In its quest for truck sales dominance, General Motors has been refreshingly aggressive in bolstering its pickup and SUV lineup over the past few years. But the General also knows the key to sustaining an increase in market share is rooted in incremental sales across the entire product spectrum. And though it's true that minivans are still among the hotly contested consumer choices in the retail arena, full-size vans have quietly continued to offer profit opportunities on the fleet and commercial side of the business.
Although nobody thinks big vans will enjoy the sales interest they captured during the '70s, some industry insiders do see full-size vans and their derivatives as a growth market over the next decade. In fact, DaimlerChrysler is preparing to set the commercial-truck world on its ear by replacing its well-aged and finally discontinued Dodge Ram vans with an innovative offering from its Freightliner subsidiary. What's more, other commercial-truck models from European and Japanese manufacturers will try also to crack the U.S. market over the next few years.
In the meantime, Americans are familiar with the domestic workhorse vans that perform the myriad of services we depend on daily--from the plumber's truck that pulls into your driveway to the airport shuttle. In this market, where words like "dependable" and "economical" are more important to customers than "restyled" or "updated," Ford's venerable E-Series van has enjoyed a perennial sales lead. But GM sees the Econoline ripe for overtaking.
Enter the '03 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. Fresh off its first major redesign in seven years, GM's new full-size-van lineup offers a smart new look, strong powertrain choices, including the segment's most powerful V-8, and enhanced durability and safety. But most notable is its long list of surprising new features, including such industry firsts as all-wheel-drive models and an optional left-hand-side hinged entry/ load door that's sure to please even the most active family, church group, or business/fleet owner.
It's not often vans undergo a serious redesign, let alone introduce fresh features intended to deliver more of what customers actually buy big vans for. So when GM Fleet and Commercial Operations offered us the chance to drive prototypes well in advance of their launch, we didn't hesitate. Although it was a cold, blustery day at GM's Milford, Michigan, Proving Grounds, when it came time for our test drive, we figured the rain-slickened facility would better provide a real-world glimpse of the vans' newfound capabilities.
After a morning briefing from the brand team highlighting what's new and improved for the model year, we headed outside to learn just how well the mechanical upgrades, some of them proven componentry shared with the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups, translate into a better driving experience. The first thing that caught our eye was the redesigned, longer front end--including a new grille, bumper, fascia, fenders, and hood. The look not only has a strong family resemblance to other GM trucks, but its underlying structure was designed to improve occupant protection and crashworthiness and reduce repair costs. Uplevel reflector-type headlamps and revamped taillamps enhance safety, while daytime running lamps add an extra measure of visibility.