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Car Review

2012 Chevrolet Express 3500: New Car Review

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author photo by David Boldt May 2012

Pros: Maximum capability for demanding truck customers; up to 9,900 GVWR on diesel versions

Cons: Platform is old enough to star in a remake of Wagon Train

Sitting at the top of Chevrolet's Express van lineup, the 3500 packs the biggest punch for the commercial user. With the gasoline powertrain, it has 965 additional pounds of payload over its smaller 2500 sibling. The payload comparison when it's equipped with a diesel engine is even greater.

Heavy-duty applications are the reason for the Express 3500's existence. As a passenger van, the Express is capable of carrying 15 passengers, while as a tow vehicle the Express 3500 can be equipped to handle as much as 10,000 pounds. The 3500's standard drivetrain is the 4.8-liter FlexFuel V8, delivering 279 horsepower and 294 lb-ft of torque. The next bump up on the order form is the 6.0-liter FlexFuel V8, providing 323 hp and 373 lb-ft of torque. At the top of the fuel pyramid is GM's 6.6-liter DuraMax diesel. Its horsepower rating of 260 may be modest, but its 525 lb-ft of torque will let you pull as many stumps as you'd care to provide. All engines are connected to GM's efficient, durable Hydra-matic transmission, which includes tap-up/tap-down driver shift control and tow/haul mode.

Although the capability of the Express is unquestioned, prospects should remember that its platform dates to 1996. The market for domestic full-size vans has remained relatively static except for Dodge's departure from the category several years ago, but other truck makers have designs on entering the category and upping the vehicular ante. For GM to retain its position as a close second to Ford in the full-size sales race, it's time for Chevrolet to bring to the table something conceived in this century.

Comfort & Utility

With available room for 15 occupants or a couple of tons of cargo, you can configure the Chevrolet Express in dozens of ways. In base form as marketed to many fleets, the Express can serve job descriptions as diverse as plumbing, carpentry and flower delivery. As a passenger van, the Express is frequently used in shuttle or limousine service. As an RV, the Express 3500 can serve as a donor vehicle for getaways.

The Express 3500 sacrifices some comfort for utility. The suspension is less compliant and the tire choices typically more rugged than in lighter duty stablemates. On the other hand, the 3500's handling and powertrain will be less affected by load. And whereas the 1500 Express is limited to less than 7,000 pounds of towing capability with its 5.3-liter V8, the 2500 and 3500 can pull up to 10,000 pounds with the 6.0-liter V8 or the 6.6-liter DuraMax diesel.

As on all Express vans, the Express 3500 employs a fully boxed frame, available locking rear differential and StabiliTrak electronic stabilization.

A big differentiator when choosing between a 1500 and the heavier duty 2500 and 3500 is the availability of a long-wheelbase version for the latter two vehicles. Featuring a 20-inch wheelbase stretch from 135 inches to 155 inches, the Express 3500 Extended can literally be all things to all people; if you've got it, the extended Express can probably haul it. Keep in mind, however, that the interior of the Express is more bare-bones functionality than expressive luxury. If you're looking for upscale appointments, you'll have to visit the aftermarket.

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Express vans enjoy numerous technology-driven features. The 3500 offers a range of audio systems, including CD/MP3 capability and a USB port, along with Sirius XM satellite radio. Bluetooth is an option, as is dealer-installed WiFi capability. Two 12-volt power outlets, mounted inside on the engine cover, maintain the workload when carrying a laptop, while a remote vehicle starter system allows advance warm up in cold temperatures and cool-down when it's hot out. Finally, all Chevrolet vans come equipped with OnStar, which provides both emergency response and turn-by-turn navigation.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The choices available on the Express 3500 should fit most needs. A Hydra-matic six-speed automatic transmission is paired with all three engine choices. Standard is the Vortec 4.8-liter V8, delivering 279 horsepower and 294 lb-ft of torque. So equipped, the Express 3500 can tow up to 7,400 pounds as a cargo van. When equipped with the 6.0-liter gasoline engine, which is good for 323 hp and 373 lb-ft of torque, the Express can tow up to 10,000 pounds in cargo form and up to 9,700 pounds as a passenger van; the lower number allows for the heavier curb weight of the passenger version. Finally, opt for the 6.6-liter DuraMax diesel and enjoy diesel efficiency (up to 11 percent better than its predecessor) and longevity with up to 10,000 pounds of towing capability in the 3500 cargo, 9,700 pounds in the 3500 passenger van and 9,300 pounds in the 3500 EXT.

Given that all 3500s enjoy a GVWR of more than 8,500 pounds, the EPA doesn't provide fuel economy figures. You can, however, project roughly 11 to 12 mpg in stop-and-go driving and between 15 and 17 mpg in highway driving.


Four-wheel disc braking with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning can reduce the drama inherent in stopping a loaded truck. Also standard on all Express vans is StabiliTrak, GM's electronic take on stability control. Available head curtain side airbags and standard lap and shoulder belts for center seat passengers wraps up the Express' safety menu. Your ability to avoid an accident is enhanced by sweeping visibility in the 3500 passenger van, as well as the intimidation factor that comes from propelling something almost 19 feet in length.

Driving Impressions

No one buys an Express cargo or passenger van with the idea of on-road competition. Whether intended for work or recreation, the Express is a means to an end. Ponderous proportions typically make for ponderous handling, and in this regard, the Express won't disappoint. To their credit, GM engineers have done an admirable job of massaging the beast out of this beast; with any of the V8s, it goes about its business with a surprising degree of eagerness. But, despite the Express's ability to navigate highways and byways, the arrival of recent competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and the Nissan NV, has moved the needle regarding customer expectations. The industry has moved forward, and ultimately, GM will need to modernize the Express to keep pace.

Other Trucks to Consider

Chevrolet Suburban - Yes, the most obvious competitor to the Chevrolet Express 3500 is in the same showroom. A Suburban will seat up to eight, and although it doesn't deliver the sheer cubic volume of the Express, it lines up well in over-the-road demeanor.

Ford E-350 - Just as dated as the Express, but the next-generation E-350 should be based on its European counterpart, the full-size Transit. Given the positive reception to its smaller sibling, the Transit Connect, Ford could have a winner on its hands, adding pressure for Chevrolet to modernize the Express.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter - Much more contemporary, but more expensive than the Express 3500.

For those who can wait, Chrysler intends to import FIAT-based commercial vans in the not-too-distant future.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd equip an eight-passenger Express with the optional 6.6-liter DuraMax diesel, hook it up to a 27-foot Airstream and add just enough comfort and convenience accessories to make the Chevy livable for a three-week grand tour. With room for everything a family of four could carry, along with bike storage inside rather than on top of the van, the Express/Airstream combo would make an excellent base camp anywhere in the world.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2012 Chevrolet Express 3500: New Car Review - Autotrader