Way back when even the Rolling Stones were young, conversion vans were simple and usually homemade.

With a thick swath of shag carpeting, some wood paneling, eight-track tape deck and maybe a black light, you had yourself a party van. Chevys, Fords, Dodges and, of course, VW microbuses made up most of the fleet of panel trucks given the full-on hippie treatment. The funkier, the better.

No more. The conversion-van industry is big business with most of its luxurious products going to families who appreciate the roomy accommodations.

But conversion-van sales faded over the past decade when full-size luxury sport utility vehicles moved into the territory, providing similar amenities, as well as a trendiness that has slipped away from the big vans.

General Motors recently began a push to revive flagging sales of conversion vans, organizing 2,000 Chevrolet and GMC dealerships and 24 conversion companies, known as "upfitters," to sell van conversions directly through the dealers.

Customers can walk into one of the dealerships and order Chevy Express or GMC Savana vans that can be converted with a variety of treatments from a variety of upfitters.

The test truck was a 2005 GMC Savana outfitted by an Alabama company called Southern Comfort. This bulky behemoth, with its towering "high-top" roof and lush interior, proved easy to drive and highly appreciated by passengers, especially with its 22-inch, high-definition TV.

With gas prices soaring, the timing may be questionable for a full-size conversion-van push. But for such luxury rides, big is still beautiful.

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The lowdown

PERFORMANCE: The huge V-8 provides plenty of pickup for the Savana conversion van, which weighs more than 3 tons. Naturally, gas mileage is problematic; I got about 13 miles per gallon in a mix of city and highway driving.

DRIVABILITY: For a great big box of a truck, more than 8 feet tall and 18 feet long, the Savana drives relatively well, as long as you keep its bulk in mind. advertisement

A steady diet of driving this giant might get old fast, especially in such places as parking lots, even though the steering and brakes are responsive and the handling feels stable.

On the highway, the mighty van cruises along nicely with just a hint of wind roar.

STYLING: Good-looking lower-body trim and 20-inch chrome wheels add a cool custom look to the Southern Comfort van.

INTERIOR: Here's what the conversion van is all about: comfort, roominess and loads of features. Custom leather seats and wood trim, as well as a softly lit disco ceiling inside the raised roof, help the van feel rich and exclusive, almost like a private jet. Lots of room to move around, which can help make long drives less grueling.

The big high-definition TV screen with theater surround sound, DVD player and video-game inputs, plus high-end audio system should make any trip entertaining, especially for kids. The rear-seat folds automatically into a bed.

The audio system for the driver and front passenger is separate from the rear TV/audio system. Wireless headphones are supplied for the movie watchers and stereo listeners in back.

Two complaints: Despite the van's size and roominess, the driver's seat is cramped for legroom and elbow room, and the pleated curtains over the windows proved flimsy.

BOTTOM LINE: With many luxury vehicles breaking the $50,000 mark, this high-end cruiser is well-priced at $56,205, including about $26,000 in conversion upgrades. Now, if only gas prices would settle down.


Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, full-size van, rear-wheel drive.

Engine: 6-liter V-8, 345 horsepower at 4,200 rpm, 380 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 135 inches.

Overall length: 224 inches.

Curb weight: 5,258 pounds (van only, without conversion extras).

Towing capacity: 6,600 pounds.

EPA rating: NA (13 mpg observed).

Highs: Roominess, luxury features, good drivability.

Lows: Cramped driver's seat, curtain issues, fuel mileage.

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Base price: $30,210.

Price as tested: $56,205.


* Southern Comfort conversion, including high-top roof; 22-inch high-definition TV, with theater sound, DVD and game inputs; four wireless headphones; rear audio; rear-seat bed; leather seats; 20-inch chrome wheels; lower-body trim; custom dashboard; billet grille; pleated shades; and backup radar, $25,995.

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For more on the GMC Savana conversion van, go to autos.azcentral.com.