1996 Chevrolet Express Full-Size Van First Drive Review05/25/2020
With the families of baby boomers growing older and their travel requirements changing, some industry analysts are predicting a swing upmarket from kid-toting minivans to recreational-toy-towing full-size vans. If the current trends continue, the full-size segment could grow as much as 30 percent by 2002.
The new Chevy Express and GMC Savana are nothing short of a frame-up rethink of the full-size General Motors G-platform van—and we mean frame-up, literally. The 1996 Express vans rolling out of the Wentzville, Missouri, assembly line are built on an all-new welded full-ladder-type frame. Adding considerable stiffness for improved stability, ride, and handling qualities, the stout frame also provides the Express (and Chevy’s panel-van variant) with the backbone of a truck.
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Chevy clearly intends its biggest van to be a jack-of-all-trades. Offered in both Chevy Van (panel) or Chevy Express (window) models, buyers can choose from two wheelbases, three gross-vehicle-weight-rating levels, and an Express Extended version that seats 15 passengers. Those who don’t have that many friends can order either eight- or 12-passenger seating configurations to go with the regular 135.0-inch and Extended 155.0-inch wheelbases. Following the popular half-, three-quarter-, and one-ton light-truck designations, the Express is offered in G1500, G2500, and G3500 models.
While the Express may have a truck chassis and running gear, the exterior styling takes distinct cues from the current Astro van. Think of an Astro on steroids and you’ve got a general idea. The Chevy pickup family ties are obvious, with a bold C/K-style grille section and a massive front bumper blending rearward to more flowing lines. Aerodynamic tweaks, including flush glass and recessed door handles, make the Express a more contemporary package. A hidden-hinge design allows the rear doors to swing out a full 180 degrees, providing unobstructed access to the rear of the van.
The cargo hold in the Express is cavernous. With seats removed, the short-wheelbase model will swallow 267 cubic feet of stuff and the Extended model will accommodate 317 cubic feet. That’s more space than in some apartments—and the Express is better-appointed, too.
From the first time you climb up behind the wheel of the Express (you don’t “slide-in” behind the wheel of a big van), the feeling is reassuringly solid. The dual-airbag dash and instrument panel are hung on a massive magnesium beam that spans the entire front width of the new G-van, and the 1996 Express also sports a molded headliner featuring optional overhead climate controls and vents.
The Express rates high marks for ride and handling. That long, wide stance establishes an exceptionally stable platform—a virtue you’ll appreciate next time you encounter a direct crosswind. However, as you might expect, tight-confines maneuverability isn’t a strong suit of the Express. The standard-wheelbase G1500 has a 45.2-foot turning circle. That number grows to 47.4 feet for the G2500 and a curb-hopping 53.4 feet for Extended models.
GM’s redesign of the Vortec engine line for 1996 makes the Express a responsive package on the road. The base engine is the Vortec 4300 (4.3-liter) V-6, which delivers 195 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. The Vortec 5000 (5.0-liter) V-8 offers 220 hp and 285 lb-ft of torque, but our pick for general big-van usage is the Vortec 5700 (5.7-liter) V-8, which produces 250 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque. We also had the opportunity to drive a bare-bones model equipped with the Vortec 7400 V-8, which yields 290 hp and a tire-shredding 410 lb-ft of torque. When empty, this brute would light the tires for the length of a city block.
Diesel fans will be happy to hear that the 6.5-liter Indirect EFI V-8 turbodiesel hasn’t been left out. Major revisions give the turbodiesel 30 more horses and an impressive 95 lb-ft more torque than the 1995 version. Official 1996 numbers are now 190 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque.
Experiencing their first major redesign since 1971, the all-new GM full-size vans appear to be well worth the wait.
Body type: 3-door, 8-, 12-, or 15-passenger
Drivetrain: Front-engine, rear-drive
Base curb weight, lb: 5,071
Wheelbase, in./mm: 135.0/3429
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8
Horsepower @ rpm: 250 @ 4600
Torque, lb-ft @ rpm: 335 @ 2800
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Brakes: Discs/drums, ABS
Base price: $19,500-$22,000 (est.)
This article originally ran in May 1996.
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