BIG SKY, MONTANA - The battle of the SUV heavy-weights is about to begin.

For so many years, the Chevrolet Suburban has been the undisputed - and unchallenged - king of the heavy-duty sport/utility vehicles.

But that became too much for Ford Motor Co., which is about to launch the giant 2000 Ford Excursion. You think the Suburban is big? The Excursion is seven inches longer.

That size has prompted early competitive sniping: Chevy people say the Excursion is too long to fit into a typical garage, Ford people insist it can fit.

As for the size of the heavy-duty SUV market, Ford executives say it's too darn big for them to let Suburban go unchallenged as the only player.

"In my 35 years at Ford, I've never seen another market segment with only one player in it," says Ford Div. President Jim O'Connor.

General Motors Corp. sells about 160,000 Suburbans a year. Ford expects to sell more than 50,000 Excursions, which are built on Ford F-250 pickup truck platforms, says Mr. O'Connor.

"We'll expand the market, and we expect to conquest Suburban," he says at an Excursion press preview at Big Sky Resort in the rugged mountain terrain of western Montana.

It's an interesting market, and quite regional in the way it shapes up. For instance, seven states account for 50% of Suburban sales, with California and Texas accounting for 25-30% alone.

Ford brass thought the Ford Expedition, introduced a few years back as the automaker's biggest SUV, could take away market share from Suburban.

Instead, even though Expedition sales have been strong at about 225,000 units a year, Suburban sales continued to grow, says J.C. Collins, Ford Div. brand manager.

Some critics claim Ford is thinking too big with the 226.7-in.-long Excursion.

The 4x4 diesel version weighs in at 7,688 lbs. Some environmentalists wince at its gas mileage of 10-18 mpg. Ford says its 5.4- and 6.8L gas engines and its 7.3L diesel engine produce 43% less smog-related exhaust emissions than environmental laws permit.

"We wanted to come up with a product with superior positioning," says Mr. O'Connor. "We can't please everyone, but we are trying to address sensitive issues."

Of course, GM is not rolling over and sticking all four paws up in the air.

"We always take the competition seriously or else they'll eat your lunch, drink your martini and come back for dinner," says Roy Roberts, GM's group executive for vehicle sales, service and marketing organizations.

He says of the Suburban, "We're not a Johnny-come-lately. We've been in this business a long time, and we have a vehicle that works in the real world."

Kurt Ritter, Chevrolet's marketing general manager, says GM plans to promote Suburban's price, place and product, which is "under constant pressure from the competition."

Mr. Ritter adds, "The Suburban has been around since 1935. It's a legend, but we've got to manage the product's place in the market."

Accordingly, the 2000 Suburban will come with a new lineup of small-block Vortec V8 engines, a new look that takes its cues from the all-new 1999 Silverado full-size pickup and added structural stiffness to help reduce vibration, squeaks and rattles.

Meanwhile, Mr. O'Connor says Ford is working with its dealers to make sure they understand who the prospective Excursion customers are.

"They are upscale, and for many of them it will be their first time in a Ford showroom," he says. "We want our dealers to give those conquest customers a memorable showroom and service experience."

He says Ford dealers have already taken 17,000 Excursion orders.

The Excursion price ranges from $34,135 for the XLT 4x2 to $40,880 for the Limited 4x4.

That's about $200 to $1,200 above comparable Suburban models, says Mr. Collins. He says a national newspaper incorrectly reported the Excursion would be $6,000 more than the Suburban.

"The Suburban which the newspaper compared it too had a vinyl bench seat and no second and third row seating," he says.

Excursion production started in July at Ford's Kentucky truck plant. The official launch will be in October. Most advertising will be national. Mr. O'Connor anticipates few individual dealer ads.

Despite the impending one-on-one battle between the Excursion and the Suburban, Ford is bypassing comparison ads.

"We don't need to give the competition any more recognition," explains Mr. O'Connor.