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Full-size GM vans have room to spare

July 28, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Whether you need a vehicle for the job site or a set of wheels to transport the ball team to the next town, the overhauled line of full-size Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans has the room and power to spare.

Both these nearly-identical rolling boxes had been out of the spotlight while General Motors concentrated on its higher-volume trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

But all that has changed. For 2003, the corporation has reworked these haulers from top to bottom leaving very little in the way of carry-over content from previous years.

The front clips of these new-look vans have been designed to more closely resemble their pickup brethren. The grilles, bumpers, fenders, hoods and lights have been resculpted and the entire front end has been updated to provide improved crash protection.

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There are also some trick features, including a set of 60/40 split-opening doors on the driver's side that match those on the passenger's side. Instead of ordering the doors, buyers can specify something called access panels that conveniently lift up from the side of the van to expose the cargo area. Now, frequently used items can be reached without entering through the rear doors.

Beyond the cosmetic improvements, a new three-piece boxed frame provides a considerably more rigid platform aimed at improving handling and reducing road noise.

The chassis upgrades also extend to the suspension where you'll find beefier anti-roll bars and a switch to more precise rack-and-pinion steering.

The brakes, too, haven't been ignored and are now four-wheel discs with anti-lock all around.

However, the option that will cause van shoppers to stop dead in their tracks is the availability of all-wheel drive, the first time this feature has ever been offered in a full-size van. The system, which is ideal for people who must be out and about regardless of weather or road conditions, automatically engages whenever slippage is detected and requires zero input from the driver.

Interior comfort, an important consideration for anyone spending most of their days behind the wheel, has been upgraded with more supportive front seats, brighter lighting and more efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning. As well, a new instrument panel monitors up to 20 different mechanical functions, including when to change the oil.

There are also some big changes in store for these vans under the hood. The entire range of optional powerplants has been tossed out, replaced by an array of motors borrowed from GM's pickup line (the 200-horsepower 4.3-liter V-6 is retained as the base motor). These include three V-8s - sized 4.8, 5.3 and 6.0 liters - that produce 270 to 300 horsepower. Not only are these engines considerably more powerful than the previous Express/Savana iron, but they deliver better fuel economy. Availability is contingent upon which of the half-, three-quarter- or one-ton-capacity vans are selected.

A four-speed automatic transmission connects to both base and optional engines.

Both regular- and extended-wheelbase models are available, with seating for two in cargo van applications and up to 15 riders when the passenger van is specified.

As with full-size vans from other manufacturers, the Express and Savana can be selected as a cutaway (bare chassis behind the front seats) to allow for conversion to a wide variety of commercial or motorhome applications.

With more variety, performance and plain ol' innovation going for them, the Chevy Express and GMC Savana have to be considered strong contenders for people whose vocational or recreational needs demand the most room and power from a van.

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