Just another big brute with a pretty face.

That was my initial impression of the big 2001 GMC Yukon Denali sport-utility vehicle that was waiting for me in the parking lot.

I liked the imposing grin of the bullet-hole chrome grille -- just what a GMC brand should look like, I thought. But climbing up and into the cockpit -- the Denali is another SUV behemoth that makes you feel incredibly small -- I had the uncomfortable feeling that again I was settling into a full-size sport-ute that was more than I would ever need.

But when the Denali was rolling with the traffic, I had a change of heart. It had all I ever wanted in the performance department.

With a 6-liter, 320-horsepower V-8 and all-wheel drive, the Denali handled with startling authority. And I thought the 240-horsepower Toyota Sequoia was a performer. ... What was I thinking? The Denali absolutely blows it away.

And nothing peeves a middle-range sports car driver more than getting left in the dust by a 5,425-pound Denali.

I cannot remember the last time I was drilled into the driver's seat by acceleration from a sport-ute the approximate size of a city block. It was a real attention-grabber.

For many people, the price of the big Denali is the attention-grabber. No question, a base price of $45,950 is certainly robust for an SUV.

But if your auto-investment strategy is along the lines of "get a big SUV to haul everything I need and drive the wheels off it for the next 10 years," the Denali probably is right up your alley.

And you can even up the ante with a Yukon Denali XL, an extra-long wheelbase version (130 inches vs. 116 on the regular Denali). The GMC Yukon Denali XL starts at $47,450.

While you're pondering the economics, be assured that one does get more than monster road performance and an attractive grille on the Denali.

It rides like a truck but does not drive like one, thanks to an easy-to-handle, speed-dependent, variable-effort power steering system. Even a parking space-challenged hack like me could get it between the lines.

The run through the four-speed automatic is smooth, and the agility of the big SUV is pleasingly nimble. A finely tuned suspension softens the bumps in the road.

And dare I say it, yes, it is nice to be riding so high above the traffic -- anticipating those pesky slow-moving tree-shredders well in advance of poking slowly behind them.

Denali's off-road capabilities are genuinely rugged and muscular, aided by a standard locking rear differential to redistribute torque when one rear wheel begins to slip.

Nicer still, the inside is more luxury sedan than dressed-up truck.

Premium bucket seats are comfortable, powered and heated. The second-row seats are likewise heated. Eight folks can get into the Denali and not feel cramped.

A lengthy list of standard features includes an OnStar navigation system, a driver informati on center that can display data in four languages, a premium Bose audio system with 11 speakers, a six-compact disc changer with cassette player and AM/FM radio, a HomeLink three-channel transmitter, driver's side memory seat positioning and dual electric exterior mirrors that can be heated at the touch of a button.

Getting access to the rear cargo hold -- a monumental, energy-sapping effort in some big SUVs -- is comparatively easy with the Denali, courtesy of a lift-glass/tailgate package liberally sprinkled with lightweight aluminum. The towing numbers are formidable -- an 8,500-pound towing capacity with a tongue weight of up to 1,000 pounds.

Denali's drawbacks are obvious.

If you think spending nearly $50,000 for an SUV is obscene, the Denali is not your cup of tea. Ditto if you are offended by big SUVs that loom over your sedan or minivan like a rolling mountain. Have trouble maneuvering a big vehicle on tight streets or in parking lots? Pass on the enali.

But if you covet a big brute with a pretty face that can give a hot-looking sports car a run for its money any day of the week, a GMC Yukon Denali should be at the top of your list.