The original Chevrolet Express debuted way back in 1965, when sex was safe and cars weren’t. At the time, vans came in only one size–gargantuan–and the idea of parking a van inside a residential garage hadn’t been taken seriously yet. The van world changed irrevocably with the arrival of the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager in 1983, and as minivans proliferated, full-size vans fell into disfavor with everyone except commercial customers. Aside from the Express and its corporate twin, the GMC Savana, there are only two other maxivans left on the market–the aging Ford Econoline and the sprightlier Mercedes-Benz-built Dodge Sprinter.
In 1995, the Express was the beneficiary of a stem-to-stern overhaul–its first in three decades. Two years ago, it was freshened substantially to upgrade its mechanical components and bring its styling in line with the rest of the Chevy corporate family. The Express is sold in a dizzying array of iterations, several of them earmarked for fleets, commercial use, and van conversion companies. Passenger models come in half-ton (1500 Series), three-quarter-ton (2500 Series), and one-ton (3500 Series) varieties. The 2500 and 3500 can be configured with an extended wheelbase, and the 1500 is available with all-wheel drive (known as the H-Series, as opposed to the standard rear-wheel-drive G-Series). As if those aren’t enough choices, a base V-6 and four V-8s are available.
In design-speak, a sedan is a three-box design (front engine segment, passenger cabin, and trunk). A sport/utility vehicle is a two-box. The Express is a BIG-box, which is among the reasons it’s so popular with building contractors and shuttle services. The 2003 facelift gave the van semi-stylish headlamps and softened its edges, but it still looks like a refrigerator wheels. Passenger models come with either sliding or 60/40-split passenger-side doors that swing out on hinges, and a useful swing-out 60/40 left-hand door is available. A pair of hinged rear doors is standard across the board. All Express vans ride on 16-inch wheels, and alloys are available for those determined to add some bling to their ride. (Factory-tinted glass is one of the few other cosmetic options.) Tires on the 1500 are conventional P235/75s, but the 2500 and 3500 are fitted with heavier-duty LT-class rubber.
Look, it’s a work truck. The controls are straightforward, the materials–hard plastics and subdued cloth, mostly–are decent, and fit and finish are fine. But don’t expect the user-friendly grace of, say, a Honda Odyssey or even an upscale pickup. The Express is a size-matters proposition: It’s as big as some studio apartments, and even the standard-length model can accommodate a whopping 204 cubic feet of cargo. All Express vans are equipped with a pair of front bucket seats. Passenger vans are fitted with surprisingly comfortable and removable benches. (Cargo models are left barren.) The 1500 comes with two rear bench seats to hold a total of eight passengers, while the 2500 can be configured with a third rear row to carry 12. The 3500 is also offered in an extended-wheelbase model, and the 20 additional inches provides room for yet another bench, which brings seating capacity to 15.
Of course, getting to the back row isn’t easy. In fact, getting into ANY part of this van is a bit of a challenge, thanks to the elevated step-in height and heavy doors. Also, don’t bother looking for a child-pacifying rear-seat DVD entertainment system or any other lux touches. Although several option packages are available to upgrade the amenities, the standard features in the base model are limited pretty much to front air conditioning, an AM/FM radio, and a digital clock.
All Expresses get dual-stage front airbags and four-wheel disc brakes bundled not only with ABS but also Dynamic Rear Proportioning, which modulates the braking force between front and rear wheels depending on how much cargo is being carried. Twelve- and 15-passenger vans come with StabiliTrak, GM’s electronic stability-control system. Because large vans like this are tippy and often driven by folks with little or no large-vehicle experience, the availability of stability control makes the Express a far safer choice than the Ford Econoline, which doesn’t offer the feature.
Like almost all GM trucks, the Express is powered by the Vortec series of pushrod engines. These engines may not be topped with the latest valvetrain technology, but they are proven powerplants with ample horsepower and abundant, low-rpm torque. The 1500 comes with a 4.3-liter V-6 rated at 195 horsepower, which sounds a tad underpowered, but it delivers 260 lb-ft of torque virtually at idle. If this isn’t enough grunt, you can upgrade to a 5.3-liter V-8 with 295 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque–the standard engine for the all-wheel-drive model. The 2500 is equipped with a 4.8-liter V-8 that produces 285 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. There’s also an optional 6.0-liter V-8 that makes 345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. This 6.0-liter engine is standard equipment in 3500 models. By the way, it’s available with slightly less power in bi-fuel or dedicated compressed natural gas (CNG) form. All engines are mated to smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmissions that feature a towing mode for carrying heavy loads. Even the smallest engine is stout enough to tow 6,600 pounds. As for the honking 6.0-liter V-8, it can haul a mobile home or 10,000 pounds, whichever comes first.
New for 2006 is the application of the might Duramax 6.6L diesel that has seen service in the heavy-duty Chevrolet and GMC pickups. While it matches the 6.0L for tow capacity, the diesel engine does have advantages in fuel economy and expected service life. Power output is down noticeably from the pickup trucks, with 250 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. Gasoline engine fuel economy pays the toll for all that power and brick-like aerodynamics; the V-6 gets 14/18 city/highway miles per gallon, and it’s better than the V-8s. Then again, this is roughly what you can expect from the Ford Econoline. And while the Dodge Sprinter is much more fuel efficient, it’s underpowered for the sort of heavy-duty hauling and towing work expected of an American full-size van.
Pure and simple, the Chevy Express is a truck. It rides on a three-piece, fully boxed truck frame with a solid rear axle, sharing basic chassis engineering with GM’s full-size pickups. The resultant solid platform benefits from solid steering and good braking feel. It weighs in at more than three tons (in 3500 form), however, and its height contributes to a top-heavy feel. Awkward to maneuver and virtually impossible to park, the Express is best described as ponderous. This can be mitigated to some degree by opting for the all-wheel-drive model. The full-time viscous-coupling transfer case routes 35 percent of the power to the front wheels under normal conditions, but splits torque as necessary to minimize tire-slip and maximize performance. AWD is a distinguishing feature, as Dodge and Ford don’t offer this handling and safety aid. The Express possesses expected dynamic compromises given its mass, girth,
The Express offers remarkable value for the money. It’s relatively cheap to buy, easy to configure for your specific needs, and has a good value history, factoring resale, maintenance, insurance, and repairs. (Fuel is another story.) The Express is newer and generally superior to its closest competitor, the Ford Econoline. The Dodge Sprinter is a significant alternative. But with its European design philosophy, the Sprinter isn’t as well equipped as the Chevy for heavy lifting, whether towing several tons on a trailer or a transporting a dozen people from here to there. This, of course, begs a critical question: How often will you need a vehicle to perform these tasks? If it’s only occasionally, you might want to consider a minivan. Even the small ones seat seven, and unless you’re a tradesman, you may find the storage space more than sufficient. With the Express, you’ll get a standard three-year/36,000-mile warranty.
Bigger than a minivan and shaped like the box the Uplander came in, the Chevrolet Express offers a robust powertrain range, unparalleled seating, and storage-unity cargo capacity.
The only change for 2006 is the availability of the laudable Duramax 6.6L diesel engine, an enticing choice for drivers who plan to tow heavy trailers and rack up six-digit mileage on the odometer. Making StabiliTrak standard on regular-wheelbase 12-passenger vans was the token change for 2005.
The base Express is a bare-bones vehicle aimed at fleets and commercial customers, so most consumers will probably opt for an option package that includes rear air conditioning, a rear heater, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt steering, and a keyless remote. An upgraded package incorporates a left-side passenger door, CD player, rear defogger, and OnStar. But this is just the tip of an options iceberg that favors business applications.