by Tony Whitney

A recent writing assignment for a business publication covering the homebuilding and renovation field led me into the world of full-size vans – vehicles that are just about everywhere, but are rarely discussed in automotive features.

Of course, large vans have been overshadowed for years by minivans and while there was a time when a big family might consider a full-size van, in recent years their needs have been filled by smaller rigs. In fact, there may even be a trend towards “sub-mini” vans, but that’s a subject for another column.

Full-size vans are commodious, rugged and versatile and are very much the workhorses of a wide variety of industries. In passenger form, they’re more likely to be found ferrying people to and from airports than transporting families, though many buyers who need the room prefer them over minivans.

Large vans are also a staple in the recreational vehicle field and form the basis for all kinds of wonderful conversions of various configurations. While there have been efforts over the years to base RVs on minivans, the most successful efforts have usually been based on full-size vans.

Interestingly, the large van segment is the only one in just about the entire field of automotive products that hasn’t been broached by offshore nameplates. Although one newcomer is based on a German design, full-size vans have always been the preserve of the Big Three – General Motors (Chevrolet and GMC), Ford and Chrysler (Dodge). Perhaps the market isn’t big enough to bother with or, more than likely, domestic automakers have been building durable, reliable, vehicles for so long that rivals face a daunting task if they decided to break into it.

2006 Chevrolet Express G2500

2006 Chevrolet Savana G2500
2006 Chevrolet Savana G2500
Click images to enlarge

General Motors offers virtually identical full-size vans under its Chevrolet and GMC nameplates – named Express and Savana respectively. Like its rivals, GM offers various cargo and passenger configurations. You can get people-carrying versions for 12 or 15 passengers and cargo vans in various guises, depending on application. In cargo van form, these are exceptionally popular with people running businesses of all kinds and are easily adapted for a multiplicity of roles. Many buyers using them for work equip them with parts racks, toolboxes and other fitments customized for specific tasks.

The big news right now is that both Express and Savana full-size vans are going to be available with diesel power for 2006. It’s several model years since these vehicles were offered with diesels and many buyers – especially business users – favour diesels over conventional V6 or V8 gasoline powerplants. Buyers of these GM units will be able to specify a 6.6-litre V-8 Duramax turbodiesel with 250-horsepower and the substantial torque available from diesel power. This option should prove popular with buyers who haul big loads or need towing power and I have a feeling that many RV buyers will warm to it as well.

Ford E-150
Ford E-150

Ford E-350
Ford E-350
Click images to enlarge

Ford’s big van contribution is the E-Series, known for decades under its “Econoline” brand name. Again, these vans are available as cargo or people carriers and come with a 4.6-litre V8 as standard. Like its GM rival, the van can be configured to carry 15 people in some comfort. Panel versions will swallow 7,263-litres of cargo and towing capacity is a whopping 2,903 kg (6,400 lb.). Ford offers a very wide range of engines for its E-Series – four in all, including a 6.0-litre Power Stroke turbodiesel. There’s even a V10 in the range, a fairly rare engine configuration in any vehicle. Like other large vans, these vehicles are available in chassis form to modify into anything from an RV to an ambulance.

Interestingly, Ford has a special offer on right now for work van buyers. The automaker is adding a new E-Series with a package aimed right at the heart of the contracting business. Ford calls the package “Work Ready” and if ordered as a “racks and bins package” it includes a durable and waterproof floor liner; three 16-gauge powder coated steel shelving units; 20 adjustable dividers and two three-pronged hooks and a 16-gauge powder coated steel safety partition with a Lexan window. Options for this package include shelf kits, literature racks, a desk, a conduit holder (probably useful for other gear too), drawer units, screens and ladder racks. Other versions are available, all aimed at being ready to go to work.

2005 Dodge Sprinter 2500
2005 Dodge Sprinter 2500. Click image to enlarge

Over at Dodge, the new Sprinter has replaced the long-lived Ram Van. There are three wheelbases to choose from and two heights. Also, buyers can select passenger or cargo van versions. The range of applications for a van like this is huge and makes the Sprinter unique in its field. No rival van has anything like the kind of “spec sheet Flexibility” this Dodge has. Later on, Dodge will add stripped chassis variants and there’s even talk of a motorhome based on the Sprinter. The vehicle is built in Germany right now, but assembly in the US is being planned.

Power for the Sprinter comes from a turbocharged and intercooled 2.7-litre 20-valve inline 5-cylinder diesel. It develops 154 horsepower, which doesn’t sound like much until you check the 243 ft-lb of torque. Although the biggest version is long and tall, this is not an especially wide vehicle, probably due to its European heritage. Consequently, it’s quite easy to pilot around cities, which should please operators of delivery services. It also has a very tight turning circle for its class – another byproduct of European applications.

The range of products available in the full-size van field may not be too wide, but that doesn’t mean this key automotive segment is any less interesting.

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