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1998 GMC Savana

When General Motors set the plans in motion to create a new generation of Chevrolet and GMC full-size vans, the first in 25 years, the company narrowed its sights on the commercial market. Load space and cargo-handling convenience in a working truck were the main goals.

The design team started by setting the exterior width at a relatively slim 2012 mm to allow easy manoeuvring in tight quarters and on congested roadways.

Then, interior space was maximized by slimming the superstructure's wall frames and raising the roof height to a practical maximum. A rear door system was designed to provide an opening virtually the size of the inside dimensions.

In a classic case of form following function, the resulting van has a tall, skinny look that appears quite strange at first. Although I was initially unsure of the new shape, I've discovered that it grows on you.

But, I thought, a big, blue, oil-burning passenger van is something else again. When my affable GM contact Chris Douglas ordered this oddity for the summer's press fleet, we joked that he and I would likely be the only people to drive it.

But Douglas was quick to point out that most would wind up as plush shuttle buses. For this role, the economy and reliability of a diesel are worth the extra initial cost. Compared to a Vortec 5700 V8 gasoline model, the diesel adds $3,720 to the $34,435 base price.

Diana and I trekked out to the GM Motorplex in Oshawa to take our impressions. We had tested the new GM van before (Wheels, Full-size GM van gets full redesign, February 1, 1997), and so inspection of the interior reconfirmed such positives as the efficiency of the dash layout, the comfort of the front buckets and the excellent fit and finish of the great swaths of carpet, cushions and plastic.

Diana pointed out one thing we hadn't noticed before. Unlike other large vans, the dash and footwell are better integrated with the seating space. Gone is the impression that you're perched above a deep, dark hole.

But, our visit was primarily concerned with experiencing the diesel's behavior and evaluating the handling of the huge chassis. After all, anyone owning and driving one of these would expect to spend long hours behind the wheel — and would likely be entrusted with the safety of a number of passengers.

I'm pleased to report that the van passed or even excelled in all my tests.

Much of our time was taken up cruising around scenic Oshawa getting a general sense of what it would be like to live with the turbo-charged diesel engine. In a nutshell, it was no problem.

The power delivery for the turbo diesel was patterned after the original 200-horsepower 5.7litre gasoline V8.

At 190 horsepower, 385 lbft of torque, and with an operating range extending to an undiesel-like 3600 r.p.m., it is certainly a nice enough way to move four wheels down the road.

What transforms the 1997 diesel experience is the absolutely magical way the automatic transmission tracks the available torque and r.p.m. and quickly and quietly selects the appropriate gear.

I have raved again and again in these pages about the talents of recent automatics, but to have a diesel's abrupt power put to use so smoothly is revolutionary.

Around town or out on the freeway the van moves with brisk authority.

Being away from the flat, straight, lonely roads of my home turf, I couldn't safely measure the 0-100 km/h acceleration times, but we did try a few 90-120 passing runs on highway 401.

Mash the pedal and the van picks up a gear, surges forward and gets to 120 klicks in about eight seconds. That's on par with any current sport-ute; incredible in this megamobile.

The only downside is the inescapable diesel racket. Like all of them it sits there at idle and goes bradda, bradda, bradda.

When accelerating, the underhood resounds with the beats of several Latin rhythm sections playing to different tunes.

Fortunately, at highway speeds the cacophony smooths out to a level only slightly louder than for a gas V8.

To get a handle on the handling, I put the Savana through some undignified but revealing manoeuvres on one of GM's huge back parking lots. I was actually surprised at how responsive the van was, and how forgiving. I couldn't get the Savana to misbehave regardless of how hard I pushed it through a slalom or how fast I was going when I whipped it into a J-turn.

None of this was at Camaro speeds, mind you. But at rates of travel representative of extremes for a full-size van, I could not get it to bite me.

Same for the brakes. The disc/drum four-wheel ABS binders have a huge responsibility in slowing so much weight. They rapidly hauled the big box down, straight and stable in defiance of my attempts to be stupid.

The ABS stayed out of my way until I had locked everything up and only then did it make its welcome presence felt.

Although Diana and I couldn't live with the diesel's racket, the responsiveness of the driveline and the chassis' agility guarantee the Savana's success as an urban commercial commando.

We'd prefer to take the big boat out on the open road, where, to quote Jim Robinson, "It comes on plane at about 120 klicks."

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on driving experiences in a Savana supplied by General Motors.

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