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.

Climbing into the cockpit, we immediately noticed the restyled interior and IP, featuring more supportive seats and upgraded HVAC operation. All models also tout an advanced, Class II electrical system, which through new multiplexing technology allows for the addition of battery run-down protection, delayed accessory power, lock-out protection, and an expanded number of driver alerts--including cost-saving oil-life and air-filter monitors. Convenience improvements include more cupholders, an additional power point, and storage options. There's even OnStar and RDS Radio System availability.

Our goal was to spend as much time as possible sampling the three segment-busting features in the new vans. First on our list was the all-wheel-drive "H-model" that's been added to the 2WD "G-model" lineup. Surely any number of service, delivery, and transport companies who operate in wet and/or snowy climates would find many advantages, not the least of which safety-related, with an all-wheel-drive full-size van. GM's new H-models employ a full-time viscous-coupled transfer case to seamlessly deliver what can honestly be described as the best on-road, wet- or dry-pavement handling and traction ever engineered into a full-size van.

Also impressive was the obvious usefulness of the industry's first 60/40 left-hand-side hinged door (available on regular-length passenger and cargo vans), especially when flexible passenger-entry/cargo-loading capability is needed. Contractors are sure to love the new side-access doors, with remote release on the work-oriented Savana Pro and Express Access models, which allow street-side access to tools and parts. But more on that later.

We were already intimately acquainted with the Express/Savana's ride-and-handling dynamics and how they stack up against Ford's Econoline, thanks to our head-to-head comparison test in the Nov./Dec. '01 issue of Truck Trend. That's why it didn't take more than a single lap around the test track to see that the '03 vans accelerate smoother, handle tighter, ride quieter, and steer more precisely than the current models, which had already enjoyed a ride advantage over their Ford counterparts.

Part of the improvement can be traced to the new vans' stiffer box frames that deliver more torsional rigidity and a solid foundation on which to mount new front and rear suspensions, modified versions of those on GM's successful full-size pickups. In fact, except for its cast-iron lower control arms, the independent-front short/long arm coil-spring suspension on G-Series models is essentially the same as on 2WD full-size pickups, and the torsion-bar H-Series front-suspension system is practically identical to that of K1500 full-size pickups. All rear suspensions use a quieter, higher-quality solid axle, with semi-elliptic multileaf springs and gas shocks.

Another factor in the ride-and-handling equation is the upgrade to standard 16-in. wheels and tires, putting the Express and Savana vans in step with other full-size truck families, while light-duty models now benefit from standard power rack-and-pinion steering, providing more nimble performance. Advancements have also been made in the vans' braking ability, thanks to GM's new HydroBoost hydraulic four-wheel-disc system with ABS and Dynamic Rear Proportioning.

Twin-piston front calipers, a larger master cylinder, and bigger rotors and pads make for better pedal feel and fade resistance and deliver reduced stopping distances. Engineers told us that GM tests show brake pads now last at least twice as long in some models--an important service consideration.

GM has done a fine job delivering reliable power with the Vortec engine family and smooth-shifting Turbo-Hydramatic four-speed automatic transmissions with overdrive--which now offer GM's Tow/Haul-mode capability. An all-new lineup of Gen-III V-8s--the 275-hp Vortec 4800, 285-hp Vortec 5300, and the power-leading 300-hp Vortec 6000--give the Express and Savana more juice and better performance, economy, reliability, and durability than the previous small-block V-8s and top comparable rivals in either horsepower and/or acceleration capability. A 200-hp version of the Vortec 4300 V-6 is now the base engine for light-duty G-Series vans in all 50 states, while the Vortec 6000 is the largest engine available. No diesel is offered.

The G-vans continue to offer other previous best-in-class features, such as the widest rear-cargo door openings, lowest step-in heights, and highest maximum payload rating (2430 lb) of any light-duty base-model van with the 6200-lb GVW G1500.

Express/Savana passenger vans continue to be available in regular (135 in.) and extended wheelbase (155 in.) lengths and provide eight-, 12-, or 15-person carrying capability. Cargo vans, available in the same wheelbase lengths, offer seating for two. Cutaways, which can be converted for various commercial and RV requirements, come in 139-, 159-, and 177-in. wheelbase lengths, with GVWs from 8600 to 12,300 lb.

Our extended test drive proved that the '03 Chevy Express and GMC Savana have been redesigned to better fill a variety of market needs--from the personal-use passenger van to the commercial cargo workhorse, and from conversion-van capability to keeping upfitters happy with a functional and dependable cutaway chassis. Whatever the application, GM seems to be in a much better position to capture the full-size-van sales lead.

Industry-First Features:
Left-hand Door, Nifty Pro/Access Panels

Perhaps the biggest news about GM's redesign of the '03 Express/Savana are the exclusive industry-first features that deliver more day-to-day convenience and capability and add a surprising amount of work efficiency. One step-saver is an optional 60/40 left-hand-side hinged door, available on regular-length passenger and cargo vans to provide the segment's most flexible passenger entry/cargo loading capability. The same innovative access feature that won must-have status in the minivan segment is now available to the full-size customer, with complete driver-side access to the second-row seat/cargo compartment and third-row seat/rear compartment.Hinged and sliding passenger/cargo doors continue to be available on the right-hand side. The right-side hinged door is available without the optional left-side door, but the new left-side door requires customers to get the same hinged-type door on the right side. Side- window options, including a choice of stationary (fixed) or swing-out windows with standard light-tinted Solar Ray or deep-tinted glass are the same for both sides. Rear cargo doors also continue to offer a choice of stationary or pop-up windows.Topping our favorite feature list are the innovative side access doors (opened by the key-fob remote) on new specialty GMC Savana Pro and Chevy Express Access models to allow contractors street-side access to tools and parts, saving both time and steps. These flip-up panels cover the cutouts where passenger-van side glass would normally be installed and are body-colored to match the vehicle. Without having to unlock the van and rummage around in the cargo hold each time to find service items, we predict contractors will wonder how they ever worked without the nifty side panels.--JMC

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