If the longest extended-wheelbase minivan just isn't big enough, or if a front-wheel drive minivan just won't do, there still are a few of the big ones left.Ford makes the Club Wagon. Dodge has the Ram Van. And General Motors offers the Chevrolet Express and this week's test vehicle, the GMC Savana.In fact, they don't come much bigger than the Savana. It has a giant 135-inch wheelbase, can haul up to 7,100 pounds of cargo and is as comfortable and well-behaved as your average full-size car.In fact, the Savana's size makes it very versatile. For instance:-- This is the ideal vehicle for soccer moms who have to transport the whole team -- as well as all the equipment.-- This is the ideal vehicle for the business owner who needs to move people and cargo comfortably.-- This is the ideal vehicle for those who like to travel and prefer to stay with their vehicle. The Savana can be outfitted easily with custom equipment and turned into a mini-motorhome.I logged 1,000 miles on the Savana in one day on a trip from Baltimore to Orlando, and I can tell you that this is a great vehicle for driving across the country.PERFORMANCE, HANDLINGGMC offers the Savana with a choice of five engines, ranging from a 200-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-6 to a 195-horsepower, 6.5-liter turbodiesel.Our test van came with GM's 245-horsepower, 5.7-liter, gasoline V-8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. I found that this drivetrain provides excellent all-around performance in the city and on the highway.Acceleration at all speeds is strong and quick. Even under heavy loads, the engine runs smoothly and quietly.The more economical V-6 probably would be best for drivers who use the van mostly in the city. Any of the gas-powered V-8s would be good for combined city and highway driving because additional horsepower aids acceleration. And the turbodiesel would be the best engine for drivers who use the Savana for long-distance driving. The 31-gallon tank and more than 20 mpg would allow the diesel Savana to go more than 600 miles between fill-ups.Savana's long wheelbase and 6,000-pound weight make for a very smooth and stable ride.On the way down Interstate 95, where traffic moves at about 75 mph in most places, the Savana was steady as a rock. Even passing tractor-trailer trucks didn't generate enough turbulence to make the Savana flinch.The power-steering system is light and responsive. But the van has a 45-foot turning radius, so you can forget about any sharp turns. You also may encounter some difficulty with U-turns and angling for a space at the local Wal-Mart.The front disc/rear drum brakes are excellent. The anti-lock system kicks in smoothly and stops the Savana without fuss.FIT AND FINISHWhen you spend nearly 15 straight hours behind the wheel of the same vehicle, you get a crash course in its weak points.The Savana doesn't have many.It would be nice if the air condi tioner blew stronger. One more notch on the dial to make the fan turn faster is all it needs. The inside is so cavernous that it takes a powerful fan to move air around in there.Because of the design of the two rear doors, there's a fairly large blind spot in the center of your line of sight out the rear. If GMC engineers could reduce the size of the door frames, rear vision would be much better.Other than that, there's a lot to like about the Savana. It is much like a small Winnebago -- well-equipped and easy to drive.The front bucket seats offer excellent lower back support. The cloth upholstery is durable and attractive. The fold-down arm rest makes cruising long distances about as easy as leaning back in an easy chair.All the controls are an arm's length away, so it is easy to adjust the radio or air conditioner or set the cruise control without taking your eyes off the road for more than a second or two.Getting in and out is generally easy, although some shorte r drivers may find it a bit awkward climbing into the seat. There's no such problem in the rear, where a sliding side door allows rear passengers to get in and out easily.Nice touches include the two cup holders and a storage bin in the center of the dash and the roof-mounted controls for the rear air-conditioning system. Vents in the roof blow cold air down on the two rows of seats.Those seats, by the way, can be removed, making the Savana into a cargo van big enough to swallow couches, motorcycles and other very large items.Our test van ran perfectly and had no flaws that I detected. If you need a very large vehicle but don't want to drive a pickup truck, the Savana deserves serious consideration.1998 GMC SavanaBase price: $22,825Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and daytime running lightsPrice as tested: $29,332EPA rating: 14 mpg city/18 mpg highwayIncentives: 1,000 Truett's tip: The Savana is an excellent people and cargo mover. It can seat up to 15 people and carry as much as a pickup truck. The big van is smooth, quiet and reasonably quick.
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