Those of us old enough to recall when big, tricked-out vans were the hot ticket can't seem to shake those old mental images of smoked-glass porthole windows, splashy multicolor paint, and graphics schemes--and who could forget the acres of deep shag carpeting or those oversize plywood speaker enclosures?
We're not joking when we say that some of today's top automotive marketing minds think the full-size van market is ripe for a comeback. That's right, the same big vans that pull into your driveway when you summon help because your fridge is on the fritz or your kitchen sink is clogged. But you won't confuse these new models with work vans. We're talking stylish, factory-built feature-laden family vans presented as viable alternatives to the ever-more-common full-size sport/utility vehicle.
It's no secret that, despite the explosive growth in the truck market over the past decade, the popularity of full-size vans has plummeted, especially since the introductions of Chrysler's minivan and the Ford Explorer redefined our truck-buying future. Our move to minivans and compact SUVs sparked the growth of extended- and crew-cab pickup trucks before luxury versions of each triggered a boom for full-size SUVs--and now mini SUVs are all the rage. But with nearly 50 different SUV nameplates available in showrooms today, some anti-SUV sentiment is beginning to surface.
In other words, why not rethink the full-size van market so that consumers could find retail interest again? The big vans could be packaged with all the amenities luxury buyers demand, plus the latest family infotainment equipment available, and still be priced below the big luxo 'utes. And what if all this could be done on an existing, proven platform with gobs of excess capacity in the factory should the idea actually takeoff?
The Competitors: GM vs. Ford
Enter the '01 GMC Savana SLT (as well as its sister van, the Chevy Express LT) and the Ford E-150 Wagon equipped with the Traveler Package. Right off the bat, you'll note an obvious difference between the two in concept and intent--GM's offerings are distinct models, while the Ford is presented as an option package. You'll see a bit later how that fact alone will reveal several product attributes that can distinguish these two new highway kings.
Both the Savana SLT and E-Series Traveler are built to take on more family travel duties than even the biggest SUVs can handle--not merely the ability to carry seven passengers or tow a trailer (some new compact SUVs can do that), but the ability to carry seven passengers (and all their gear) with gobs of room leftover for everyone. A full-size van's flat floor and tall roof allow for a cavernous interior--and GM even went one step further, optimizing seat positions over the entire interior, which means even the longest trip can be enjoyable.
Make no mistake, neither of these vans is a sport/utility wannabe. Ground clearance is downright carlike, and neither offers an all-wheel-drive option--they're built strictly for the road. Mechanically, these full-frame beasts mirror their commercial counterparts, which is a good thing. The Savana remains one of the last GM trucks powered by the venerable 5.7L V-8. Called the Vortec 5700, this 350 sends 255 horses and a satisfying 330 lb-ft of torque to GM's smooth-shifting 4L60E electronic four-speed automatic transmission. The Traveler is motivated by Ford's 5.4L SOHC Triton V-8 (an $800 option over the 4.2L six), putting 255 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque through a 4R100 four-speed automatic with overdrive.
Dodge still relies on conversion companies for the upscale personal-use van customer and is currently rethinking its decision to stop building a full-size van line by next year, as originally announced. While the Savana SLT has been bolstered in the marketplace with a national ad campaign and exposure in regional media fleets, Ford has quietly been selling its gussied-up Econoline, with the Traveler Package a hard find among press vehicles in service. But we were somehow able to locate both for this head-to-head comparison to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of both.