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.

Packaging: Engineered In or Added On?
The first thing you notice about the Savana SLT is how understated the exterior comes across. No two-tone paint, hang-off running boards, or chrome bumpers, mirrors, and brightwork, as on Ford's Traveler. Instead, the color-keyed grille and bumpers, front-and-rear fascias, rocker moldings, mirrors and door handles are all set off nicely with halogen headlamps, integrated clear foglamps, and 15-in. brushed-

aluminum wheels. The look is, well, downright elegant, compared to the Ford's more traditional appearance.

But what really sets these vans apart are the interiors. Ford provides an upgrade over its top-line Chateau leather trim and, save for the addition of the Auto Vision entertainment system, it's pretty much standard factory fare. GM assigned the SLT's interior redesign to the Lear Corp., which worked with GM engineers to design, supply materials, and even install the complete interior from start to finish for a true custom look.

Both vans come with a full complement of features, including power locks and windows, cruise, leather-wrapped tilt wheel, keyless entry, front and rear air and climate controls, tinted glass, and the like. But the most stunning difference is in the placement of second-row seating, where GM decided to locate the middle-row chairs amidship, while Ford left the mounting positions directly behind the front-row buckets. The result is easier walk-in and walk-through for the GMC, with legroom that can only be described as astounding.

The other major difference is in the in-vehicle-entertainment systems. The Ford's unit is located in a second-row floor console, with twin 6.0-in. flip-down monitors placed in front of the second-row seats. The GMC touts two flip-down 6.8-in. color video monitors positioned in front of the second and third rows. A video-cassette player is installed into the center-stack console, which can be controlled by the driver, and the rear panel features a prewired video-game docking station for your favorite Nintendo 64 or Sony PlayStation games. While both vans offer a premium stereo system, the Savana's packs a 12-speaker Bose AM/FM stereo with CD and cassette players, wireless infrared headphones, and rear-seat audio controls. Our tester came with the optional ($295) six-disc in-dash CD changer. The entire system is fully integrated so that some can listen to music, others watch a movie, and still others play a video game all at the same time--the headphones deliver all the audio feeds separately.

On the Highway
Because these vans are designed to be road warriors, we spent the majority of our testing time driving identical city/highway loops back-to-back between the GMC and the Ford. Stop-and-go traffic both in town and out on the freeways tested the trucks' interior comfort and ride-quality levels nearly as well as our long stints behind the wheel along mountain byways. We found that both vans require a little climbing to get into the driver's seat, but once in, there's plenty of room in the front footwells. You sit more forward in the GMC, so you have excellent visibility over the road. Both have well designed center stacks, with most controls right at your fingertips. Driving either of these behemoths is surprisingly easy, with lots of V-8 power for merging or passing and well-boosted steering for maneuvering in tight parking spots.

We found the GMC's independent short/long arm front suspension offers a more compliant ride than Ford's trusty twin I-beam, while both vans feature rear leaf springs that feel well-tuned to handle bumps, even with a full complement of passengers. Brakes required light effort and took some getting used to, but even hard stops were surefooted in either truck. Four-wheel ABS is standard on both. With the SLT's unobstructed outward view and a pleasantly smaller turning radius, we found it easier to handle in everyday driving duty than the Ford.

Unlike today's four-door minivans, these vans' passenger exits are only on the curb side via a set of double-hinged doors. We'd have preferred a single sliding door for greater ease of entry and exit, especially when nestled between vehicles in a parking lot. Opening the dual rear doors on either van reveals a large cargo hold behind the third-row seat, with the Ford offering far more room (because of seat placement) than the GMC--or, for that matter, even any full-size seven-passenger SUV.

Of course, you never really get to know a vehicle unless you take it out onto a track for instrumented testing, so that's exactly where we headed next. Here, we found that while horsepower in both vans is identical, the Ford outran the GMC in acceleration runs, sprinting 0-60 mph in just 9.9 sec, while the Savana took 10.3. The Traveler even nosed out the SLT in the quarter mile, 17.2 sec to 17.5. But the GMC dominated the E-Series in braking, stopping 60-0 mph in just 153 ft, while the E-150 took 170.

Making a Choice
Could it be that the time has really come for SUV-weary American families to flock back to the full-size van? After both pickups and sport/utilities successfully (and profitably) evolved from purely functional vehicles to personal luxury transport, it's logical the same could hold true for big vans. The GMC Savana SLT has the edge in this case because the luxury is designed in, not added on, as in the E-150 Traveler. "We've watched the trends of other commercial products go upscale, and we think that a more luxurious version of the full-size van is the next phase of the trend," claims Dave Kanous, GM's brand manager for Savana and Express. "We expect these vans to be the perfect vehicles for families on the move." In that regard, the Ford proved more utilitarian of the two, giving up some luxury and legroom for a ton more storage space out back.

How many more full-size vans GM and Ford will sell because of these new models isn't certain. (GM plans to send 10,000 to 15,000 Chevy and GMC full-size vans over to Lear this year to transform them into Express LT and Savana SLT luxury vans, which should put a nice spike in incremental retail sales while serving new customer needs.) "Our intent is to attract a new set of customers to this market," GM's Kanous says, "particularly those who want more space than a minivan, as well as uplevel features often found on premium sport/utility vehicles."

It's clear to us that what these full-size vans lack in snob appeal, they sure make up for in utility. Yes, we still have our nits to pick. If they really want to take on the big SUVs, then traction control or all-wheel drive needs to be considered. And neither of these new vans has the ability to get anywhere near the 20 mpg some minivans can deliver.

For now, there's no question we'd prefer the luxury feel (not to mention custom features) of GM's new luxury vans over the Ford package, and even over most conversion vans we've tested, regardless of brand. And while the GMC's $37,000 pricetag may sound hefty compared to the $32,000 for the Ford, it's a relative deal when compared feature for feature to some of the big luxo 'utes on the market. Just don't expect the kids to see much of the USA in their GM or Ford luxury van--they'll likely be too wrapped up with their favorite movie or video game to catch the scenery.


HOW THEY RATED
ITEMGMC Ford
Power 5- 5
Refinement 5 3
Styling and design 5- 4-
Long-distance comfort 5++ 4
Handling 5- 4+
Towing 4 5
Value 5 4
Interior amenities 5 4-
Instrumentation 4- 4-
Visibility 5- 4+
Build quality 5 4-
(based on a 1-5 scale: poor = 1; average = 3; excellent = 5)

When Pull Comes to Shove
How These Heavy-Hitters Hauled
By Scott Mead

Dropping the trailer’s tongue on the ball of our Magnum hitch, the line was drawn in the sand to see which of these vans was the haul master.

The GMC Savana’s venerable 5.7L Vortec engine didn’t exhibit the potent off-the-line grunt we expected from a pushrod powerplant, posting a 0-30 pull in 9.6 sec, while 0-55 mph came in 33.0 sec and the 30-55 mph passing was accomplished in 10.8. Emergency braking proved straight and linear with 4500 lb of boat and trailer attached to the rear. We found the Savana SLT susceptible to tongue weight (making the steering light) and, while we loved the look of the recessed trailer receiver with color-keyed roll pan, the installation necessitates the use of an extended hitch to clear the bodywork.

The Ford E-150 Traveler made child’s play of our towing test and was seemingly unaffected by trailer weight. The 5.4L Triton V-8 provided ample pull to yank our Centurion Concourse (see sidebar) around the hills with ease, posting a 0-30-mph speed of 7.8 sec, while 0-55 came in 29.4 and 30-55-mph passing was handled in just 8.8. Emergency braking was pin-straight and confidence-inspiring. With the Econoline’s exposed receiver and seven-pin wiring harness, hitching a trailer was a no brainer. Although we preferred the GMC’s overall performance, if we had to tow a trailer on a regular basis, we’d take the Ford in a heartbeat.

Featured Tow Rig: Centurion 23-ft Concourse
By Scott Mead

Merced, California-based Fineline industries has been building world-championship towboats since 1976. Its latest creation is the 23-ft Concourse, the largest watersport-specific towboat in the world. Propulsion comes from Mercruiser’s 6.2L/340-hp Scorpion powerplant. Routed through the standard V-drive, the Concourse hauls as many as 10 passengers up to 48 mph in commodious comfort. Thanks to our friends at Castaic Boat and Marine, we were able to hitch up an Air Warrior edition (replete with a water-ballast tank, Pro Flight tower and special graphics) for the towing section of this test. To learn more about the entire Centurion line of boats, contact Castaic Boat and Marine at 800/34-BOATS or visit www.castaicboats.com.—


 2001 GMC Savana SLT G15002001 Ford E-Series E-150 XLT Wagon w/Traveler Package
GENERAL
Location of final assembly Wentzville, Mo. Lorain, Ohio
Body Style 7-pass van, swing-out side 60/40 doors 7-pass van, swing-out side doors
EPA size class Full-size van Full-size van
Drivetrain layout Front engine, rear drive Front engine, rear drive
Airbags Dual Dual
POWERTRAIN
Engine type 5.7L V-8, iron block and heads 5.4L V-8, iron block and heads
Bore x stroke, in 4.00x3.48 3.55x4.16
Displacement, ci/l 350/5.7 330/5.4
Compression ratio 9.4:1 9.0:1
Valve gear OHV, 2 valves/cyl SOHC
Fuel induction SFI EFI
Horsepower, SAE net, hp @ rpm 255 @ 4600 255 @ 4500
Torque, SAE net, lb-ft @ rpm 330 @ 2800 350 @ 2500
Transmission type 4L60-E 4-speed elec auto w/OD 4R70W 4-speed auto
1st 3.06 2.84
2nd 1.63 1.55
3rd 1.00 1.00
4th 0.70 0.70
Reverse 2.29 2.33
Axle ratio 3.73:1 3.55
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 14/18 3/17
Observed fuel economy n/a n/a
Recommended fuel Unleaded regular Unleaded regular
PERFORMANCE (Acceleration, sec)
0-30 3.4 3.2
0-40 5.2 4.9
0-50 7.6 7.6
0-60 10.3 9.9
0-70 13.7 12.9
0-80 25.2 17.7
Standing 1/4 mile, sec @ mph 17.5 @ 78.7 17.2 @ 79.2
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 153 170
Slalom, mph 51.9 51.7
CHASSIS
Suspension, f/rIndependent short/long arms, coil springs, shock absorbers, 30mm stabilizer bar/ semi-floating live axle, two-stage semi-elliptic multileaf springs, shock absorbers Independent twin I-beam, coil springs, shock absorbers, stabilizer bar/Semi-floating live axle, single stage, semi-elliptic multileaf springs, shock absorbers
Steering type Integral power Recirculating ball, power assist
Ratio 17.2:1 17.0:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.0 4.0
Turning circle, ft 45.1 n/a
Brakes, f/r Power vented discs/drums, ABS Power vented discs/drums, ABS
Wheels, in 15x6.0 cast alum 15x6.0 alum
Tire size 235/75R-15 all-season 235/75R-15 steel radial
Tire type Michelin XW4 steel radial Michelin LTX M+S
Test pressure, f/r, psi 35/41 41/41
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Wheelbase, in 135.0 138.0
Track, f/r, in 67.8/67.6 69.4/67.0
Length, in 218.8 211.9
Width, in 79.5 79.3
Height, in 79.6 80.9
Headroom, f/m/r, in 40.6/39.1/39.2 42.5/40.2/40.1
Legroom, f/m/r, in (std wagon) 41.2/38.6/38.6 40.0/36.9/41.4
Shoulder room, f/m/r, in 68.8/68.8/68.8 68.4/70.5/71.2
Ground clearance, in 7.2 n/a
Base curb weight, lb 5062 4841
Base payload capacity, lb 2038 1920
GVWR, lb 7100 7000
Towing capacity, lb 6400 6600
Fuel capacity, gal 31 35
PRICE
Base price $35,695 $25,795
Price as tested $36,995 $31,635
Basic warranty, years/miles 3/36,000 3/36,000

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