excursion is a remarkably gentle giant. It steers easily, with barely a trace of wallow, even when tossed energetically between lanes. Hard acceleration produces great engine bellows, but with power and sufficient urgency to do the zero-to-60-mph dash in 11 seconds.

The suspension is a fairly basic combination for large and serious vehicles: semi-elliptical and coil springs, anti-sway bars and rigid or swing axles, depending on your choice of four- or two-wheel-drive conf iguration . It delivers a ride that at times seems pleasantly crisp, and certainly more car than truck. Overall, the sense of travel is not that of a bus but of a large and solid van held to the street by an intermediate and fixed load of lumber and bricks.

Just be sure to tread on tiptoe in smaller spaces and be careful when backing up. Because it feels like you've got half of Orange County back there.

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Pleasant touches are everywhere on the Excursion.

Heating and air conditioning is front and rear, with dedicated controls. The back end is a marvelous combination of three doors: one tailgate that lifts up and two lower flaps that open like stable doors. Cargo access is quick and facile and poses no risk to fingers and nails. Seats are removed or flattened with similar ease, and the spare wheel is set into a rear side wall where it will not interfere with long and large objects being loaded aboard.

There are more cup holders and cubbies than you will ever have occupants. There's also an optional overhead console holding a pair of gadgets--a compass and an outside air temperature gauge with digital readout--that might be considered critical to operations in the boonies. Plus six grab handles around the cabin, large enough to perform double duty as handholds on a climbing wall.

By its sheer size and girth, by its V-10 power and herculean towing and payload capacities, with all elements superior to the Chevy Suburban, the Excursion is a superlative.

David Adams thinks it can be even better. His Camarillo-based Paxton Automotive has developed a $4,500 centrifugal supercharger for the V-10 Excursion.

Adams hasn't quite measured what that will do to the Excursion's already horrible thirst for fuel. It just might require personal access to the Exxon Valdez.

2000 Ford Excursion Limited

Cost Base, $40,880: includes front air bags, front captain's chairs, four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, leather seats, air conditioning with front and rear controls, premium sound with single-disc CD player, rear reading lamps, anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, floor and overhead consoles, four power sockets.

Type Front-engine, four-wheel drive, oversized, heavy-duty sport-utility vehicle with seating for up to nine people.

Engine 6.6-liter, 310-horsepower V-10.

Performance 0 to 60 mph, as tested: 11.0 seconds, with four-speed automatic. Top speed, estimated: 100 mph. Fuel consumption: 8 miles per gallon city, 12 mpg highway, with automatic, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Curb Weight 7,190 pounds. Big vs. Bigger

Ford's Excursion is off to a fast start with October sales of 4,373 vehicles. But with 14,542 in sales, GM's Suburban still leads its market segment.

Here's how it rates on the Paul Dean scale:

Chevrolet Suburban: Doesn't offer V-10 power, can't carry or tow as much freight, but costs $10,000 less. With a Suburban, however, you can't say you own the world's longest, heaviest, tallest and most muscular heavy-duty sport-utility.