DETROIT — Criticized in some quarters for coming up with a vehicle the size of Manhattan, Ford Motor Co. isn’t alone in the “bigger is better” department.

Full-size pickup trucks are all the rage, as well as sport utility vehicles. Chevy and Toyota are following suit, and even Volkswagen is rumored to be considering building a pickup truck for North America.

Ford’s all-new, heavy-duty sport utility vehicle — the 2000 Excursion — features “unmatched interior space and powertrain lineup, and builds on the company’s pledge to offer cleaner, safer, and more efficient vehicles.” The base price for the Excursion ranges from $34,135 for the XLT 4X2, to $40,880 for the Limited 4X4 (including destination charges).

“The customer came first in developing the all-new Ford Excursion,” says Jim O’Connor, Ford Motor Co. vice president and president of the Ford Division. “The Excursion is designed to provide customers with a fresh, new choice in the heavy-duty utility market.

“Excursion offers more space and convenience for passengers, more utility for activities such as towing, and more versatility for carrying cargo and luggage — at the same time setting a bold, new standard for safety and the environment.”

A cleaner, safer suv?

Huh? Don’t a bigger vehicle and bigger engine naturally mean poorer fuel economy and more emissions? Ford says no.

The Excursion may be equipped with either a 5.4-liter, V-8 engine; a 6.8-liter, V-10; or a 7.3-liter, V-8 diesel. Built on the “Ford Tough” Super Duty F-Series platform, the Excursion seats up to nine people in three rows, with class-leading head, leg, and shoulder room and cargo volume.

Putting safety first, Excursion features dual front air bags and a Ford first: a below-bumper beam (BlockerBeam™) to help prevent a car from sliding under the Excursion in the event of a frontal collision.

Excursion will join the lineup of other Ford sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickup trucks in meeting or surpassing Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) standards in all states on all engines. Ford’s trucks that meet LEV status emit anywhere from about 15% to more than 50% fewer smog-forming emissions than trucks that do not meet LEV.

On a total average basis, Ford says its LEV trucks will be about one-third cleaner than they are today.

Suggested retail prices announced today are effective immediately. Public introduction of the Excursion is scheduled for Sept. 30, 1999. Dealers are taking orders now for delivery to customers upon receipt of the vehicles from the factory.

Changing needs of contractor customers

Ford follows up its larger, full-size Super-Duty F-250 through F-550, which were introduced as new models last year, with (no surprise) the F-650 and F-750. This may be more truck than many contractors need, but Ford says demand is changing and many more buyers are being introduced to the medium-duty truck lines.

They’re selling more to those who consider “truck driver” to be a secondary part of their job description, not their primary occupation, according to Ford medium truck brand development manager David Bardsley.

The F-650 will be offered in a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,000 lb, which is the highest GVWR that can be operated in most states without a special commercial driver’s license. It also avoids the 12% excise tax that kicks in on vehicles rated in excess of 33,000 lb.

Also, Ford is counting on many light-duty truck drivers to move up into the medium market once they see that many of the comfort amenities and handling characteristics common to those vehicles have now found their way into the larger trucks.

2000 suburban

Chevrolet practically invented the sport utility vehicle with its decades-old Suburban. This massive vehicle was always the truck of choice for people who didn’t want a truck, but who needed lots of room and power for hauling heavy trailers and campers.

It was probably the first vehicle to draw a loyal following from among both commercial and family buyers.

A very small niche at one time, the current SUV-truck craze has given General Motors pause and the incentive to recreate the 2000 Chevy Suburban and Tahoe for a newer, more finicky customer. Of course, it couldn’t do so until the new, full-size truck platform came through a year ago.

According to Chevrolet, “Ease of entry is better through a lower step-in height and wider door openings. Second-row seats were moved back, adding leg room and making them easier to access. Third-seat access was improved by increasing the clearance behind the sliding second-row seat.”

For better storage access, you can order either a liftgate or rear cargo doors.

The Suburban and Tahoe will be introduced in the last quarter of this year. Big news last year, of course, was the complete overhaul of the Chevy Silverado/ GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks — long overdue for a remake, and a rather conservative one at that, at least from an exterior styling point of view.

This year, further changes to the full-size truck lineup were minor, with the exception of the addition of a fourth door. Crew cabs with a rear bench seat have been gaining in popularity, to the point that they’re now on half of all trucks sold.

The addition of a third door, then a fourth, naturally followed. There’s nothing worse than going along for the ride and then being stuck in a cramped rear seat with no door to let you out. And if you use the rear seat to hold a laptop computer, tools, etc., it figures that you’re also occasionally going to take two or three techs out to a jobsite.

At least 60% of Silverado buyers, by the way, use the truck for business; 91% of the buyers are male.

For 2000, horsepower on the Vortec 4800 V-8 SFI engine has been increased to 270 hp at 5,200 rpm, up by 15 hp vs. last year. Similarly, the Vortec 5300 V-8 SFI goes up 15 hp to 285 hp. Torque for the 5300 is increased to 325 lb-ft.

Those improvements hold true, of course, for the full-size Chevy Express cargo vans, which is mostly unchanged from last year.

A change that may or may not be noticed by the contractor market is an internal one at Chevrolet. For the first time, its commercial trucks’ marketing system is being consolidated under the GM Fleet & Commercial Operations banner.

It should smooth out some of the warranty and administrative quirks buyers encountered in the past when dealing with different commercial vehicle managers within the same region. Now there will be only one regional manager, regardless of the product line.