What are you driving?

Wednesday, April 11, 2001 at 1:00am

Forget about gas prices, this is America. Owning a sports utility vehicle is every American citizen's government-mandated entitlement, an SUV in every large garage.

But choosing the SUV that's right for you is about as iffy as picking a Powerball number. Part of the problem is they come in such a wide range of sizes. You want to choose one that's not too big, not too small, but just right.

Five official government sizes, as designated by the Beltway Bureau of Weights and Measures, are as follows:

Sperm Whale: XXL: Ford Excursion

Poppa Bear: XL: Ford Expedition

Momma Bear: L: Mercury Mountaineer

Baby Bear: M: Ford Escape

Tadpole: S: Suzuki Amigo

Unless you own mineral rights in Kuwait, you might not want one that's too big. The really big ones are large enough to transport the entire NFL Dolphins from Miami to Buffalo and could only be garaged in the long-since-torn-down Hindenburg hangar in Lakehurst, N.J. If you park it in your drive, homes in your gated subdivision will suddenly look small, thus decreasing their resale value. Your neighbors might complain.

Plus, with an XXL, your aging parents and all your relatives are likely to decide your $1.95-a-gallon thirstmonster is the perfect vehicle for you to use in driving the whole family to Minneapolis to see the Mall of America.

And while you're up north, they think they might as well swing by Mount Rushmore and see those four famous stonefaced ex-presidents, Matthew, Mark, Luke and Ringo. However, after you gas up your supertanker, you won't be able to afford picture postcards from the Black Hills Hubcap Museum and Prairie Dog Barbecue Stand. XXL SUVs with four-wheel-drive have gone into the Black Hills of North Dakota and have never been seen again because they can't find a gas station.

On the other hand, you might not want one so small that when you go to Taco Takeout you find out a big beef burrito with beans won't fit in your Lilliputian mud puppy, even with the seats folded down and the windows open. How embarrassing would it be if your four-wheel-drive mini-SUV got stuck straddling the drive-thru speed bump and you had to ask the kid on the skateboard for a tow?

The "middest" of the midsize SUVs is the all-new, vastly improved Just Right 2002 Mercury Mountaineer. At 15 feet, 11 inches in length, it's slotted right in there between a brontosaurus and a snail darter. The Mountaineer is small enough to fit in one zip code and large enough that pilot and crew can look down with disdain on a Lincoln Town Car Cartier L. In addition, the Mountaineer will tow 3.5 tons of trailer and whatever you want to put on it.

So what if a Ford Excursion can carry a Mountaineer in its cargo hold? A Mountaineer can carry an Isuzu Amigo. (Lift the release handle on the back of the fold-down third-row seats and slip that Amigo right in there. What could be easier than that?)

The Mountaineer is not one of those SUVs that pretends it will turn you into a safari-jacketed, fly-fishing, bull-riding, outdoorsman who would never be caught dead driving on pavement. The Mountaineer can handle pavement with ease. It will even let you reach the card slot of your drive-thru ATM machine. In this era of macho image posturing, Mercury is honest about the intention of its Mountaineer, a four-door on-road/off-road sport utility vehicle with plush accommodations for seven oversize hedonistic adults demanding spacious creature comforts with trappings of luxury.

And it will do some things the Lincoln Town Car will not. On paved roads, the Mountaineer will glide along smoothly and quietly with its 240 horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 delivering 35 percent of the power to the front wheels and 65 percent to the rears. But it automatically transfers power to whichever bright shiny, machined aluminum wheel with a Goodyear Eagle P245/70 tire is not slipping. Great for driving on slick roads.

The Mountaineer makes a strong and clear break from its Ford Explorer stablemate with a profusion of added safety, comfort, convenience and luxury features. But one quality makes the Mountaineer outstanding. It is far easier to maneuver than its competition. Parking is not a challenge. It will turn tighter than a unicycle. This alone is worth the price of admission. What a rare pleasure.

The Mountaineer is neither too big nor small, not too rugged nor too soft, not too expensive nor too cheap. The Mountaineer is just right. Its only excesses are opulence and splendor.

Knock yourself out, Goldilocks.

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