Pros:  Maximum capability to truck customers who need it; 15-passenger Savanas ride on their own extended-wheelbase chassis

Cons:  Platform is showing its age; competition is about to heat up

Sitting at the top of GMC's Savana menu is the 3500. Packing the biggest punch for both the commercial user or as the basis for a weekend RV, the Savana offers roughly 800 additional pounds of payload over its 2500 sibling. As on all GMC vans, the Savana 3500 employs a fully boxed frame, available locking rear differential and StabiliTrak electronic stabilization.

The design intent of the heavy-duty Savana remains heavy-duty use. As a passenger van, the Savana with the 155-inch wheelbase is capable of carrying 15 passengers, while as a tow vehicle it can handle as much as 10,000 pounds. The 3500's standard drivetrain is the 4.8-liter V8, delivering 280 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The next bump is the 6.0 liter V8, providing 324 hp and 373 lb-ft of torque. (Notably, both 4.8 and 6.0 are available as flex-fuel variants, allowing an owner to burn E85, a mix of ethanol and gasoline.) At the top of the fuel pyramid is GM's 6.6-liter Duramax diesel. And while the horsepower rating of 260 hp may be modest, the 525 lb-ft of torque will pull as many stumps as your acreage could provide.

With its proven capability, Savana shoppers should remember that this particular platform dates to 1996, and while the market for full-size domestic vans has remained relatively static (except for Dodge leaving the category several years ago), other truck makers have designs on entering the segment soon. Also, today's Savana no longer matches GMC's upscale aspirations for the division. With sales of pickups and SUVs growing, and GM's focus on eliminating model overlap between divisions, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Savana missing from future GMC announcements.

Comfort & Utility

With available room for 15 or a couple of tons of cargo, you can reimagine a GMC Savana in one of dozens of configurations. As a cargo van, the Savana 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 for getaways, the heavy-duty Savana serves as a donor vehicle for RV conversions executed by companies such as Roadtrek and Sportsmobile.

The Savana 3500 does sacrifice some degree of comfort for additional utility. The suspension is less compliant, the tire choices typically more rugged, but the 3500's handling and powertrain will be less affected by load. And whereas the Savana 1500 is limited to under 7,000 pounds of towing capability with its 5.3 liter V8, the 3500 can pull up to 10,000 pounds with either the 6.0-liter V8 or the 6.6-liter Duramax diesel.

A major choice when choosing between the 2500 or the 3500 is the availability of a long-wheelbase 3500. Featuring a 20-inch wheelbase stretch (from 135 inches to 155 inches), the heaviest-duty 3500 Extended can be all things to all people. And the additional wheelbase is notable. On its E-350 with 15-passenger capability, Ford only extends the bodywork, not the wheelbase, making for an awkward distribution of weight when the E-350 is fully loaded. Keep in mind, however, that the Savana's interior - even in passenger-van guise - is more bare-bones functionality than expressive luxury. If you're looking for upscale appointments, you'll have to visit the aftermarket.

Technology

The GMC Savana can be equipped with numerous technology add-ons. The 3500's audio system lineup can include CD/MP3 capability and USB port, along with SiriusXM satellite radio. Bluetooth is available, as is dealer-installed WiFi capability. Two standard 12-volt power outlets, mounted inside on the engine cover, help you maintain the workload when carrying a laptop, while a remote vehicle starter system allows the van to warm up in cold climes and cool off in warm ones. Finally, all GMC vans come equipped with OnStar, which provides emergency response and turn-by-turn navigation.

Performance and Fuel Economy

The choices available to the Savana 3500 should fit most needs. Standard is the Vortec 4.8 liter V8, delivering 280 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The Savana 3500 with 4.8-liter V8 can tow up to 7,400 pounds as a cargo van. Equipped with the 6.0-liter gasoline engine, providing 324 hp and 373 lb-ft of torque, the Savana can tow 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 between 9,000 and 10,000 pounds of towing capability, depending on which wheelbase or trim you opt for. As for fuel economy, expect roughly 11-12 mpg in stop-and-go driving and 15 to 17 mpg in highway driving.

Safety

Four-wheel disc braking with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning can reduce the drama inherent in stopping a loaded truck. Also standard on all Savana 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 Savana safety menu. Of course, your ability to avoid an accident is enhanced by sweeping visibility in the 3500 passenger van; that same ability is more restricted in the cargo version, given its lack of glass area.

Driving Impressions

No one buys a Savana cargo or passenger van for its on-road dynamism or off-road capability. Whether intended for work or recreation, the Savana is simply a means to an end; even outfitted as an RV, it will never constitute the end in and of itself. To GM's credit, with any of the V8s the Savana goes about its business with a degree of eagerness you would not have sensed 20 years ago.

 Other Trucks to Consider

With more recent introductions, such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Nissan NV, the needle has moved regarding customer expectations. Despite the Savana's ability to navigate highways and byways, the industry has moved on; ultimately, GM will need to, also.

The most obvious alternatives to GMC's Savana 3500 are on the same GMC showroom. A Yukon or Yukon XL will seat up to eight, and while not delivering the sheer cubic volume of the Savana, it better acquits itself in over-the-road demeanor. Ford's E-350 is equally dated, while the much more contemporary Sprinter, available from Mercedes-Benz, is much more expensive.

Reasonably priced, and delivering a new take on cargo management, is Nissan's NV. Bearing a close functional resemblance to the Titan pickup, the NV is marketed as a cargo van with an available-from-the-factory high roof. Coming in 2013 is a passenger version of the NV, and while sold as a half-ton van, the NV is typically overbuilt.

For those who can wait, Chrysler intends to import Fiat-based commercial vans in the not-too-distant future, and Ford's next E-350 should be based on its European counterpart, the full-size Transit. Given the positive reception to its smaller Transit Connect, Ford could have a winner on its hands, forcing GM to modernize the Savana or, more likely, drop it from the lineup.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd equip an extended-wheelbase Savana cargo van with the optional 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, chrome appearance package (for our requisite dosage of bling), the Convenience package with power windows and locks, a heavy-duty locking differential and heavy-duty trailering equipment. We'd then ship it off to an adventure-oriented converter such as Sportsmobile, giving us a big van that could easily sleep four while carrying all the gear four would typically take for a three-week tour. We'd be out the door for roughly $45,000 plus the cost of the conversion and would have a base camp suitable for virtually any venue in North America.

author photo

David Boldt began his automotive career in BMW and Saab showrooms in the 1980s, and he moved to automotive journallismin 1993. David has written for a varity of regional and national publications, and prior to joining AutoTrader, he managed media relations for a Japanese OEM.

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