By on April 17, 2012

The Nissan NV may be an exciting newcomer, but the tried-and-true GM and Ford vans are the staple of the commercial market. Our own Mike Solowiow took exception with the 2007 Chevrolet Express passenger van as a passenger hauler back in 2008. Will the no-frills cargo hauler variant find favor with us here at TTAC? More importantly, can GM’s smorgasbord of configuration options dethrone Ford as the volume van seller during the upcoming T-Series transition?

There’s not much styling to discuss when it comes to GM’s full-size vans, but is that important in a work truck? When you’re buying a fleet of work trucks, or just one or two vans for your delivery employees to drive, repair costs are a critical factor. (Seriously, have you seen how cargo-van-drivers drive?) If this describes your employees, buying a Nissan NV with it’s large shiny chrome bumper could be a bad business move, as bumper covers for the Express and Savana go for $75 online. The story is the same from stem to stern eschewing expensive aerodynamic plastic headlamp assemblies (available on the passenger vans) for sealed-beam halogen units, acres of easy-to-Bondo panels and a rear end that’s as discount as it gets. Shoppers have their choice of four standard paint colors, four $150 optional colors, or the ever so popular full-body vinyl wrap. If you’re shopping off the lot, expect to get any color you want so long as its white. 1500 models get a 17-inch steel wheel while 2500 and 3500 models get a 16-inch wheel wrapped in 245 width 75 series rubber for added load capacity.

Nissan’s NV is clearly designed for owner-operators, and it shows with driver oriented features, comfy seats and the positioning of human-room over cargo room. If you thought the last van sporting engine access inside the cabin was driven by the A-Team, think again. Because cargo is king for the GM vans, the engine is pushed as far into the cabin as possible maximizing interior volume and minimizing the external footprint (that’s all relative of course). Having the engine located between the driver and front passenger footwells both limits legroom and cooks the driver’s right leg on long drives. It also means the transmission is under the van between the seats resulting in a fairly high step-in height. On the flip side it means the Savana and Express can swallow 13-foot items in short wheelbase form and the long wheelbase version can schlep 15-foot goods. (The E-series comes in at 12.5 feet and 14.6 feet). Standard equipment includes seats and a steering wheel but stops short of in-dash entertainment of any variety. Buyers have the option of an AM/FM radio, a mid-level unit with a CD player and a higher end unit that brings basic iPod/iPhone functionality. Sadly no navigation system is available in any model.

Let’s be honest. If I’m buying a van for my business and my employees are the ones driving it around, all talk of driver comfort is comparatively less important than the rest of this review, so let’s talk hauling. No other commercial vehicle comes in as many variations as GM’s vans. From 8-15 passenger versions for Zeta Cartel affiliates, two different wheelbases, and cab-only cutaways for shuttle bus and ambulance duty all of which can be had with a variety of engine and transmission choices, there are more variations than you can imagine. As you would expect, payload capacities range from 2,000lbs 1500 models to 4,184lbs in 3500 models. The only area where the Nissan NV clearly trumps GM’s offerings is height with it’s optional 6’2″ interior cargo area. Although you can have a conversion company extend your roof, it’s not as clean as Nissan’s solution and usually the doors left at their regular height, making it difficult to load large cargo. GM fights back with hinged side doors and a considerably longer cargo hold in the extended version.

Although GM offers the widest selection of engines,shoppers should choose carefully as there are some questionable selections on the menu. Let’s start with the 1500 series vans. First up is the ancient 190HP, 260lb-ft 4.3L V6 delivering the best fuel economy at 15/20MPG (city/highway), a 310HP, 334lbft 5.3L V8 with variable valve timing is optional on the 1500 RWD (13/18MPG) and standard on the 1500 AWD van (13/18MPG). Both engines are mated to a light duty four-speed 4L60E automatic transmission. Buyers should know, our informal polling of several large GM fleet customers indicated the 4L60E is notably less reliable than the heavy-duty 6-speed 6L90 used in 2500 and 3500 vans since 2010.

All 2500 and 3500 models come standard with a recently revised 280HP, 192lb-ft 4.8L V8 with VVT mated to GM’s 6-speed automatic good for 13/18MPG. An optional ($995) 324HP, 373lb-ft 6.0L V8 with VVT is available should you feel the need for speed in your cargo hauler. If you believe in burning oil, GM is happy to sell you their 6.6L Duramax V8 diesel engine which is de-tuned from truck duty to 260HP and 525lb-ft (from 397HP/765lb-ft) and delivered 18.8MPG on average for us. Don’t expect the diesel to save you money however as buying it will set you back a whopping $12,000. Perhaps the most enticing option for the GM vans however is the factory built CNG version, one of only two factory built CNG vehicles on the road (the other is the Honda Civic GX). Based on the 6.0L V8 and putting down 279HP and 320lb-ft of twist in gaseous-guise the option will set you back $15,885 and provides a 300+ mile range at the expense of a 5 cubic feet reduction in cargo capacity. While the option seems best suites to markets like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles where there is a moderate CNG infrastructure (or if you install a “home” refill station), at $1.95 per gallon “equivalent” in the option will pay for itself before you hit 100,000 miles. (Based on current California gasoline prices)

Nissan does not release MPG numbers for the NV vans, but our high-top V8 averaged 14.2MPG and a 40 mile test drive in a standard roof V8 yielded 14.8MPG. From the blue oval competition their 4.6L V8 will do 13/17, the 5.4L V8 drops to 12/16 and the 6.8L V10 rounds out the bottom at 10/14. We average a solid 17MPG during a 90 mile mixed-driving trip with the 4.8L V8 in a base 2500 series van making it the best cost/performance ratio option in this segment.

Towing may not seem like an obvious consideration, but a quick check with the construction crowd confirmed it is important. While the V6 Nissan NV 1500 boasts a 7,000lb tow rating vs GM’s 4,300lb rating for their 1500 series V6 van, Nissan’s 261HP/281lb-ft V6 is probably best pitted against GM’s 4.8L V8 (280HP/296lb-ft) which starts with a 7,400lb towing capacity. We were only able to get our hands on a 5,000lb load to haul with the Nissan and GM vans, but  the difference was enlightening. (Note: tests with the 1500 series GM van were completed with a 4,000lb trailer because if its reduced towing capacity). With trailer attached, GM’s V6 van could barely get out of its own way, while Nissan’s more powerful V6 and 5-speed transmission performed well maintaining 55MPH on a 6% grade, but passing wasn’t really in the cards. GM’s hunt-happy four-speed automatic was as much to blame for this problem as the V6’s specs.

Nissan’s V8 (317HP/385lb-ft) proved a willing tow companion on the same grade able to accelerate from 50-60MPG without drama for passing uphill. GM fights back their 6-speed automatic making the 6.0L V8 the better tow partner, but most importantly making the 4.8L V8 a logical and economical alternative. For those considering the jump from 1500 to 2500 series vans to get the 6-cog transmission, our up-hill towing test demonstrated just how important extra gear ratios are with the less powerful 2500 series (4.8L V8) easily outperforming the 1500 (5.3L V8) due to the two extra gears. Should you need the maximum schlepping ability, GM’s 3500 van with the 6.6L diesel V8 is good for a class leading 10,000lbs of trailering and 4,148lbs of in-van hauling. Ford is of course the other major player in this market, but time and progress have left the E-Series behind. Ford offers only three engine options at this time: a 225HP/286lb-ft 4.6L modular V8, a 255HP/350lb-ft 5.4L V8 and a 305HP/420lb-ft 6.8L V10. Both V8s are available only with a four-speed automatic while the V10 gets a 5-speed.

As I said in our review of the NV, pricing commentary is difficult when it comes to a commercial vehicle. I was unable to get specific rebate numbers, but I am told that fleet buyers should expect around $1000 back with a purchase of five vans and around $2,500 for 25 vans plus the usual bevy of enticing freebies. Don’t take those numbers as gospel, fleet buyers should contact the manufacturers for ordering details as the configurations are near endless. While the NV 1500 is a hair cheaper than a Chevy Express 1500, GM’s 2500 series van is only around $755 more expensive than an NV 1500 netting the buyer the heavy-duty transmission, brakes, and increased hauling capacity. Compared to the present competition, GM’s Chevy Express and GMC Savana twins deliver high-capacity hauling, more variations, and thanks to the new 6-speed transmissions, class leading fuel economy making them easily the top pick for fleet use. If however you’re driving your own van, the slight reduction in utility  and observed fuel economy of the Nissan NV are offset by vastly improved creature comforts and more room for the driver at a very compelling price. Until the blue oval can get the new T-Series van online, the best hauling options on the market seem to be from Nissan and GM, check out our E-Series review for more on that tomorrow.


This is part two of a five-part series on commercial vehicles. Click the links below for the others in this series:

2012 Nissan NV

2012 Ford E-350

2012 Ford Transit Connect


General Motors provided the vehicle, one tank of diesel and insurance for this review

0-60: 9.4 Seconds

 Average fuel economy: 18.8MPG over 435 miles

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31 Comments on “Commercial Week Day Two Review: 2012 GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express...”

  • avatar

    The sealed-beam headlight is not yet dead! Hallelujah!

    You get a shiny-new glass lens every time the bulb burns out. No 3M polishing kits (or $125 “headlight service” charge at the shop) required!

    I don’t know why this makes me so happy, but it does . . .

  • avatar
    Speed Spaniel

    Some dude named Chester who lived in the creepy green house down the dirt lane used to drive one of these when I was a kid. We were told to run and yell ‘stranger danger!!!’ at the top of our lungs if we saw him driving down the road in his creaky white GMC van (this of course is purely fictional, but I couldn’t resist)…..

    • 0 avatar

      My 24-year-old son’s hardcore metal band toured last August in a ’90 G-20 conversion van. Didn’t realize at the time how all such vans have that taint.

      We call it “the Perv Van”.

      With the seats out, it’s pretty useful for hauling building supplies…

      • 0 avatar

        The thing just looks like it needs “Free Candy!” spray-painted on the side. The NV doesn’t give me the same gut reaction, but that might just be because none of the pictures of it I’ve seen had it in flat white.

      • 0 avatar

        In It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Frank (Danny Devito) picked one of these up to spy on someone. The gang referred to it as his ‘rape van’ the whole episode

  • avatar

    The 4.8/6-speed sounds like a good and economical performer. I worked for a fleet operator a couple years ago though, and there was a strong preference for the E-series Ford over the GM twins for reasons of general durability and quality. I never actually drove one of the big GM vans, but they were discussed derisively on the rare occasions when one appeared that was being used in our industry. I also couldn’t believe just how bad the E-series vans were and I hoped that Toyota would build a 1-ton passenger van so Ford would feel the need to up their game the way they responded to competition in other areas. I drove a rented 2009 E350 15 passenger van with 400 miles that was as thrashy, rattly, loose, wandering, and wind permeable as any of the 100,000 mile vans in our fleet that I thought had been beaten into submission. It also still had the dreaded guillotine over-center bench seat release mechanisms that I hated using, a non-functioning passenger side power window, and a level of interior fit and finish that would have embarrassed Trabant.

  • avatar

    Brother-in-law drives an ’05 Chevy 2500 5.3/4L60E with close to 200K on it. Engine still sounds like a new vehicle.

  • avatar

    NO NAVIGATION??? (sorry), but I’m actually considering getting one of these to replace my pickup. Just a panel van and with a 4X4 conversion. My big dogs tear up my pickup’s interior too much and would be easier to sleep in when camping. A campershell isn’t as convenient as a pass-thru anyways. OK, I have a thing for lifted and upfitted vans. Ladder and shovel bolted to the back. RhinoLiner halfway up the sides. With a TomTom I guess…

  • avatar

    Does Quigly still build off road conversions?

    • 0 avatar

      On Ford Econolines, yes, and sold through Ford dealers. It seem GM has a 4X4 factory option but I’ve only ever seen a couple of them on the road.

      • 0 avatar

        The Quigley website says they still do 4WD conversions on both Ford and GM vans. I think the factory GM offering is AWD and is built more with all season in mind than all terrain.

  • avatar

    Small typo: “Nissan’s V8 (317HP/385lb-ft) proved a willing tow companion on the same grade able to accelerate from 50-60MPG without drama for passing uphill.

  • avatar

    The Econoline rules the West Coast business van market since the Dodge Ram Van was discontinued. One plumber friend is disappointed with the durability of the Ford powertrain compared to the 1990 Dodge it replaced. Another friend has a Chevy Express 1500 V-6/4L60E and he loves it. No towing needed because everything fits inside. His former pickup required a utility trailer behind to haul everything. The Express is economical for such a huge box and has had zero problems. While the GM van is not pretty, the Econoline has a particularly ugly face.

  • avatar

    I bought an ’08 3500 Express 2.5 or years ago used for $16.250 certified with 33-34k miles. Love it. I use it as a cargo van but got the passenger model for the standard curtain air bags and stability control. Much better than a pickup. 10′ behind the front seats after I removed the other seats and put plywood on the floor. Have about 66k on it now with no problems or rattles. Mileage is 18-19 mpg at 70 mph on the highway and 14-15 overall. Plenty of power and good brakes on the rare occasions when I’ve had a load. I keep a big cage in the back for carting my dogs to the vet or picking up strays when I manage to catch one. It’s a big vehicle, and I like the safety. Heavy helps in a crash, and the height would help me if I’m hit in the side. Not many vehicle’s hoods would get above my legs. These are big heavy things and handle and ride accordingly. I suppose people can tear anything up, but the power train warranty is 100k and uses the same components as the big pickups.

  • avatar
    Alex L. Dykes

    According to the fleet companies I interviewed (I was asked not to name names) you are correct, the old Dodge RAM vans were more reliable. One major fleet operator with 1,100+ vans in the USA operates a fleet of mixed Dodge, GM and Ford vans, the Ford and GM vans range from 2001-2012 models. They indicated the new GM 6 speed and 4.8L V8 engine has been the most reliable combo. The data is only 2 years old tops because the 6-speed started in 2010, however they were averaging a new 4L60 every 60,000 miles previously and the 6L series transmissions have yet to be replaced with over 100 vans now hitting over 100,000 miles.

  • avatar

    I think it’s kind of odd that on the GM trucks the 4.8L is only offered with the 4-spd and the 5.3L is only offered with the 6-spd.

    But, then on the vans you can only get the 5.3L with a 4-spd and the 4.8L comes with a 6-spd.

    Why do it like this?

  • avatar

    We have one of these at work with the 4.3 L V6 that seems to make more noise than forward movement. I have to say that even the slightest avoidance maneuver feels like this vehicle could easily become dangerous as the handling is a bit scary.

  • avatar

    I have used these vans in a delivery business for many years. Probably driven 7 or 8 from 40-70k up to 250-300k miles. Most have been chevys with the V6. The engine may be ancient and slow but they are dead on reliable! I have never had a major engine problem with any of them. And only had one transmission failure.

    The earlier dodges were a transmission disaster waiting to happen. We had one go out at 18k and then about 60k on the same van. And one of the earlier fords with the 4.2 just decided to lock up at 80k on the clock.

    On the older chevys (probably 1998-2004) every single one of them would lose the fuel pump. My 2006 and 2008 (current one) is still good at 300k and 170k.

    I think the chevy also drives better especially as the miles increase. Some of the older fords are plain scary with worn front ends!

    Side doors are junk on these. They will eventually stick to the point you think the hinges are going to rip off every time you open or close the doors. I would spring for a slider. The back doors however are excellent and open wide.

    In the used cargo van market it seems impossible to find chevys with any options whatsoever. Fords seem to be easier to find with power options and cruise.

  • avatar

    Geez, nary a word about the driving experience. In the last review some years ago, you guys rated the GM commercial vans as one of the worst riding/driving new vehicles available. IIRC, words to the effect of “the only people who buy these are the ones who don’t have to drive them”.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    I’ve had many oppurtunities to make the Ford / Chevy van comparison the past 15 years . Drove these tens of thousands of miles, Both the company’s Econoline and Express, long wheelbases and many rentals of the same including this years . I agree the Express is always cruder but quicker than our Econoline with the Triton v8 . Seemed to me the Express got slightly better mileage but the floor generates a lot of heat and the interior is awful -low grade fall apart plastic , thin metal , hated clamshell doors that will not stay open . The Ford felt much more solid , but not so good mechanically -dead at 185k with bad trans , no brakes and valve problems . The Express hadn’t had nearly the problems at the same mileage .The various rentals were better kept up and somewhat improved thru the years but still awfully similiar to 5, 10 years ago.I didn’t find them that hard to drive but no doubt I got used to them.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve also driven a lot of Ford and GM vans across the country, generally E350/3500 models with the biggest engine available, pulling a beast of a 25ft enclosed trailer.

      I always much preferred the Fords. In my experience with the poverty-spec fleet interiors on both sides, the GMs were horrible – super rough plastic with massive gaps everywhere. Something as simple as rolling down the window could draw blood if you weren’t careful. The Fords were spartan, sure, but seemed well designed and assembled.

      Also, how hard is it to design rear cargo doors that will hold themselves open? The GM doors just flopped wherever they felt like, making loading cargo a pain if it was a little gusty out – doubly so if you’ve got a trailer hooked up and are trying to clamber over the hitch. The Fords had big detents, just like in passenger car doors.

      Hauling-wise, tough to say – they both seemed to have more than enough power to get the job done.

  • avatar

    I think you are probably right in your perception of the desires of companies that buy fleets, but it seems to me that worker comfort might have some pay-off for companies as well… Having workers ride around in something that they find uncomforable all day can’t possibly be a good idea.

    • 0 avatar

      It depends on the type of business. Plumbing, elecrical, phone and cable installers spend most of the workday at the job site, not driving around. Ive found the forward control tilt cab box trucks to be the most uncomfortable and noisy. Those are the ones used for deliveries that the workers are in them all day.

  • avatar

    Back in February, I got to shadow at my companies print shop and they have one of these as a cargo van for delivering printed materials to customers. It’s nice enough in that capacity, but I agree, the interior does seem very low rent/grade in quality.

    That said, it’s a bit too big for them for what they normally deliver but my company’s copier techs sometimes have to borrow it to deliver a copier or at least part of one from time to time so that’s why we have it.

    I have not driven it, but it seems to do the job and it’s size is great for hauling, but a hindrance in city use as finding parking to fit it can be challenging when it becomes necessary.

  • avatar

    “Let’s be honest…” paragraph, accidental “ans” halfway down.

  • avatar

    When’s the Vellum Venom column on this coming? There’s spectacular DLO-fail and front-door wheel-opening-cutaway fail fodder here for Sajeev to dig his fangs into.

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