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Bulking Up; When you see it coming, better pull over. The Ford Excursion is more than four hulking tons on wheels. But the best part is its 10 cupholders.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Oh... my... God. That's what the guy in the Toyota Tercel is thinking. You can see it in his eyes.

Right now we're cruising side-by-side on the Beltway near Loch Raven Boulevard, me in the passing lane, him in the middle lane, except I am about four stories higher than he is and encased in more steel than Hitler had in his Berlin bunker.

You lit-tle, lit-tle man, I want to say as the guy in the Tercel stares.

But that would not be charitable.

And on this perfect fall morning, out for a test-drive in the new Ford Excursion, the biggest sports utility vehicle on the planet, I am feeling nothing if not charitable -- especially to little men in little cars, with their little hands on their little steering wheels.

Oh, this Excursion is a monster!

You think you know big, and then you get a load of the Excursion, and your concept of big goes out the window, vanishes forever, maybe joins the Witness Protection Program.

This baby, Ford proclaims, is the King Kong of sport utes.

It's almost 19 feet long and more than 7 feet high -- 7 inches longer and 6 inches higher than the former reigning champ of SUV excess: the Chevy Suburban.

It's more than 6 feet wide.

It's bigger than my first house.

And it weighs 4-plus tons.

Four and a half tons! Dear God, if that little man in his little Tercel ever got broadsided by this vehicle, why he'd be no, let's not go there. Too nice a day.

Put something soothing on the CD player. Take a couple of deep breaths.

Think charitable thoughts.

"We're attracting a little attention," I say to Michelle Lancaster, the Internet sales coordinator for Al Packer Ford, who's in the passenger seat on this hourlong test drive.

Lancaster smiles. Then she tells you that the word around the dealership about the Excursion -- especially this one, a dazzling color called "Estate green" with a "Parchment" leather interior -- is this: Chicks dig it.

Chicks dig it?

They dig a 4 1/2-ton behemoth that suddenly makes the hulking Suburban look like it hasn't been hitting the weight room?

"That's what they say," she says.

As we hurtle toward the Dulaney Valley Road exit, on our way up to scenic Loch Raven Reservoir, I don't see any women drivers snapping their necks around to get a look at us.

But maybe they're just being subtle.

A quiet debut

The Excursion, Lancaster tells me, has been in dealerships for about a month now, rolled out by Ford with relatively modest fanfare in the wake of criticism from environmentalists and highway safety groups.

The one we're driving is powered by a 6.8-liter, V-10 engine. It looks like it could carry the entire Ravens roster but is listed as seating "only" nine, with plenty of room left over for luggage, sports equipment and golf clubs.

You want cupholders? This baby has 10 of 'em. It has five power ports for laptops, phones and such.

And as you sink into the massive, rich-looking captain's chairs up front, one thought reverberates through your brain: How many head of cattle were slaughtered to make all this leather?

No, better not to ask. Don't want to get too emotional here. Hey, the sticker price alone could make you misty-eyed: $41,700. Figure you'll shell out $44,000 by the time you ease this baby into your driveway.

As for how many miles to the gallon this beast gets, Lancaster says she doesn't know. And Ford is being remarkably coy about the subject, choosing not to list the EPA city/highway figures.

But industry experts say 10 or 11 miles per gallon in the city sounds about right.

The Excursion may have a 44-gallon gas tank, but because it's also the size of the QE2 and can tow up to 10,000 pounds, whoever buys one should light a candle each night and pray there isn't another oil crisis.

Nevertheless, Ford is jumping into the "extended" SUV market with gusto and says it expects to sell around 55,000 Excursions a year.

Al Packer Ford has already sold four of the six it received. No real common thread emerges among the buyers, either: two were couples with large families, one was a guy pushing 50 who owns an airport, one was a grandfather.

But when you sit down with Richard Sherry, Al Packer Ford's general manager, he delivers this rather surprising bulletin: "I'd imagine it's going to end up primarily driven by women. Most SUV's [are]."

So it's true what they're saying around the water-cooler here? Chicks do dig it?

"Women love it!" says Sherry, who's been taking the Excursion we're test-driving home at night. "They run up to me in parking lots all the time. They say it's beautiful.

"I'm thinking: it's a box! What's beautiful about it? [That reaction] sort of baffles me."

Women's reactions

Still, when Sherry discussed the reaction of these women with his wife, the two arrived at several theories as to why women find the Excursion attractive.

"It's big, so women feel safe," Sherry says. "They sit up high. And they can fit all their stuff in it."

A half-hour into our test-ride, as we meander around the reservoir, I have arrived at a few conclusions:

If a deer suddenly jumps out in front of us, even if we're only doing 30 mph, parts of the poor thing will end up in Pennsylvania.

Although the Excursion has the standard "trucky" feel of a big SUV, its ride is remarkably smooth.

Despite being the size of a small Greyhound bus, it handles tight turns far better than you'd expect.

I would not want to drive this baby in the city. It's too big, too hard to maneuver in tight confines. (The Excursion owner's nightmare scenario: Saturday night in Little Italy, and you're looking for a parking space.)

Speaking of parking, it might be a monumental hassle in this thing.

Sherry insists that the Excursion -- which is almost 2 feet longer than Ford's next-largest SUV, the Expedition -- will fit in a parking garage such as Towson Town Center's.

But on the street, he admits, all bets are off.

"I would be real hesitant to parallel park, unless I had a lot of space," he says.

Nevertheless, says Sherry, the reaction thus far to the Excursion has been "unanimously positive. I've never had a car, except for maybe the [Volkswagen] Beetle, that people run across parking lots to see.

"I have yet to experience one negative comment about the Excursion," he adds.

Oh, you think, just wait.

Thirsty, gas-wise

If you're looking for a negative comment on the Excursion -- in fact, if you're looking for a lot of negative comments -- all you have to do is call the tree-huggers.

In the recent past, Ford chairman William Clay Ford Jr. has proudly called himself "a life-long environmentalist" and has promised to make Ford a paragon in the field of planet-friendly vehicles.

Still, although the Excursion meets California's rigorous clean-air standards, the Sierra Club's pet nickname for it is the "Ford Valdez," after the ill-fated Exxon supertanker.

The Excursion's prodigious fuel consumption, insist environmentalists, will not help that little issue currently facing mankind called global warming.

When you call the Sierra Club's Maryland coordinator, Chris Bedford, for a comment, you can visualize the steam coming out of his ears in tiny, white puffs.

"There's no need for this kind of vehicle for families, unless you have 12 people in the family," says Bedford. "It's an extraordinary waste of resources at a time when we've yet to achieve [good] air quality" in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The Excursion, he continues, "is some kind of weird fantasy. It's like the last days of the dinosaurs. Its time has passed."

Highway safety organizations are equally unimpressed, fearing the Excursion's sheer size could cause untold damage in a collision with another vehicle.

Ford spokesmen say the company tried to be sensitive to this issue, installing a steel "blocker-bar" under the front bumper that is supposed to prevent another car from sliding beneath the higher-riding Excursion in a front-end collision.

Clearly, though, there will be no escaping controversy for the new Excursion.

It's big, it's bad, and it's bold.

But mainly it's big.

And as we cruise south on Bel Air Road back to the dealership, our test-drive nearly at an end, one final observation leaps to mind:

When you drive an Excursion, people will get out of your way.

On the Beltway, Sherry says with a smile, "other vehicles definitely get out of the passing lane when they see you" in their rear-view mirror.

And other cars won't pull out in front of you, either.

On Bel Air Road now, a man in a black Lincoln Continental starts to exit a convenience store parking lot, spots us coming, and acts as though an 18-wheeler loaded with dynamite is bearing down on him.

Quickly, he slips the Lincoln into reverse and backs up to give us plenty of room.

As we pass, he stares and then gives us a small, tentative wave.

And I think: He may be driving that big ol' Lincoln.

But he's just a little man today.

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