Pros: Big capability; proven reliability for cargo or family carrying
Cons: Current-generation Express dates all the way back to 1996
During the swinging Sixties, ownership of a Chevrolet panel van would place you high on the list of Who's Cool. Whether it was Chevy's first Corvair-based effort or the second-generation model, appearing near the end of the decade, a panel van had the potential to move you upward socially as it may have moved you onward geographically.
Fast forward to today: many fans of those Chevrolets have moved into retirement centers, where the community van might very well be an Express. And while up to 15 residents can take it to the shopping center or movie theater, any number of tradesmen servicing their community home will use the Express as their work platform. GM's Express may be old, but the need for people hauling and cargo carrying is seemingly infinite.
And so are the choices. You can buy an Express in one of two lengths and one of three capacities. The Express 1500 has a GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of 7,300 pounds, while the 2500 is listed at 8,600 pounds and the 3500 comes in at 9,600 pounds with a gasoline engine and 9,900 pounds with Chevrolet's Duramax diesel. There's also a compressed natural gas package.
Comfort & Utility
With available room for 15 people or a couple of tons of cargo, you can reimagine a Chevy Express in one of dozens of configurations. In base form as marketed to many fleets, the Express can serve roles as diverse as plumbing, carpentry or flower delivery. As a passenger van, the Express is frequently used in shuttle or limousine service. And in RV form, the Express can serve as a donor vehicle for your escape getaways.
If space can be construed as a luxury, the Express would rival a Maybach. Its seating comfort, however, won't; the factory seating supports you but does little else. Air conditioning is standard, and a rear unit is available. You can equip your Express with enhanced interior lighting, remote keyless entry and a remote vehicle starter.
In this market segment, the addition of any technology comes as a surprise. To GM's credit, the Express van enjoys numerous technology-driven features. Among the audio systems are one with 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 warmup 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
Within the Express family (1500, 2500 and 3500), there are five available gasoline powertrains plus the DuraMax diesel. If you stick with the light-duty 1500, however, you're limited to two: the 4.3-liter V6 with 195 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque is standard, and a 5.3-liter V8 is optional. We'd find the 4.3-liter 6 fine for in-town, stop-and-go delivery, but any trips subjecting you and your cargo to a freeway or interstate really call for more capability. And that additional capability comes in the guise of the 5.3-liter V8, delivering 310 hp and 334 lb-ft of torque. This same engine is available in a flex-fuel derivative, delivering the same horsepower and torque while operating on either E85 (ethanol) or an E85/gasoline mix.
Except for those vans specced for the lightest duty, the EPA doesn't measure fuel efficiency. When equipped with the base 4.3-liter V6, an Express van can achieve 20 mpg in highway driving. To its credit, GM has been at the forefront of building efficient V8 powertrains; if carrying eight, the Express 1500 remains at least as efficient as taking two typically mid-size cars to transport the same number of people.
If a collision zone provides a barrier of safety, an almost empty Express van should be the safest vehicle on the road. Thankfully, GM has also given consideration to elements of both active safety (your ability to avoid the accident) and passive safety (the ability to survive an accident). Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering can assist in guiding you around a collision, while 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 stability control. Available head curtain side airbags and lap and shoulder belts for center seat passengers (standard) wraps up the Express's safety menu.
Piloting an Express, or anything else within this full-size genre, is a bit like steering a boat. Ponderous proportions typically make for ponderous handling, and in this regard the Express won't disappoint. That said, GM engineers have done an admirable job of massaging the beast out of this beast, and when equipped with any of the V8s, it goes about its business with a surprising degree of eagerness. Given its separate chassis and wide-ranging powertrains, the Express is not unlike an older Suburban, and Suburban enthusiasts typically measure its life cycle in decades.
Other Trucks to Consider
Ford Transit Connect - Having enjoyed a surprisingly good reception for its more compact Transit Connect, Ford plans to offer the Connect's full-size brother in the U.S. market soon.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter - Select Mercedes dealerships are offering the Sprinter, a van imported from Europe.
We'd equip an eight-passenger Express with the optional 5.3-liter V8, 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 Express would make a great base camp for any weekend or weeks-long adventure. And you'd be out the door for under $35,000.