by Jay Traugott
Now past its second decade on the market, the Chevrolet Express Cargo is still ambling along making no real effort to move with the times. The van offers a decent trio of engines, with the standard fair being a V6 that puts out a respectable 276 horsepower and 298 lb-ft of torque. Paired with the sturdy chassis, this gives the Chevy the power to haul up to 4,282 lbs of cargo and an impressive 10,000 lbs of towed weight. Unfortunately, the cargo area is much smaller than leading rivals, and with no high-roof body option available, the Express can't hope to compete with better-designed rivals like the Ford Transit Cargo. For the asking price of $31,900, the Chevrolet van doesn't give you class-leading utility, and it provides the bare minimum of amenities. To say that this old-timer needs a serious remodel would be an understatement. But a remodel would entail GM actually giving a damn about it...
The Express Cargo remains unchanged both mechanically and aesthetically for the new year. The only change is in the availability of lane departure warning and forward collision alert - a bandaid on a gaping wound.
Like most cargo vans, the Express is little more than a box with wheels. It rides on 16-inch steel wheels and sports large automatic halogen headlights up front, sitting astride the large grille that hosts the golden Chevrolet bowtie. There is a 60/40-split cargo door on the passenger side, with another cargo door in the rear. Daytime running lights come standard, and the taillights are positioned high up on the rear fascia. Two body styles are presented, one with a regular-length wheelbase and once with an extended wheelbase. No alternate roof heights are offered, deviating from the norm in modern cargo van design.
The van is 224.1 inches long when equipped with the regular 135-inch wheelbase, whereas the 155-inch wheelbase sees the overall length increased to 244.1 inches. Width is standard across the range at 79.2 inches, but the height varies marginally from 84.1 inches to 84.5 inches, depending on the configuration. The 2500 model starts at 5,225 lbs with the 3500 model maxing out at 5,482 lbs. A ground clearance of between 7.1 and 7.7 inches gives the van a relatively high loading height.
Only six color choices make up the eternal color palette for the Express. The standard options comprise Black, Summit White, Red Hot, Silver Ice Metallic, and Shadow Gray Metallic. An additional cost of $395 unlocks Kinetic Blue Metallic as a more interesting choice.
The Chevy Express is anything but what the name implies. Even with the most potent 341 hp V8 engine, don't expect this bulky cargo van to move with any real degree of haste, especially when loaded up. But sometimes slow and steady wins the race, and the Express is one such example with a near-class-leading towing capacity of 10,000 lbs. Still, with an impressive 298 lb-ft of torque available on the base V6 engine, and 373 lb-ft on the V8, the van has enough punch to get going no matter how much you load onto it. With a maximum payload capacity of 4,282 lbs, the van will still lurch forward when you put your foot down, just don't expect it to get up to speed before you are required to stop for the next traffic light. On the highway, it has a bit more freedom to get up to speed, but passing smaller, nimbler vehicles will be an exercise in futility.
A total of three engines are available to the Express Cargo van. Equipped as standard is a 4.3-liter V6 that develops 276 hp and 298 lb-ft, which is directed to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. As the base-level option, the engine delivers a good balance of overall power and low-down torque, allowing the van to move briskly about town, although you should expect significantly less enthusiasm when the vehicle is fully laden.
Next up is the 2.8-liter diesel engine, which supplies 181 hp and 369 lb-ft and is mated to the same eight-speed automatic gearbox. This option sacrifices some overall power to give the van more initial thrust with plenty of torque right from the get-go. This allows the Express to more easily haul heavier loads, although it doesn't affect the overall towing capacity of 10,000 lbs.
The final engine is a potent 6.0-liter V8, available in both gasoline and LPG natural gas compatible forms, which directs an impressive 341 hp and 373 lb-ft to the rear wheels. Rowing the gears for this beast is a six-speed automatic gearbox. Once again, the output figures are relatively balanced, but the overall performance is significantly better than with either of the other two engines.
With no effort made to streamline the van, and little thought given to anything more than rudimentary handling dynamics, Chevrolet never intended for the Express to be treated as anything more than the most basic of cargo-hauling vehicles. Acceleration is adequate, especially with the more powerful engine options, but once you're going, don't expect the van to ever be nimble. The bulky chassis will roll on the basic suspension all too easily around corners, despite the van's relatively low height when compared to rivals.
And handling isn't the only area that is given little more than cursory attention. Comfort inside the cabin is only passable, with the vinyl-upholstered seats offering just enough support to stop you from complaining. But the soft suspension will see the chassis bounce over larger bumps in the road, which will easily be felt in the cabin. Noise is reasonably managed, but the engines can drone when pushed to perform under a heavy load.
The EPA has not rated the Express for mileage figures, but some real-world performance values have been gathered to determine average consumption. The standard V6 engine burns regular gasoline to cover around 14 miles to the gallon, while the V8 engine loses some efficiency in exchange for better power output, dropping the mileage to 13 mpg. Optimum mileage can be found on the diesel-drinking engine, which gets a more impressive 20 mpg over the combined cycle. Whichever option you choose you get a 31-gallon fuel tank, meaning that it can cover up to 620 miles in a single trip in its most efficient configuration.
While by no means stylish or lavish, the interior of the van is as spacious as you would expect from a cargo-hauler. There is plenty of room for passengers up front, even without a high roof option like those offered by top rivals. While there aren't many features equipped as standard, the easy-to-use knobs and buttons are laid out within easy reach of the driver. Still, overall, the van looks its age on the inside, with the design having changed little since its initial release in 1996.
Only two seats come equipped as standard to the van, with plenty of space between them to accommodate the large bulge over the drivetrain. However, this also means that each seat is pressed up quite close to the respective doors, which can make the occupant feel a bit cramped despite the overall abundance of space. Entering and exiting the van is not too difficult, thanks to the lowered height and step-in. Forward visibility is good, but rear and blind-spot visibility are poor. Thankfully a rearview camera comes standard, and blind-spot alert is available. Available six-way power front seats help the driver to achieve a comfortable driving position.
The interior of the van is as basic as it comes, with vinyl upholstery coming standard in either Medium Pewter or Neutral. The same color options are presented in the slightly more upscale cloth. The cabin is well-built and durable, but this is largely as a result of all the hard plastics present throughout the interior. The cargo area is also lined with vinyl, but a spray-in cargo liner is available if you delete the standard floor covering.
The cargo space available is as extensive as you would expect from a large cargo van, with 270.4 cubic feet presented in the regular-wheelbase body's 154.7-inch load bay, while the long-wheelbase variant presents an extra 40 cubic feet, with a total of 319.9 cubic feet and a load bay length of 173.65 inches. This maximum capacity is significantly lower than rivals like the Ford Transit, which offers 487.2 cubic feet in its largest guise. The structural underpinnings of the WT 2500 allow it to haul payloads of between 3,090 and 3,323 lbs depending on wheelbase choices, while the WT 3500 can handle payloads of between 4,066 and 4,282 lbs.
Storage inside the cabin is limited, with very shallow door pockets, a couple of cup holders, and a small storage bin at the bottom of the center console. There is a standard glove compartment, with an armrest equipped with a storage bin available as an add-on.
A rather short list of features comes equipped to the base cargo van. These include electric windows and door locks, basic air conditioning, two 12-volt power outlets, a 120-volt power outlet, and a driver information display. The cargo area features LED lighting and six D-ring cargo tie-downs. The rearview camera is the only standard driver-assist feature, although blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear parking sensors, and forward collision warning are available. Other available features include cruise control, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, rear cargo windows, keyless entry and ignition, and rear air conditioning and heating.
Infotainment is not a priority on the Express Cargo, with no display present on the standard suite. Basic equipment includes a two-speaker sound system that supports AM/FM Radio, as well as an auxiliary audio jack. OnStar comes standard along with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. Available features include a USB port, Bluetooth, SiriusXM, and 6.5-inch Chevrolet infotainment touchscreen, which is unfortunately just as outdated as many other aspects of the vehicle.
The van has not been rated for reliability by an accredited independent body. It has been subjected to several recalls for 2019: once for problems with the rearview camera, once for incorrectly sourced glass for the rear quarter-window, and once for a faulty climate control module. Throughout its 24-year history, a number of recalls have been issued for the Express, but one would hope that by now all the kinks would be ironed out. Chevrolet offers a 36,000-mile/36-month basic warranty, a 60,000-mile/60-month powertrain warranty, and roadside assist for 60,000 miles/60 months.
Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS has rated the Express Cargo for crash safety. With a primary focus on cargo rather than human accommodation, the safety equipment onboard also isn't particularly great.
Standard safety features comprise four-wheel ABS, EBD, stability control, traction control, a rearview camera and six airbags: front, front side, and side curtain, making up a rather rudimentary set of aids. Available in packages or as standalone add-ons are forward collision warning, lane departure warning, rear parking assist, and blind-spot alert - but these really are small consolations for a nearly 30-year-old design.
The Chevrolet Express Cargo performs the job for which it was designed, and it does so adequately. But as the world speeds up and more and more advanced features become standard on even the most economical of vehicles, buyers are expecting a lot more than what the Chevy Express is offering. This isn't too surprising considering the van was designed more than two decades ago, with little in the way of substantial updates made since its release.
With rivals like the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster Cargo evolving with the times, albeit begrudgingly, while still supplying significantly better cargo volumes, the Express is falling further and further behind. Its standard features are frankly quite embarrassing, with little to no safety devices present beyond what is considered the bare minimum, and an infotainment system that is ashamed to show its face beside the more advanced suites available to other Chevrolets.
Quite frankly, for the price you are being asked to pay, the Express should be delivering a lot more. Its competitors certainly are, and some of them even do so for less.
Considering its age, you might expect the Chevrolet Express to be a more tempting buy than its competitors, yet it sports an almost identical price tag to the Ford Transit, which is a pack-leader in the cargo van segment. Equipped with the regular wheelbase, the 2500 has a starting MSRP of $31,900, while the 3500 starts at $33,800. Swapping out for the extended wheelbase sees the prices hike up to $35,000 for the 2500, and $35,800 for the 3500. These prices exclude tax, registration, licensing and Chevrolet's destination charge of $1,295.
Two body styles; regular wheelbase and extended wheelbase, each available in two trim levels; 2500 and 3500, make up the Express Cargo Range. A 4.3-liter V6 engine comes standard on both models, delivering 276 hp and 298 lb-ft to the rear wheels. Rowing the gears on this powertrain is an eight-speed automatic transmission. This same gearbox handles the gears for the 2.8-liter diesel engine, which develops 181 hp and 369 lb-ft. The final option is the potent 6.0-liter V8, producing 341 hp and 373 lb-ft. A standard six-speed automatic gearbox is mated to this powerful engine.
Standard features on each of the two trims comprise 16-inch steel wheels, automatic halogen headlights, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, two 12-volt power outlets and a 120-volt power outlet. Entertainment is handled by a two-speaker sound system that supports AM/FM Radio, with an auxiliary input jack for your music players. OnStar Services and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot are also factory-installed.
Since it comes sparsely equipped as standard, the Express Cargo van benefits greatly from the various packages and standalone add-ons available to it. The Safety Package available to the 2500 models supplies the van with cruise control, the 6.0-liter V8 engine, rear parking assist, and blind-spot alert for a fee of $2,315. Also for the 2500, the Enhanced Convenience Package also offers cruise control and the V8 engine, along with remote start and keyless entry for the sum of $2,380. Worthwhile standalone features include a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, SiriusXM, Bluetooth compatibility, six-way power front seats and forward collision alert.
There isn't a particularly large difference in price between the various trim/body configurations, so you may as well get the best cargo capacity available since that is the whole point of purchasing a cargo van. For this reason, we suggest the 3500 with the extended wheelbase, which provides buyers with 319.9 cubic feet of space, and a maximum towing capacity of 10,000 lbs. It is quite light on standard equipment, so you may want to pick up an additional feature or two, like blind-spot monitoring or lane departure warning. The diesel engine would also be a great option for the abundance of torque and impressive mileage, but if all-out hauling ability is what you need, the big V8 is a must-have.
While the standard engine available to the Transit isn't much different from the Chevrolet's, supplying 275 hp and 260 lb-ft, the Ford is better in just about every other regard. It costs only $1,000 more than the Express at an entry-level and offers significantly more cargo space, almost 200 cubic feet more in its largest configuration. On top of that, the interior is more comfortable and features more modern infotainment and convenience tech. With more powerful diesel and V8 options than the Chevy, and a host of body configurations that make it far more versatile, it's no wonder that the Ford Transit Cargo is leading the full-size cargo van segment, while the Chevrolet Express Cargo is struggling just to remain relevant.
Simply saying the name Mercedes in the same sentence as Chevrolet Express Cargo should be enough to send the latter scurrying away in shame. While the Sprinter doesn't offer quite as much utility as the Ford Transit, it is still more versatile than the Express. Where it outshines both, however, is in the German manufacturer's reputation for luxury and comfort. The interior is well-appointed with more up-to-date technology and a host of comfort features that make the daily grind a lot more tolerable. It might have a slightly less potent powertrain and tow less than the Express, but there is more to life than simply doing the job at hand. Sometimes, you want to do it in style, and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter delivers on that dream. It might not be at the top of the segment, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of the Chevrolet Express Cargo.