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2012 GMC Savana 1500: New Car Review

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author photo by David Boldt May 2012

Pros: Great capability; proven reliability as a cargo hauler; worthy replacement to the family car

Cons: 1996 architecture and platform remind one of 1976

Opting for any of the GMC Savana line is like taking a drive back in time.

In the new General Motors, it’s even doubtful whether this clone of Chevrolet’s full-size Express would get passed by top management. If Chevrolet gets a next-generation Express, we suspect that it will be a stand-alone, leaving GMC to focus on its upscale SUV and pickup lineup.

In the interim the GMC Savana, as both a passenger and cargo van, soldiers on.  This full-size Man Van may be old, but there is seemingly an ongoing need for huge people-hauling and cargo-carrying capability.

The list of van choices available to the Savana prospect is equally huge. You can buy a Savana in one of two lengths and three capacities, with either two- or four-wheel drive. The Savana 1500 has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 7,300 pounds, while the 2500 is listed at 8,600 pounds and the 3500 comes in at 9,600 pounds with gasoline powertrain and 9,900 pounds with GM’s Duramax diesel. Another option for the van buyer is a compressed natural gas package.

Comfort & Utility

With available room for 12 or a couple of tons of cargo, you can configure a GMC Savana in dozens of ways. In base form as marketed to many fleets, the Savana can serve roles as diverse as plumbing, carpentry or flower delivery. As a passenger van, the Savana is frequently used in shuttle or limousine service. And as an RV, the Savana can capably serve as a donor vehicle for getaway-vehicle modifications.

Space may be the ultimate luxury, and this the Savana delivers in spades.  Its interior, however, won’t be deemed luxurious; its feeling is satisfactory at best. The Savana 1500 comes in LS and LT trim levels.  The standard air conditioning will be appreciated in warmer climates, and a rear unit is available. Among other options are remote keyless entry (standard on the LT) and a remote vehicle starter.


Despite its age, the Savana keeps up pretty well with technology-driven equipment. In audio, offerings include CD/MP3 capability and a USB port, along with SiriusXM satellite radio. Bluetooth is available, as is a dealer-installed WiFi capability. Two standard 12-volt power outlets, mounted inside on the engine cover, maintain the workload when carrying a laptop, and a remote vehicle starter system allows the van to warm up in cold climes and cool off in the warm ones. Perhaps the ultimate built-in technology is OnStar, which provides emergency response, turn-by-turn navigation and concierge service.

Performance and Fuel Economy

Within the Savana family (1500, 2500 and 3500), there are three available gasoline powertrains plus the Duramax diesel. If you stick with the light-duty 1500, however, you’re limited to a 5.3-liter V8 producing 310 horsepower and 334 lb-ft of torque. There’s an available FlexFuel derivative, delivering the same horsepower and torque while operating on E85 (ethanol) or an E85/gasoline mix. The Savana 1500 platform seems perfect for a light-duty diesel, but no plans for an oil burner have been announced.

When equipped with the 5.3-liter V8, the Savana van can achieve 13 mpg in town and 17 mpg on the highway, a reasonable figure given the Savana’s weight, bulk and four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. To its credit, GM has been at the forefront in the building of efficient V8 powertrains; if carrying eight passengers, the Savana 1500 remains at least as efficient as taking two (typically mid-size) cars to transport the same number of people.


Thankfully, GM has given consideration to elements of both active safety, or accident avoidance, and passive safety, or the ability to survive one. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning can reduce the hassle of piloting and drama of stopping a loaded truck. Also standard on all GMC Savanas is StabiliTrak, which is GM’s electronic stability control. Available head curtain side airbags and lap and shoulder belts for center seat passengers (standard) wraps up the Savana’s safety menu.

Driving Impressions

Driving a GMC Savana, as with just about every other vehicle in the full-size van segment, is a bit like steering a boat; its ponderous proportions typically make for ponderous handling, and in this regard GMC’s Savana won’t disappoint. That said, GM engineers have done an admirable job of massaging the “beast” out of this beast, and when equipped with its standard V8 it goes about its business with a degree of eagerness you would not have sensed 20 years ago.

The driving experience in the passenger version is helped by almost 360 degrees of visibility. The driver’s hip point is high, and the field of vision is almost unobstructed.

Other Trucks to Consider

After years in which the full-size van category was dominated by GM and Ford, it’s about to wake from a quarter- century of hibernation. Although Chrysler left the segment several years ago, it’s rumored to be coming back with Fiat-based commercial vans modified for stateside sale. Ford, having enjoyed a surprisingly good reception for its more compact Transit Connect, plans to offer the Connect’s full-size brother. With the dissolution of the Mercedes-Benz/Chrysler union, Mercedes is importing its Sprinter and selling it through select Mercedes dealerships. And Nissan has just announced a passenger variant of its full-size NV for 2013.

Also, remember that today’s minivans aren’t so mini. Entries by Chrysler, Honda, Toyota and Nissan are all significantly larger than a decade ago. And all of the current minivan crop have platforms and comfort/convenience features that may be coming with the next generation of full-size vans but aren’t available on today’s GM or Ford entries.

AutoTrader Recommends

We’d equip an eight-passenger Savana with available all-wheel drive and just enough comfort and convenience accessories to make it livable for a three-week grand tour. With room for everything a family of four could possibly carry, along with bike storage inside rather than on top of the van, the Savana would make a great base camp for any weekend—or weeks-long—adventure. And you’d be out the door for well under $40,000.

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 GMC Savana 1500: New Car Review - Autotrader