New Life for Express & Savana to spring from Astro & Safari's Demise?
Editorial by Ming
If you've been under a rock for the past few months, you might have missed that the 70-year-old Baltimore plant that has produced the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari mid-vans is shutting down: http://forums.gminsidenews.com/showthread.php?t=11106
Speaking as someone who just got an amazing deal on a near-new condition 2004 GMC Safari SLE AWD, I can see why some people would miss these vans. Hardly fresh, but useful in their niche, the downside to the Astro & Safari mid-vans was the lack of updates to keep the models relevant in today's market. A sliding door on the driver's side, fold-away seating, an engine providing better fuel economy, and slightly updated interior styling would have kept the vans alive in their niche as the "do everything" vehicle. Hauling 8 passengers, having a good tow rating, and offering a much larger-than-SUV cargo area with the seats removed is what made these vans popular, and convinced me recently to pick one up for nearly half the price of a new one. Considering that many passenger cars sell for more, sometimes bigger really IS better.
And 'bigger' brings me to the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. Long considered the bigger brothers of the outgoing Astro and Safari, the Express & Savana have also long been overlooked, in my opinion, as alternatives to big and pricey SUVs. Although from some angles of the exterior it is hard to tell, in 2003 the big vans got a rather extensive redesign, that included improving their steering setup to rack & pinion, and a strenthened body structure. The interior was also updated with a more solid-feeling dash and a more modern and slightly angular design. Having owned a 2001, I can vouch for the quality feel of the improvements. Compared to the long-unchanged Astro and Safari, these vans are positively "modern". Some might claim that the big vans are too huge - and ponderous to handle. But it is simply a matter of getting used to driving them, and the sense of being up too high or in too long a vehicle is nothing a 24-hour test drive won't fix. I used to drive my Express like a hot rod, so I should know.
Made in the Wentzville, Missouri Assembly Facility, these rugged behemoths are primarily used in their extreme forms: as bare bones Cargo Vans, or fully trimmed out Conversion Vans. It seems that only airports, churches and a few saavy customers actually order them in their mid-level "Passenger" trim, as I rarely see them on dealership lots or being driven around town by families. I bought mine in 2000 as an alternative to a pickup truck with a bed cover. I left the last row of seating out of an 8-passenger version, and used the huge cargo space most of the time like I would with a truck bed. And I had the extra flexibility of seating 8 when I needed to, or securely loading and keeping items like antique dressers in it, unlike a pickup.
Whenever I've inquired about an Express or Savana Passenger van, I've usually been met by a raised eyebrow, a stunned silence, or a answer like "I think we have one..." followed by a fruitless walk around the dealership that mysteriously always leaves me standing in front of a Suburban.
"Have you considered a full-size SUV, like this Suburban here?"
"Yes, of course. I've also considered that the Suburbans are about 10 thousand dollars more - and with far less potential cargo space."
That answer usually leads to a discussion of ordering a full-size van. This is on dealership lots with 100 or so Suburbans lined up in rows. The few times I do stumble upon a nice looking "passenger" van, it tends to be a Conversion model priced up in Suburban territory, and with enough fabric inside to trim out a 2-story house.
With the "do it all" mid-van twins leaving GMC and Chevy dealerships with the 2005 model, will the people who loved the van utility, towing capability, and high seating position of van-life find themselves considering an Express or Savana? As a previous Express owner myself, I find it very likely, with a little effort on GM's part.
The front-wheel-drive Crossover Sport Vans (Uplander, Montana SV6, etc.), unfortunately, offer a smaller cargo opening bay when compared to the Astro or Express. And when equipped with the optional cargo storage system, even with the 3rd row seats folded, the cargo area is not much bigger than many of the SUVs in GM's lineup. And despite the increase in horsepower and torque over the last generation of minivans, the CSV's are not rated to tow any more than the Ventures and Sihouettes that went before them. So the CSV's, though I had at one point hoped they would be, are not really a viable replacement for the Astro & Safari.
In any case, the last of the Astros and Safaris will have left the dealership lots soon, and only time will tell what choice their loyalists make. GM should hope their choice doesn't involve a Honda, Toyota, or Dodge emblem - which is the direction the automotive magazines and web sites will push them in.
But before GM lures long-time Astro buyers into considering the larger Express, there are a few small things they need to do to the Passenger version of the van to improve their appeal - without pricing the vans in Suburban territory:
1. Improve the fit & finish of some of the interior trim in the 2nd row and back. I was appalled at the lack of attention given to the plastic trim surrounding the second row driver's side window in one of the passenger models I sat in. The bits were loose and clearly not well assembled. Whether that is a design-engineering issue or an assembly issue I couldn't tell, but it looked cheap and like something that might be fine for Airport duty - but not for daily rides with the kids - or for showing off to friends.
2. Improve the insulation. I'm not demanding "Quiet Tuning" here. It's not much to ask to expect the doors not to slam with a hollow 'clang' befitting a Cargo van. If the conversion companies can make the doors close with a satisfying thud - if Lear was able to do it with the Express LT and Savana SLT, then GM can at least meet their efforts half-way on the Passenger models.
3. Promote the vehicles for more than just Fleet duty - to Families and the Dealerships. I can't recall the last time (if ever) I saw a commercial for the Savana and Express vans. This is one likely reason why when I go to the dealership they are rarely in stock as Passenger vans, and why when I owned an Express so few people were able to relate to the names of GM's full-size vans.
4. Another alternative: Ask the conversion companies for less-expensive models, with less frou-frou decoration inside and out - just a step above the utilitarian base Passenger van trim. I would have considered a "conversion van" of this type if the curtains, beds, and over-the-top ornamentation didn't look like it would get in the way of utility. I know that the conversion companies are looking to turn a profit, but they might consider that people like me actually like to use the area from the 3rd row back as a rough & tumble cargo area, even if we like the other creature comforts the converters provide. Fancy curtains on the rear windows and Berber carpet do not facilitate a useful rear cargo area.
If GM is content with sales as they are, with the status quo that dictates that their big vans are only good for conversions and cargo vans for the most part, then they will ignore this opportunity. They might look at the relative sales failure of the pre-redesign "LT" models and conclude that the public isn't ready for an Astro-replacement at the full-size van level (which I think was due more to a sky-high price than anything else). But with the right advertising, attention to details, and price, I think that Wentzville can pick up Balitimore's slack, and provide Chevy and GMC with another popular pair of niche vehicles in lieu of the Astro and Safari.