Pros: Maximum capability to truck customers who need it; up to 15-passengers accommodations on extended-wheelbase chassis
Cons: Platform is showing its age; competition is heating up
What's New: Available backup camera; rear parking sensors; navigation
Sitting at the top of GMC's Savana menu is the 3500. Among the full-size van lineup, the 2013 GMC Savana 3500 packs the biggest punch for both the commercial user or as the basis for a weekend RV, offering roughly 800 additional pounds of payload over its 2500 sibling. Like all GMC vans, the Savana 3500 employs a fully boxed frame, available locking rear differential and StabiliTrak electronic stabilization.
The design intent of the Savana 3500 is still heavy-duty usage. 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 E85 mix of ethanol and gasoline). At the top of the pyramid is GM's 6.6-liter Duramax diesel. And while its rating of 260 hp may be modest, its 525 lb-ft of torque will pull as many stumps as your acreage could provide.
Capable as it may be, the platform underpinning the Savana (which dates back to 1996) is aging. The market for full-size domestic vans has remained relatively static until recently. The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter--which was also sold as a Dodge during the Mercedes/Chrysler marriage--is competition with a more modern and efficient design. Ford has a new full-size van (also based on a European model) coming soon. And the Nissan NV full-size van is now available for both cargo and passenger applications.
Today's Savana also 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.
In the mean time, the 2013 Savana 3500 arrives with a handful of newly available features including a backup camera, rear parking sensors and a navigation system.
Comfort & Utility
With available room for 15 or a couple of tons of cargo, drivers can configure the GMC Savana in dozens of different ways. 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 and the tire choices typically more rugged, but the 3500's handling and powertrain are less affected by load. And whereas the Savana 1500 is limited to less than 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-in wheelbase stretch (from 135-in to 155-in), 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 and 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 functional than expressively luxurious. If you're looking for upscale appointments, you'll have to visit the aftermarket.
Despite its age, the Savana keeps up pretty well with technological 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
The choices available to the Savana 3500 should fit most needs. Standard is the Vortec 4.8 liter V8, delivering 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The Savana 3500 with 4.8-liter engine can tow up to 7,400 pounds as a cargo van. Equipped with the 6.0-liter gasoline engine, 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 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.
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. A newly available backup camera and rear parking sensors take the guesswork out of low-speed maneuvering. Available head curtain side airbags and standard lap and shoulder belts for center seat passengers wraps up the Savana safety menu.
The ability to avoid an accident is enhanced by sweeping visibility in the 3500 passenger van; visibility is more restricted in the cargo version, given its lack of glass.
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. But thanks to its strong V8 engine lineup, the Savana 3500 goes about its business with a degree of eagerness not found in a similar vehicle 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 move on as well.
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 a high roof available from the factory. A passenger version is also available.
The most obvious alternatives to GMC's Savana 3500 are in 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, the Yukon's on-the-road demeanor makes up for what it lacks in utility.
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 GMC to modernize the Savana or, more likely, drop it from the lineup.
We'd equip an extended-wheelbase 2013 GMC Savana 3500 cargo van with the optional 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, the Convenience package with power windows and locks, a heavy-duty locking differential, heavy-duty trailering equipment and the chrome appearance package to dress it up. 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 typically taken on 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.