With Dodge getting ready to muscle in on the super-sized sport-utility vehicle market in 2002, you could forgive the marketing folks at General Motors Corp. for wistfully reminiscing about the days when they had a virtual monopoly on the full-size SUV segment.

Ford horned in on that exclusivity several years ago when it introduced the Expedition as a derivative of its F-150 pickup. Last year, the Dearborn-based company upped the ante with the launch of the Excursion, the industry's largest and heftiest sport-ute to date.

Fortunately, GM had scheduled a full makeover last fall of its big SUV twins, the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL. The good news is that, while Suburban has surrendered the sheer-mass and size crown to the Excursion, it is a considerably better vehicle than its predecessor. And, in many ways, it's notably better than the competition.

In early June, we tested two nearly identically equipped examples of these head-to-head rivals - a 2000 Ford Excursion Limited 4x4 and a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban LT 4x4.

Ford Excursion Limited 4x4

Our Excursion had a neutral-color cabin trimmed in leather and wood which, upon closer examination, revealed oodles of plastic that looked cheap and tacky in a vehicle that costs this much. Several pieces of trim didn't fit together well, leaving unsightly gaps.

We found the seating comfort to be better in the front buckets than in the middle and rear benches. Legroom is only marginal in the third row. The rest of the vehicle is amazingly roomy. That holds true for cargo space as well, with the Excursion enjoying a decided edge over the Suburban, with seats up or folded flat.

Ford has bundled a good assortment of safety features into the Excursion, including antilock brakes and side air-bags. Convenience features abound, from air conditioning and a premium sound system to a huge overhead console. There is a comprehensive instrument panel, with excellent rear-seat controls for audio and climate systems.

Two dimensions may prove troublesome to shorter people. The step-in height from the ground to the running board is about 14-12 inches, with another 10-inch hike into the cabin - considerably higher than the Suburban. And the rear liftover height into the cargo bay is a difficult 35 inches making loading groceries difficult.

Our test vehicle was fitted with one of the biggest truck engines on the planet, a massive 6.8-liter V-10 that pumps out 310 horsepower and a whopping 425 lbs. ft. of torque. Even in a vehicle that weighs more than three tons unladen, you'll feel that muscle when you put your foot to the throttle. Ford doesn't have to report fuel-economy figures under the government rules for this vehicle class, but you'll be lucky to realize much more than 10-12 m.p.g. on average.

Again, due in part to the vehicle's sheer size, we found the steering to be a bit vague and cumbersome, making parking and maneuverability even mor e of a chore than we anticipated. The ride feels bouncy and truck-like.

To sum things up: If towing and cargo capacity are your chief concerns, by all means, buy the Excursion; in that regard, it's best in class. But with its macho, in-your-face styling, the Excursion will turn off many female buyers. It simply looks and feels too much like an uncivilized brute next to the Suburban.

Chevrolet Suburban LT 4x4

Our test vehicle was leather-trimmed and amply equipped, but the biggest differences from the Excursion were the adaptation of twin captain's chairs in the middle row and the use of a much smaller engine, a 5.3-liter V-8.

Seating comfort was excellent, with adjustable lumbar support and heat for front occupants. Access to the third row is to squeeze between the two middle buckets - not necessarily a better solution than the Excursion, on which the middle bench slides forward to facilitate entry and exit to the rear. Although it's not as big ins as the Excursion, the Suburban feels quite roomy at every seating position except the rear most. Visibility is good, and the vehicle is a tad quieter than the Excursion at freeway speeds.

The cargo area, while a bit smaller than on the Excursion, is still exceptional. Chevrolet has freed up space by mounting the full-size spare under the vehicle; Ford mounts the spare inside the cargo bay. Where the Excursion has a glass liftgate and double-Dutch doors in the rear, the Suburban uses a more conventional tailgate.

Safety features are every bit as good as the competition, with the added bonus of shoulder harnesses that are built into the seats. In terms of convenience items, we can't think of too many features that are lacking on the Suburban, which even comes with GM's OnStar communications system.

Workmanship is better in nearly every respect, from paint quality to trim fits. GM uses a higher-quality plastic throughout, and the attention to detail is impressive. As far as exterior styling, we'd characterize it as subtle and conservative, but tasteful. Simply put, it works.

With the 5.3-liter engine, acceleration is adequate, but not overwhelming. Likewise, fuel economy is about what you'd expect at around 12-14 mpg.

The power steering is fairly responsive, considering the Suburban's size and mass, and the antilock brakes work well. The premium ride suspension on our test vehicle seemed to soak up bumps and potholes with surprising ease.

This is still a mighty big horse, and it's not fun to park but otherwise, the Suburban is amazingly easy to operate.

In short, the Chevrolet Suburban is a good, solid package, with subtle, tasteful styling. It is expensive but equipped like a luxury car. And it remains best in class.

Comparing the heavyweights

2000 Ford Excursion Ltd. 4x4

Wheelbase: 137.0 in.

Length: 226.7 in.

Width: 80.0 in.

Curb Weight: 6650 lbs.

Base Engine: 5.4L V-8

Power: 255 hp.

Cargo Capacity: 48.0 cu.ft.

Price (as tested): $41,800

Rating: Above Average ***

2000 Chevrolet Suburban LT 4x4

Wheelbase: 130.0 in.

Length: 219.3 in.

Width: 78.8 in.

Curb Weight: 4194 lbs.

Base Engine: 5.3L V-8

Power: 285 hp.

Cargo Capacity: 45.7 cu.ft.

Price (as tested): $42,480

Rating: World Class ****