The Chevrolet Suburban, bless its lil' 5,260-pound heart, has become the poster child for the anti-SUV movement, though it is neither the largest (the Ford Excursion weighs 7,087 pounds, and is 7.4 inches longer), nor most expensive (at about $73,000, the Mercedes G-Class costs $30,000 more).

Our Suburban's fuel mileage - 13 mpg city, 17 mpg on the highway - will not impress the Sierra Club, but it isn't the worst, either. Still, GM cranked out 62,696 of them this year through July 27, if you count the Suburban's twin, the GMC Yukon XL. That's about 9,000 more than GM built during the same period last year.

There's a reason. The Suburban is one of the most useful, comfortable vehicles available. They are reliable, safe, and they have superb resale value.

Suburban owners seem to fall into one of two categories: Those who are proud to own a Suburban, and those who continually apologize for it. "But I need it to haul the kids," they say. "To carpool! To tow the boat to the lake! To carry Meals on Wheels to elderly shut-ins!"

Whatever. Just stay in one lane on the expressway, OK?

What is especially interesting about the Suburban - and what we say here also applies to the GMC Yukon XL, as in "extra long" - is that when Ford was rushing the enormous Excursion into production to have a mine's-bigger-than-yours Suburban fighter, GM was actually downsizing their product. The length of the 2002 Suburban (and the near-identical 2003, for that matter) is 219.3 inches. The 1992-99 Suburban was 220 inches long.

What's amazing, though, is that the newer Suburbans feel much shorter. Handling is considerably better than it used to be, steering more precise and on-center, and brakes far superior. Pitch any Suburban into a tight turn, though, and you will be aware that you are asking more than two-and-half tons to change direction, a sensation you will both feel, and hear, as the tires moan and complain. But the current Suburban and Yukon XL are lighter on their feet than you'd expect - certainly more nimble than the big Ford and Lincoln SUVs were, until their 2003 redesigns.

The test Suburban had the 5.3-liter, 285-horsepower V-8, plenty unless you need more than its 8,600-pound towing capacity. If you don't need four-wheel-drive, that capacity increases to 8,800 pounds, and if you really need to do some serious hauling, there's a three-quarter-ton Suburban that can tow 12,000 pounds. That's a pretty rugged, rougher-riding vehicle, though.

Not so the test Suburban, which gave a ride approximating a luxury sedan, with leather-clad seats to match. There was a nine-speaker stereo, and most every premium appointment you'd want, bringing the base price for our four-wheel-drive model from $38,704, to an as-tested $43,557.

Not cheap, even if you are buying by the pound, but it's on par with other big SUVs. No apologies required - the Suburban deserves its success.

Base price: $38,704.

As tested: $43,557.

EPA fuel mileage: 13 mpg city, 17 highway.

Details: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive 8-passenger SUV with 285-horsepower 5.3-liter V-8, and a 4-speed automatic transmission.