CC Drive Report: 2004 to 2015 Chevrolet Express 3500 – Tomorrow Hopes We Have Learned Something From Yesterday

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Before I dive into the cavern of describing this van, one fundamental tidbit needs to be established:  I have no fondness for vans.  They inhabit a much needed place in automotive society, but they are not for me.  Most of us have an arena within autodom in which we possess little affinity; with their often compromised foot room and blind spots the size of some continents, vans fall into that category for me.

So naturally I was rooked into driving one of these on a recent outing where I work.

Despite my aversion to vans, I am quite aware vans aren’t what they used to be.  This Express is now the lone holdout from the light truck based days of yore although it is leagues better in every conceivable way than the generation preceding it.  These pictures are all of a new 2015 model liberated from Chevrolet’s website and it is nearly identical to the 2004 to 2006 model I’m telling you about.  It is likely Volkswagen had more frequent styling updates with the original Beetle than what GM has bestowed upon their full-sized vans, but don’t interpret the lack of obvious physical updates as being a negative.

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Thinking about this van, I’ve made a realization of sorts.  The Chevrolet Express 3500 has a charisma similar to John Wayne – it’s tough, it lacks elegance, and it doesn’t give a damn about sophistication.  Given the van landscape in the United States, this Express very much incorporates the bold, brash, and brutally honest traits that were found in the many characters played by John Wayne.

How so?  Well, 6,087 pounds of curb weight could be considered brash by some readers.  It’s weight surprised me as the 6.0 liter V8 – rated at 342 horsepower and 373 ft-lbs of torque for the 3500 series as shown – does a terrific job of hustling this rig down the road.  I’ve driven this van with two to twelve adults aboard and there isn’t a tremendous amount of difference in acceleration and handling between these two scenarios.  Merging onto I-70 multiple times was nearly painless, even with a shortened merge ramp due to road work.  While it isn’t in the Mustang GT range of painless acceleration, the surprisingly rev-happy 6.0 in the Express simply makes more than enough power at any speed.

This assessment might be different had I driven a shorter wheelbase version equipped with the 4.8 liter gasoline engine.

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Another area of unabashed distinction exhibited by the Express is the wheelbase.  Stretching nearly 13′, the 155″ (393.7 cm) wheelbase of the Express surpasses that of the longest new Ford Transit by eight inches.  The long wheelbase does contribute to a generally smooth ride in the Express, but one needs to remain cognizant of this length when driving in urban areas.  Take for instance when turning right at an intersection; prudence dictates swinging out further than would be customary in other vehicles.  Failure to do so will result in the right rear wheel hopping onto the curb and then harshly dropping off the curb after you complete your turn.  One just needs to wait for a larger than normally acceptable opening in traffic to successfully proceed.

Looking up towing ratings for the Express versus the Transit indicates something interesting about vehicle capacity.  Chevrolet, without the availability of a raised roof like Ford, keeps determination of weight ratings pretty darn simple.  Ford, Chevrolet’s prime competitor with the Transit, not so much.  While Ford ultimately has a Gross Combined Weight Rating of 500 pounds more than the 6.0 powered Chevrolet at 13,500 pounds (although the diesel powered Chevrolet has a GCWR of 17,000 pounds), determining the configuration to do so in the Ford is a convoluted combination of engine, roof, wheelbase, and axle ratio.  The Express, in keeping with its John Wayne persona, has a GCWR that is as hard to determine as the need to empty your bladder.

This vast difference raises a question in my mind….Is it better to have a tool that is specific to a job or a tool that is fairly adaptable?  One could argue either way on whether the Chevrolet and its straightforward weight ratings are better for tackling myriad number of unknown sized jobs or if the lack of flexibility results in overkill in some instances.  Ultimately that is the buyers decision, but it also leads me to think these Express vans may be more attractive in the used market than the Transit as the amount of variability in the Ford might result in frustration in finding a correctly sized tool.

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Remember my crack about exterior changes being more prevalent on a VW Beetle?  The same thing applies to the interior.  Ever since GM last updated these in 2003 or so, the interior has pretty much been the same.  Sure, the font on the speedometer, radio, and ventilation controls may be different, but the dash panel has been the same throughout.  With the bulk of these undoubtedly going into various fleet uses, this consistency is a very good thing.  From a former fleet manager’s perspective, this provides a lot of flexibility in exchanging seats, door panels, instrument clusters, and all body parts to help keep everything running as this lack of change creates a high degree of parts interchangeability, allowing easy cannibalization of a wrecked or soon-to-be sold unit.

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Looking further at the interior, putting a seat in a box doesn’t require a lot of creativity to accomplish.  The one I drove had a fourth bench seat in the vacant area in the back.  There is a penalty for riding in the last two rows as any pavement imperfections grow exponentially when sitting over or behind the rear axle.  Driving over some settled, yet still smooth, concrete pavement yielded a few butts to rise off the seat and pointed admonishments about my speed.

The admonishments from jostled passengers got tiring, just like it is to drive this van.  Between me and a co-worker, we drove this van 982 miles in just over two working days with my having two-thirds of the seat time.  I was happy to turn it back into the pool.  While the drivers seat is comfortable and this van is nearly immune to crosswinds, there is something about driving it that is highly fatiguing.  For its size, it handles like a somewhat smaller vehicle but there is simply no joy in driving one of these.  The Express 3500 is as an appliance to its core.

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Built about two hours away from me in Wentzville, Missouri, the Chevrolet Express, and the identical GMC Savanna, are throwbacks to another time in the van market when hitting the starter motor provided the reassuring rumble of a V8 engine throbbing mere inches from your right foot.  While for some these vans are as archaic as a two-speed automatic transmission, for others there is a comforting reassurance.

Would I buy one of these?   I have no need.  However, were I in the market, its base price of $37,350 would require comparison of its various attributes to the Ford Transit.  Given the vast difference between these two primary manufacturers in the United States van market, anyone needing a full-sized van needs to determine their needs and purchase accordingly.

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