Gaze into the GMC Savana's four rows of seats and you get the idea that this baby is intended for more than family hauling, unless your family happens to have enough kids to flesh out a baseball team.

Getting up into the Savana's driver's seat is quite a step, yet when you're there it drives much like a standard minivan. Visibility out front is panoramic, but not so good out back. Its length makes it tricky in parking lots, and while parallel parking is not exactly a snap, I didn't really have all that much trouble, either.

Up front, the captain's chairs are comfy, but around back the three rows of full-width seats are firm and do not tilt or adjust. They come out only with a wrench, instead of a quick-release, and that makes the Savana less versatile than smaller minivans. When a friend and I went biking, the only way to get our bikes inside was to slide them between the seats. This big van was wide enough and that was not a problem.

The speed-sensitive power steering was light enough for easy maneuvering in tight spots, yet retained decent road feel on the open road.

One advantage of the new design is a smaller "doghouse," the nickname given to the box that covers the engine. In the old days the engine seriously intruded on legroom, but that is not so any more. In fact, it is easy to swivel out of the front seat and walk to the back.

The new dash has improved ergonomics, and all major controls fall easily within the driver's reach. A large console with cupholders and glove box now sit under the dash.

I noted that some of the switches and trim work looked more like a truck than a car, yet the overall level of fit and finish was similar to that of a minivan.

The swing-out rear doors open 165 degrees for easy loading. Thick door pillars, however, block rear vision and prevent installation of a rear wiper, which I missed in the rain. Learn to use the outside mirrors and forget about looking through the back door.

Even with all seats in place there is a decent amount of space for luggage behind the fourth seat.

Built in Wentzville, Mo., on 135- or 155-inch wheelbases, the Savana was all-new last year, including its name. It was formerly known as the Rally in the passenger configuration and Vandura for the base cargo model. The nose is rounded off, the taillights are mounted high in the aft door pillars and the interior is now on par with most other trucks. For 1997 dual airbags are available, as is speed-sensitive power steering, daytime running lights and

refined cooling and climate control systems.

Often full-size vans wind up at conversion companies for transformation into rolling family rooms, or they are ordered stripped down for commercial use. Our van, however, was equipped with seats for 12 and all the creature comforts of a typical minivan.

There are three outlets for heating and air conditioning so rear-seat passengers will not smother or freeze.

Altho ugh there are five different engine choices, the 5.7-liter Vortec V8 in our test unit is probably the best overall one. Its 245 horsepower was welcome when I accelerated up to highway speed, where it cruised quite pleasantly. The ride is firm, but not much rougher than a minivan. I never drove it with more than two persons on board.

Other engine choices include a 4.3-liter V6, a 5.0-liter V8, a 7.4-liter V8 and 6.5-liter V8 turbodiesel.

Outside of commercial use, vans such as the Savana have a very specific appeal. Folks who need this much space will appreciate how much more civilized the new model is compared to the last.

Price

The base price of our test vehicle was $24,860. It was equipped with power windows and locks, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, front and rear air conditioning, tinted glass, remote keyless entry, electric outside mirrors, six-way power driver's seat and AM/FM stereo cassette with compact disc player.

The sticker price was $30, 0.

Warranty

The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: Big enough for a Little League team and nearly as comfortable as a family sedan, the Savana fills a niche for folks with big families or unusual hauling needs.

Counterpoint: Vision to the rear is hindered by wide door pillars, and some switches were not well finished.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 5.7-liter V8

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 135 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 5,803 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $24,860

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $30,140

MPG RATING: 13 city, 18 hwy.