I figured Fred was crazy. He's an East Coast spokesman for General Motors Corp.'s GMC Truck Division. He has lots of wacky ideas. Like: "Hey, I'm sending the biggest, baddest GMC van down to the D.C. area. Seats eight people. You oughtta see how it runs
in the city." I mumbled a reply and hung up the phone -- and forgot about Fred, until the van arrived. It was the 1997 GMC Savana SLE, a gigantic, "Madrid red" thing sitting on a 135-inch wheelbase and stretching an overall length of 218.8 inches
-- or 18.23 feet, to put it in perspective. The darned thing stood 80.7 inches high, enough to cast a long shadow in a setting sun, and it was almost as wide as it was tall at 79.2 inches. And, oh, it had a phalanx of deep-tinted passenger windows on
either side, which gave it the look of a prisoner transport or Secret Service vehicle. It was hard to tell. But it certainly didn't look friendly. Fred's people parked the van in front of my house, which raised some neighborly eyebrows. "What is
it?" one neighbor asked. "It's a GMC van," I said. "Kinda big for a van, don'tcha think?," the neighbor asked. "It' a full-size van," I said, marveling over how the term "van"has come to mean "minivan" in the minds of many people.
"Full-size?" asked the neighbor. "Well," he said. "It's reeeeeally big." Background: The Savana is the scion of the old GMC Rally/Vanduravans, whose sales ended in 1995. The Rally/Vandura models were galumptious workhorses, used mostly to haul
goods and people -- for a fee. There wasn't much sophisticated about the Rally/Vanduras. They were just big ol' trucks with tall walls and ceilings. And if you owned or operated one long enough, you came to expect scratches, dents and various ping marks
as being part of the van's design. But with the Savana, introduced in 1996, GMC is trying to soften that image without undermining the big van's work ethic. Stepping inside the test model, for example, was like entering a room at the Holiday Inn.
Patterned fabric on the seats and side panels blended with plush carpeting on the floor. But Fred was wrong about one thing: The test model was neither the "biggest" nor the "baddest" of the available GMC Savana vans. That honor goes to the
155-inch-wheelbase model, which stretches an overall length of 238.8 inches (19.9 feet!) and can seat up to 15 people. Savana models include the tested G1500 (half-ton); G2500 (three-quarter ton) and G3500 (one-ton). Two trim packages are available,
the base SL and upscale SLE. There are engines aplenty to run those monsters: a 4.3-liter, 200-horsepower gasoline V-6; a 5-liter, 230-horsepower gasoline V-8; a 5.7-liter, 250-horsepower gasoline V-8; a 7.4-liter, 290-horsepower gasoline V-8; and a
6.5-liter, 190-horsepower turbo-diesel V-8. The test truck was equipped with the 5-liter V-8, rated 230-horsepower at 4,600 rpm, with torque rated 285 pound-feet at 2,800 rpm. An electronically controlled, fo
ur-speed automatic transmission is standard in all Savana models, with the bigger trucks getting heavy-duty versions of that gearbox. The standard equipment list is long, including: dual front air bags; side-door guard beams; four-wheel anti-lock
brakes; power windows and locks (in the SLE trim package); halogen headlamps; eight-passenger seating; and 15-inch steel wheels (on the G1500 truck). The G1500 model can be equipped to pull up to 6,000 pounds; the G2500 up to 8,000 lbs. trailer
weight, and the G2500 up to 10,000 lbs. GMC SAVANA SLE Complaint: Some long-legged people said the rear seats were too low for their personal comfort. Also, trying to garage a full-size Savana in the city requires a combination of diplomatic
skills and bribery. Praise: The interior roominess of it all, and the surprising ease with which this big van moves in highway traffic. Head-turning quotient: The test model obstructed views more than it turned heads. Ride, ac
eleration and handling: Front and middle-seaters gave ride high marks. Back-seaters grumbled. Acceleration was boffo! This is one, big, fast truck! Handling, with healthy helpings of common sense, was excellent. Excellent braking, considering the size of
what the brakes had to stop. Mileage: About 13 miles per gallon (31-gallon tank, estimated 393-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), carrying up to five occupants, running mostly highway with light cargo. Sound system: AM/FM stereo
radio and cassette with console-mounted, single-disc CD player. By Delco. Decent. No big deal. Price: Base price is $24,860. Dealer's invoice price is $21,752.50. Price as tested is $27,860, including $3,000 in options (optional rear air conditioning,
dual electric rearview mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless entry, six-way power driver and passenger seats, and compact disc player) and a $615 destination charge. Purse-strings note: A good value, if you want a big van. Compare
with similar offerings from Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. No foreign automaker sells giant passenger vans in the United States.