Change comes slowly in the world of full-size vans, and no-where has it been more deliberate than with General Motors' big twins, the Chevrolet Sportvan and GMC Rally Van. Although there have been updates over the years, these two have been in production in their current form since 1970.
With all that mileage comes a lot of experience, which equals dependability. Beyond that, the Sportvan and Rally Van are the biggest full-size vans on the market - just the ticket for big hauling jobs.
Veteran they may be, but these two will still get the big jobs done.
Our test vehicle was a Chevrolet Sportvan, but the only difference between the van from Chevy and the one from GMC Truck is front-end appearance. They are otherwise identical.
By any standards, this is one big van. The Sportvan is available in two wheelbase lengths, one a modest 125.0 in., the other a monster 146.0 in. that carries a stretched version of the body that's almost 19 ft. long. That's a lotta van.
The short-wheelbase version comes with two seating setups, one designed to accommodate eight passengers, the other configured for 12. The biggest edition can seat a good-sized posse - 15 passengers.
For comparison, the big Ford Club Wagons all ride on a 138.0-in. wheelbase, while the Dodge Ram Wagons offer two wheelbase choices: 109.6 in. or 127.6 in. Although the Ford and bigger Dodge vans both offer 15-passenger editions, there's a little more space for all those folks inside the big Chevy. There's also more cargo volume - 306 cu. ft. of it.
However, if the Big Three's large vans lined up for a beauty contest, we'd be surprised if the winner's cup went to GM. This van might look chic in Russia, but the styling is Jurassic compared with the others. Ford's van family was extensively redesigned inside and out in 1992, and the Dodge vans got a face-lift last year. The Sportvan has looked pretty much the same for almost a quarter of a century.
The Sportvan offers a wide choice of engines, starting with a 4.3-liter V6, rated at 165 hp and 235 pound-feet of torque. There are three gasoline V8s, and that's really the kind of engine we associate with a van such as this.
The smallest is Chevy's eternal 5.0-liter V8, with 175 hp and 265 lb.-ft. of torque. Next are two editions of GM's ubiquitous 5.7-liter V8, one for light duty - 200 hp, 310 lb.-ft. - and one rated for bigger jobs that has a slightly reduced output.
For really heavy work, there's GM's big-block 7.4-liter V8, which produces 230 hp and 385 lb.-ft. of torque.
GM also offers a pair of 6.5-liter diesels, both naturally aspirated. The diesels may offer some advantage in fuel economy, but they don't have the punch of the bigger gasoline V8s, and they aren't as pleasant to live with.
Transmission choices are based on load ratings. Both are 4-speed automatics, and both are smooth operators.
There are two trim levels - the basic industrial-strength Sportvan and the more civilized Beauville - and three models, based on load-carrying capabilities: G20, G30 and the humongous G30 Extended. Both G30 versions are capable of towing up to 10,000 lb., which seems to mean that you really can take it with you, whatever it might be.
Because we didn't need to accommodate a posse, we did our test driving in the relatively tidy Beauville G20, powered by a 5.7-liter V8.
If you're in the market for a big van, your priority is probably lots of room, lots of hauling capability or both. And that's what the Sportvan has, particularly in the G30 Extended version. There's enough space inside the big one to create echoes.
Let's put this 306 cu. ft. rolling ark in perspective: It's a 5 ft. x 5 ft. x 12 ft. box, with 6 cu. ft. left over. There are four rows of seats, all of them removable to create an immense cargo hold.
The capacity shrinks somewhat in smaller versions, as with our test van, but it's still quite impressive.
Like the exterior, the Sportvan's interior looks a little dated compared with its competitors. In particular, the Ford, with its lower beltline and bigger windows, offers better visibility, a more modern interior design and better ergonomics.
On the other hand, this isn't quite the same van as it was back in 1970. Now there's a driver's airbag as well as side-impact door beams and 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, something we heartily applaud in a vehicle as big as the Chevy Sportvan.
With a complete redesign just a year away, other changes for 1995 are invisible, most of them tweaks aimed at reducing noise and enhancing engine smoothness.
However, Chevy has enhanced the value of the Beauville package by adding power locks, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control and tilt steering.
If you want more, there's an almost inexhaustible list of extras to choose from. Like their competitors, these big vans offer such a variety of equipment that you can almost quite literally build one to suit your needs.
If the size of this big van suggests to you that it won't be handy in parking lots, you're probably right. Try driving the 146.0-in. wheelbase version up to the valet parkers at your favorite restaurant and just watch them run for cover.
The smaller Dodge Ram, with its shorter wheelbase, is a little more maneuverable in tight quarters, but none of the full-size vans are exactly ballerinas.
As for might, the Sportvan's standard 4.3-liter V6 engine doesn't really have enough power for a vehicle this size. We did like the performance of the 5.7-liter V8 in our test van, and we would recommend it without reservation.
If you plan to do any really heavy towing, we also recommend the big 7.4-liter V8. Both of these V8 engines have excellent service records, and both are as durable as locomotives.
When it comes to ride quality, we'd give a slight edge to the Ford van family, which has been specially tuned for people-pleasing comfort.
But Ford's over-assisted power steering requires extra attention, particularly when you're driving in crosswinds. The Sportvan's steering isn't exemplary in this respect, but it does deliver a little better sense of what the front wheels are doing.
Handling in a car sense doesn't really apply here. These vehicles require more care in traffic and when maneuvering around corners due to their bulk, their height and their purpose in life. Vans were not, after all, intended to be nimble.
We would mention, then, that calling this vehicle the Sportvan is like naming an elephant Twinkle Toes.
Still, for cruising along interstates, our Chevy Sportvan was reasonably smooth, commendably stable and, thanks to its optional high-back reclining front buckets, surprisingly comfortable in extended driving.
Big vans aren't big players in the total automotive market, but they do remain popular with people who need the strength and capacity of these vehicles.
In that sense, the Sportvan and Rally continue to be as viable as ever. They're not quite as refined as their competitors from the house that Ford built, although GM intends to address that issue when the next generation comes along.
In the meantime, the basic virtues - durability, reliability, rugged construction, lots of space inside - are all there, along with competitive pricing.
The design, which was finalized in the '60s, is clearly a survivor from another era. But the Sportvan will do just about anything you ask it to do. And it'll keep on doing it for a long, long time.