Pros: Great capability; proven reliability as a cargo hauler; worthy workmate
Cons: Architecture and platform reminiscent of 1976
What's New: Available backup camera; rear parking sensors; navigation
Piloting a model from GMC's Savana line is like taking a drive backwards in time. The full-size van architecture underpinning the 2013 GMC Savana 1500 dates to 1996, a long run for any platform. In fact, if even if the Savana's Chevrolet sibling (the Express van) sees a next-generation model soon, we suspect that it could be a stand-alone--leaving GMC to focus on its upscale SUV, crossover and pickup truck models.
In the interim the GMC Savana soldiers on as both a passenger and cargo van. The full-size Savana may be old, but a seemingly endless need for huge people-hauling and cargo-carrying capability keeps the Savana relevant.
The list of van choices available to the prospective Savana is equally huge. You can choose one of two lengths and three capacities, with either 2- or 4-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 either 9,600 pounds with a gasoline powertrain or 9,900 pounds with GM's Duramax diesel. GMC even offers the van buyer 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 also 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. A new radio navigation system is available for 2013, and audio offerings include CD/MP3 capability, a USB port and SiriusXM satellite radio. Bluetooth is available, as is a dealer-installed Wi-Fi 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 driver to warm up the van in cold climes and cool it 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 cargo version of the light-duty 1500, however, you're limited to either a 4.3-liter V6 good for 195 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, or a 5.3-liter V8 producing 310 hp and 334 lb-ft of torque. The Savana 1500 passenger van gets the 5.3-liter V8 exclusively. There's an available FlexFuel derivative, delivering the same hp 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 city/17 mpg hwy, a reasonable figure given the Savana's weight, bulk and 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. With the smaller 4.3-liter motor, the Savana cargo van is rated at 15/20 mpg. 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 midsize) cars to transport the same number of people.
Thankfully, GM has given consideration to elements of both active safety (accident avoidance) and passive safety (the ability to survive a crash should one occur). Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning can reduce the hassle of piloting and the drama of stopping a loaded truck. Also standard on all GMC Savanas is StabiliTrak, which is GM's electronic stability control. A newly available backup camera and rear parking sensors take the guesswork out of low-speed maneuvering. Available head curtain side airbags and lap and shoulder belts for center seat passengers (standard) wraps up the Savana's safety menu.
Driving a GMC Savana, as with most other vehicles 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 the 2013 GMC Savana 1500 delivers as expected. 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 not found in a similar vehicle 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 of domination by GM and Ford, the full-size van segment is 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 offers both cargo and passenger versions 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 the whole current minivan crop are equipped with 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.
We'd equip an 8-passenger 2013 Savana 1500 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. With the top LT trim, navigation, rear parking sensors and a backup camera, you'd still be out the door for well under $40,000.