My affection for sport-utility vehicles grows with proximity to the driver's seat.

This became clear during recent test drives of the big 2000 GMC Yukon and the even bigger 2000 GMC Yukon XL.

Had I trailed those elegant giants in a small car, I would have hated them. They block forward vision, consume road space and turn driving along construction-plagued thoroughfares into a special kind of hell.

But I was seduced in their driver's seats. They are great trucks. From their perches, I can see forever on a clear day — and pretty far when it's cloudy, too.

Even more impressive is their power to move people without touching them, to play on their big-is-bad, small-is-virtuous biases simply by being.

I encountered such attitudes in both models. But it was the GMC Yukon, the mechanical and engineering twin of the Chevrolet Tahoe, that drew the most fire. The Yukon is shorter than the Yukon XL by 20.4 inches — enough to give it a hunched, muscular appearance that bespeaks intimidation.

Attempts to move the Yukon trough traffic in a gentlemanly manner were met with illegal blocks and attempted passes by some motorists. That forced me to get pushy. Size matters. They yielded.

The longer Yukon XL was treated more kindly. Credit familiarity. The Yukon XL is the twin of the Chevrolet Suburban, a resemblance unspoiled by such cosmetic differences as the Yukon XL's open-mouthed grille.

Suburbans have been around since 1935. Many people don't think of them as sport-utility vehicles. They see them as big station wagons designed to tote soccer teams and tow campers. Family-values stuff. Motorists might frown about driving behind a Suburban in city traffic, but they generally don't get nasty. Likewise, they mostly left the Yukon XL alone.

This is, in fact, the story behind the redesign of the Yukon, the Yukon XL and almost all sport-utility vehicles entering the U.S. market today. They are kinder, gentler versions of their former selves, thanks to a metamorphosis that actually began in the early 1990s.

The first sport-utes, like the first pickups, were no-compromise, hard-to-climb-into, hard-on-the-butt trucks. The mass market wanted their utility but not their discomfort. The trick was to keep them rugged enough to appeal to their original audience but make them civilized enough to pull in new buyers in need of limousines with big trunks and four-wheel drive.

That's why the new Yukon and Yukon XL are as plush as they are tough, motorized oxymorons that can pull up to 10,500 pounds (depending on vehicle and equipment chosen) but are loaded with amenities such as heated leather seats, deep-pile carpeting, OnStar emergency and concierge communications systems, satellite-directed navigational systems, premium sound systems, sedan-type power steering, and suspension systems that offer limo rides on the highway and tank-like get- up-and-go in the rough.

So far, even rising fuel prices have failed to hurt the popularity of these thirsty beasts. The people who buy them tend to love them, while the rest of us meander in their wake, cursing their size and their appetite for resources until, perhaps, we get a sport-utility vehicle of our own.

Nuts & Bolts

2000 GMC Yukon and Yukon XL Complaints: Both the Yukon and Yukon XL are afflicted with relatively useless, potentially dangerous running boards, the flat steps stretching between the front and rear fenders to help passengers get into and out of the vehicle. Several women complained that the boards are too narrow to get a proper footing, especially when they are wearing high-heeled shoes. Also, they said, the hard composite material atop the boards becomes slippery when wet. Two of those women tripped getting out of the Yukon; another broke a shoe heel climbing into the Yukon XL. Can you take a look at this, Ge neral Motors?

Praise: In terms of overall construction, utility, ride, handling, acceleration and comfort, the Yukon and Yukon XL easily are among the best sport-utility models on the market.

Drivetrains: Three engines are available for the Yukons. Both test trucks were equipped with GM's Vortec 5.3-liter V-8 that develops 285 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The other two engines include the 275-horsepower, 4.8-liter Vortec V-8 and the 300-horsepower, 6.8-liter Vortec V-8. All engines are mated to electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmissions. The Yukon and Yukon XL are available in two- or four-wheel drive.

Capacities: The Yukon can seat up to nine people, carry a payload of up to 1,751 pounds and tow up to 8,800 pounds of trailer weight. Fuel capacity is 26 gallons. The Yukon XL also carries up to nine people. It can haul a payload weighing up to 3,153 pounds and tow trailer weight of up to 10,500 pounds. Fuel capacity in the test model was 32.5 gallons. Regular unleaded gasoline is recommended for both vehicles.

Mileage: About 16 miles per gallon, combined city and highway, in the Yukon; about 14 mpg in the Yukon XL.

Prices: Base price on the Yukon is $34,605. Dealer invoice on base model is $30,279. Price as tested is $41,552, including $6,272 in options and a $675 transportation charge.

Base price on the Yukon XL is $37,346. Dealer invoice is $32,678. Price as tested is $43,538, including $5,482 in options and a $710 destination charge. Taxes and fees not included in these prices.

Purse-strings note: Compare GMC Yukon with Chevrolet Tahoe; compare the Yukon XL with Chevrolet Suburban.