There aren’t many new vehicles that are almost 25 years old. The GMC Savana van is, in fact, the only one.
If, of course, you don’t count its Chevy-badged cousin, the Express.
Both of these full-size vans haven’t changed much since 1996 because why would they? No one else makes vans like them anymore: Body-on-frame construction, 12-15 passenger capacity, and a big V8 instead of a turbo-four or a turbo-diesel four or a V6, without a turbo.
Ether one offers your pick of all three.
And none of the others do.
What It Is
The Savana van is GMC’s version of the Chevy Express van. Both are far-from-being minivans. They are also unlike any other vans currently on the market.
Their heavy-duty layout enables them to carry more passengers and pull more cargo than sort-of rivals like the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster while costing less than the rugged but high-dollar Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.
Prices start at $32,000 for the base version of the GMC van topping out at $35,900.
Though the van itself is mostly the same as it was back in ’96 in terms of how it’s built and how it looks — it offers things that weren’t available back in ’96. This includes the now-available Corvette-derived 6.0 liter V8 and the almost-as-powerful (but much less thirsty) 2.8-liter turbo-diesel engine.
The 2020 comes standard with things inconceivable back in ’96, such as in-vehicle Wi-Fi and as an option: Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Alert.
- Nothing else can carry as many — and pull as much — for as little.
- Almost endlessly configurable.
What’s Not so Good
- No high-roof option (Sprinter and ProMaster offer this).
- Tilt wheel costs extra.
- The turbo-diesel engine costs a lot extra ($3,995).
Under The Hood
The Savana comes standard with a 4.3 liter V6 that makes 276 horsepower almost as much power as a V8 and much more power than comes standard in other large vans like the Mercedes Sprinter, which comes standard with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 188 horsepower.
The 4.3 V6 engine actually is a V8 or, at least, was.
It’s a small-block Chevy V8, less two cylinders but the same architecture. It’s a simple overhead valve (and two-valve) pushrod engine, 90-degree cylinder banks, and a timing chain (not belt). If you want a long-lived, low-maintenance engine, this one’s it.
You can upgrade any Savana trim to either a 6.0 liter V8 that makes 341 horsepower and 373 ft.-lbs. of torque or a 2.8-liter turbo-diesel four that makes nearly the same torque as the V8 (369 ft.-lbs.), but at a much lower engine RPM and with less appetite.
Also available is compressed natural gas (CNG) version of the V8.
This van can pull as much as 7,400 lbs., substantially more than all the other large vans except for the Mercedes Sprinter, which can pull 7,500 lbs. This only happens, though, when equipped with its optional (and also a lot extra) 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6.
The 4.3 V6 and the 2.8-liter turbo-diesel both come standard with eight-speed automatics; the V8 is paired with a six-speed automatic.
Mileage ranges from 11 city, 16 highway for V8 models to about twice that for turbo-diesel models. But do all the math before you pick the diesel over the V8, which uses more gas but costs about $2,500 less to buy. On the other hand, the diesel should cost less over the long haul because it should haul for longer.
It may also be the best choice for in-city/stop-and-go service because of its tremendous low-speed torque. The V8 makes big torque as well, but not until higher speed (RPM), which means more revving.
On The Road
All the vans in this class are long; the Savana (and its Chevy-badged cousin) are the only ones that are quick.
Equipped with the optionally available 6.0 liter V8, the Savana gets a dozen people to 60 more quickly than anything else that can carry that many people.
The Savana goes zero to 60 in seven seconds, which is quicker than several sports cars (for example, the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 twins, which aren’t that quick).
Slightly embarrassing for the twins.
Even with the standard V6, the Savana isn’t slow as its sort-of rivals, equipped with their standard engines, are.
There is much to be said about the insulating effect of a body that’s bolted to a frame with a dozen rubber biscuits sandwiched in between. This layout used to be the signature layout of luxury sedans. Nowadays, almost everything else is welded-together body-and-frame (unibody), which makes for a more rigid end product and less forgiving ride.
The driver sits pretty far forward relative to the hood, which makes this 244 inch-long vehicle seem not as long as it actually is. But it’s still almost four feet longer overall than a current full-sized minivan, such as Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey.
So, look twice and one more time before you back up.
At The Curb
Size matters if you want to carry all your friends (or everything) all at once, without needing another van or another trip.
Those 244 inches of length translate into 252.2 cubic feet of interior space, almost twice the space of a current full-sized Sienna or Odyssey. Even with seats in place, the Savana’s available cargo space is almost as much as the Sienna’s or Odyssey’s without their seats in place (127.2 cubic feet).
The Savana’s more direct rivals (like the Benz Sprinter and the Ram ProMaster) are comparably roomy. They offer “high roof” options that make it possible to stand upright in them, which is something the Savana doesn’t offer.
But the trade-off there is capability and expense. The Ram can’t match the Savana’s towing capabilities or rugged build layout.
The Benz can’t match the price for comparable capabilities.
The curious thing is that the Chevy-badged version of this van costs more than the GMC iteration–$34,900 to start. It’s curious because GMC is the more prestigious brand within the GM hierarchy. GMC models are usually a little nicer and offer additional amenities you can’t get in the Chevy-badged version of the same thing.
The Savana is an exception to that rule.
The Bottom Line
There’s literally nothing else you can buy new that’s like the Savana or the Express, which is probably why they have been able to get away with making the same thing for the past 25 years.
*** Photo courtesy of harry_nl licensed under Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.