Word on the street is that General Motors will be discontinuing its existing full-size vans to make way for electrified alternatives. While the gut reaction may be to recoil in disgust at the very premise that Euro vans would dare usurp the rightful place of one of the most venerable working vehicles in North America, it might be worth remembering that the Ford Transit has managed to supplant the Econoline/E-Series rather effectively.
Newer vans have been optimized to maximize volume and come with engines prioritizing greater efficiency without feeling like they’re a huge step down from the hungry V8s that populated older models. A decade ago, driving a full-sized van likely meant you’d be struggling to average miles per gallon in the double digits operating under even the most modest of loads. But today you can find something boasting far more cargo space and superior fuel economy without a lot of trouble. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see why GM might want to make some major changes to its lineup.
However, according to AutoWeek, those changes won’t include General Motors developing products that will rival the gasoline-powered Ford Transit. Instead, the automaker is rumored to be leveraging its proprietary skateboard platform and Ultium modular battery pack to deliver something akin to the BrightDrop Zevo 600 it’s already building for commercial clients (e.g. FedEx). The model is presumed to replace the GMC Savana and Chevy Express after they’ve been discontinued in 2025.
GM never really had a European-style utility van to send over to the states and hadn’t bothered developing one because it was far cheaper to run with older vans that didn’t require any factory retooling. Besides, Chevy and GMC could field vans that were absolutely still fit for service at a price point lower than what Blue Oval could offer — making them appetizing alternatives for price-conscious fleet managers. But with Ford having delivered the Transit-E and GM vowing to swap to all-electric propulsion, the latter brand cannot just sit on its hands.
BrightDrop delivered its first 150 Zevo delivery vans to Federal Express last week. Un-sexy as this part of the EV business is, it’s huge, with perhaps the best potential to quickly get the automotive business out of carbon-spewing internal-combustion engines. FedEx plans to eventually have 2500 BrightDrop vans in its fleet, on the way to an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2040.
The lame-duck GM van twins — their tooling long ago paid off — fall short of Ford and Ram competitors based on much fresher European styling — though the strategy to go directly from 35-year-old designs to EVs might prove smartest. The Chevy/GMC’s basic designs can be traced back to the 1971 model year, with an all-new model for 1997 and its last major update for 2003.
By comparison, the Ford Transit, with three roof height options, has cargo capacity of 246.7-542.2 cubic feet (excluding bare-chassis vans from any of these brands available with larger “cube” cargo boxes that cannot be accessed from the driver’s seat).
The BrightDrop Zevo 600’s range of 250 miles practically doubles the Ford E-Transit’s top-range of 126 miles on low-roof versions. The Zevo 600 can be recharged at the rate of 170 miles an hour using a 120-kilowatt fast charger.
Every company under the sun is actively working on improving range and building a better EV, so any advantage this gives GM may be short-lived. Meanwhile, one wonders if totally replacing Savana and Express is a good idea considering just how many end up becoming moving vans for companies like Penske or U-Haul. The Zevo 600 may be idyllic for shifting goods in an urban environment, but that 250-mile range won’t hack it for someone who is relocating their life several states away. I’m not sure why the industry and the media always seem to be forgetting about long-range deliveries when championing electrification.
AutoWeek’s insistence that “European styling” was superior also felt kind of half-baked. I’d argue that blander is better in terms of legitimate working vehicles. How many people are seriously making their final purchasing decision based on how handsome each van is? Is there even any model that could be considered truly beautiful? As a lifelong van lover and former urbanite sporadically needing the ability to haul around a lot of equipment, the Transit has become my default choice whenever there’s hauling to be done. I would even go so far as to suggest it’s Ford’s best product by a mile. However, it’s not an attractive vehicle by any stretch of the imagination.
Vans (mini or full-sized) lack the sex appeal of pickup trucks — so much so that it’s now common to see the latter option being used as pampered luxury vehicles. Chalk that up to trucks having been marketed as macho and rugged, while vans have been associated with soccer moms and roving criminals. Though that association does offer an unbridled level of menace, as there’s nothing scarier than seeing a nondescript utility van suddenly parked on your street. And that’s something that remains true whether it’s a gruff and battered Chevrolet Express from 1999 or a sparkling new Ford Transit hot off the assembly line. No other vehicle type has become more synonymous with crime — despite of the vast majority being owned by law-abiding citizens who do real work for a living.
That’s a bit of a tangent. But the point is that the success of a van hinges almost entirely on how capable they happen to be. If GM manages to field the best all-electric van, it’s likely to get the lion’s share of fleet orders in the coming years. But I’m worried it’s leaving a massive hole by not trying to retain the gas-powered Savana/Express. People still want to rent something smaller than a Peterbilt that’ll get their goods more than 250 miles. Is the company just going to cede that ground to its rivals in 2026?
[Images: General Motors]
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