Home ยป Putting The ‘Van’ In Vancouver: 1996 VW Transporter vs 1998 GMC Savana

Putting The ‘Van’ In Vancouver: 1996 VW Transporter vs 1998 GMC Savana

Sbsd 9 14 2023
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Welcome to your Thursday edition of Shitbox Showdown! Today, we’re headed just over the border to look at a couple of Canadian stuff-haulers, just to show the lengths I will go to for a silly headline. (About 300 miles north, apparently.) But first, let’s go back to Cali and finish up with yesterday’s coupes:

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Most of you looked at that Pulsar and said, “Man, I don’t think so.” Fair enough. That Benz is hard to resist. I think you’d better plan on spending a month of weekends whipping it into shape, though.

So today, it’s van time. We’ve got one van that’s ubiquitous on American roads, and one that was never offered here in this form. And weirdly, it looks like one used to be white and is now painted red, and the other used to be orange and is now painted white. Which one is the better box on wheels? Let’s check them out, and then you can decide.

1996 Volkswagen Transporter – $3,500 CAD

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter diesel overhead cam inline 5, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Surrey, BC

Odometer reading: 377,000 kilometers

Runs/drives? Yep

Volkswagen vans here in the US are nearly always playthings – pop-top camper vans with bike racks hanging off the back, trundling along in the slow lane through national parks, or filling the parking lots at Phish concerts. But elsewhere, VW sells panel vans, known as Transporters, that are as common as our Econolines, and work just as hard.

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This is a long-wheelbase Transporter, equipped with a naturally aspirated five-cylinder diesel engine and a five-speed manual. In typical work van fashion, it only has an interior in front; the rest is empty space. This one has a bulkhead installed behind the seats, separating the cargo area from the passenger area. It looks like it’s just plywood, and probably easy enough to remove, if you don’t want it. A work van is a blank canvas, after all (literally, sometimes).

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The seller says it runs and drives well, and “will go anywhere.” Slowly, though, I imagine, with only 77 horsepower under the hood. But slowness is sort of a VW van tradition, and these older basic VW diesels run forever, it seems. It’s halfway to forever already, with the equivalent of about 235,000 miles on the clock, and we don’t get any details on its maintenance history. The orange paint makes me wonder if it started out as part of a fleet, so hopefully it was well-maintained in the beginning, at least.

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It does have a bit of a rust problem around the wheel wells and along the rockers. It’s always a little hard to say how bad rust really is without some poking and prodding, but the future does look a little grim (or at least unsightly) for this Transporter.

1998 GMC Savana – $3,390 CAD

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.3 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, RWD

Loction: Langley, BC

Odometer reading: 170,000 kilometers

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Runs/drives? Sure does

I find it funny that this is a twenty-five year old van, but you can walk into a GMC dealership today and buy one that looks pretty much just like it. It has undergone some serious changes, of course, but the bones are the same, and it still gets the job done, whatever that job may be. When you find a formula that works, why not stick with it?

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You can get a Savana or Chevy Express with a ludicrous amount of horsepower for a van, but this one makes do with the humble but bulletproof 4.3 liter V6. The seller says it runs and drives well, but has a little transmission issue – it shifts hard and late into overdrive. A fluid and filter change is supposed to help, they were told, but they haven’t done it yet. But it has new brakes and good tires.

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It has another trick up its sleeve too: a wheelchair lift in the back. But that’s all there is in the back, apart from some foam insulation. There’s nothing else back there. It seems strange to me to install a wheelchair lift in a cargo van; it’s not the sort of ride anyone would like to take. Why not use a passenger van, with windows, and carpeting, instead? But you could use the lift for other things, I suppose – beer kegs, maybe? Or amplifiers and drums?

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Or take the lift out, and do whatever you want with it. This is big enough to make a decent camper van, if you want. And cheap enough to leave some room in the budget to build it out how you want, especially if you sell the lift.

So there you have it, two vans from the Great White North. They’re still solid enough to work with, but beat-up enough to not worry about messing up. Do what you will with them. In fact, in the comments, I’d love to hear what your plans are for one of these.

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Usernametaken
Usernametaken
10 months ago

The Savanna is way more likely to start when the locality you’re parked in decides to cite all the streetside apartments, so I have to go that way.

These are in Vancouver, so you need to think about this as the base price for your new tennament.

B3n
B3n
10 months ago

Ha, a 2.4 diesel T4 with Asfinag-orange original paint in the interior. Really curious how it ended up in Western Canada.

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
10 months ago

I hate to vote against something that is objectively cool, but, gotta go with the GMC. Can tow the racecar with it (albeit slowly), can load up stuff from the side, and have the lift for really heavy parts and tools. If the transmission is truly shot, a decent working 4L60E is pretty easy to come by, and an LS/6L90 swap is pretty easy if the drivetrain ever gets too far gone (or proves to be way too underpowered for a van full of stuff towing a trailer). The VW is cool, but, hard to overcome the practicality of a tow rig.

Cyko9
Cyko9
10 months ago

For a hard working van, the Savana is all right. For the vanlyfe, the VW has character, but character only goes so far with higher mileage and rust.

DaChicken
DaChicken
10 months ago

I’ll take the Savana. My family had two of the predecessor G-series (one cargo, one conversion) and they were pretty reliable and the new gen are at least as good.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
10 months ago

As someone who lives in a van and who has shopped for decent used ones recently, this Savana is an absolute bargain. Those things are good for 400K+ miles, so 170K km/105K miles is really low, especially for one that age.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
10 months ago

It’s almost suspiciously low…but GMC is the correct answer here

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
10 months ago

A possible explanation is that it was used only to transport the person who needed the lift, not for work.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
10 months ago

Oh duh… yeah, that makes sense. I think you’re right.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
10 months ago

Oh, and $3,390 Canadian is currently about $2,500 US.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
10 months ago

That Transporter looks perfect for my “Free Candy” side hussle.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

free candy is the red van ๐Ÿ˜›

white vans are for selling shitty speakers lol

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
10 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

Why not both?

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

lol idk that’s the meme ๐Ÿ˜›

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
10 months ago

The GMC van is an easy pick for me. Way less mileage and rust… plus that wheelchair lift can be very useful when loading other things.

That VW… “$3500 firm” price combined with that rust, the mileage and VAG “quality” makes it a non-starter for me.

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
10 months ago

Less rust and fewer km’s. Also it’s red.

Last edited 10 months ago by Redfoxiii
Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
10 months ago

Savanas/Expresseseseses are super-common on this side of the Great White North, so I went with the Transporter. First order of business includes fitting a pop-top, painting it 1975 VW-era Rallye Red, and pretending the rust won’t come back.

V10omous
V10omous
10 months ago

Ricon sucks (might be a bit biased ๐Ÿ™‚ as I used to work for their biggest competitor)

But that wheelchair lift is worth money to someone if you don’t want it. Plus, the opponent is a VW, no more needs said.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

That is actually a great selling point for the GMC that I hadn’t considered. These things aren’t cheap, there has to be a second hand market for wheelchair lifts.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Agree, Ricon lifts can be maintenance queens. I avoided them when I had to find/build a wheelchair van. But put it on the used market, and I guarantee someone will scoop it up, whether for parts or installation in another van.

Wheelchair vans are hella expensive and often out of reach when a person is suddenly in the market for one — which is why I once went the route of finding a used van and a used lift, repairing both and installing the lift in the van myself. (And yes, it was a Braun ballscrew-type single-arm lift; that thing was pretty bulletproof! ????)

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
10 months ago

Came for the van, stayed for the wheelchair lift.

Both are probably more reliable than the Transporter. Plus, I was never a big Jason Statham fan anyway.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
10 months ago

VW is so scary I had to choose the free candy over the speakers ๐Ÿ˜›

Also, it’s sad that someone painted the original orange to white. Orange is a cool color, while white is kinda boring.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
10 months ago

Only one of those has sealed beams, and it’s also the cheapest? No contest for me, I’ll have the gas guzzler please.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
10 months ago

I picked the Transporter.

Not sure why.

Maybe to trick people into thinking I know Jason Statham, maybe just to paint FREE CANDY on the side and get weird looks when I drive it.

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago

GMC is the lion on this Savana.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
10 months ago

I’ve had some experience with these GM vans. Apart from door handles etc. lasting about six months, the drivetrains were pretty stout. I drove early 00’s 5.7 L and we had one 8.1 that was a rocket.

It’s fair to say that with the exception of 5,000 mile oil changes, these work vans never had a nice day. They were always overloaded, towed a lot more than recommended and were pushed hard 6-7 days a week. I saw a couple hit 200K and they still performed well with some reasonable repairs along the way.

All in all, I was impressed with the vans, and we also had 6.0 L GM pickups that were half mountain goat, half highway cruiser.

I’m down for the Savana.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
10 months ago

I’d love to pick the VW.

But the GMC is the practical choice. Parts are plentiful and cheap, any junkyard would have ample well-used spares as well.

S13 Sedan
S13 Sedan
10 months ago

The GMC is realistically the better option if you want to actually do work since parts are everywhere and it looks like it’s in better shape but the VW is more interesting so I’m going to pick that one.

Tim Cougar
Tim Cougar
10 months ago

Just a note: GMC spells it “Savana” with one N.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
10 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

It’s fixed in the article. The poll still has the wrong spelling but maybe that’s not so simple to edit?

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
10 months ago

I can get parts for the GMC for-ev-er, and they’re cheap. The trans doesn’t even scare me. GMC for me.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
10 months ago

I’d typically go GMC here, but this particular one is a bit too massive of a beast for my liking. I don’t like the “it has some transmission problems, but new fluid will sort that out!” nonsense. Never a great sign that someone didn’t even bother to have the transmission fluid replaced as an easy solution, or you know, that they’re lying about that all together. Also, what on earth is going on in the cargo area of the GMC? What’s with the ceiling?

The rust on the Transporter is a bit concerning, and though I’d be worried about parts and such, I think I could actually store the Transporter and get some solid use out of it. At a minimum it would probably be capable for camper duty.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago

Whenever a seller says it is a “simple fix” but they just haven’t found the time to do it, I assume they really mean “There is a small likelihood that the fix is simple, but if I try it and it fails, then I have to be honest that there is a major problem that needs to be addressed.”

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
10 months ago

A lot of the time it’s that. But every now and then you’ll have someone knowingly trying to mask some sort of near-fatal issue as an easy fix. It’s not easy to weed out the dishonest sellers here, as they’ll say the same kind of stupid shit as sellers who just fear going deeper into an issue.

Last edited 10 months ago by Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago

True. Not every seller would tell the truth if the simple fix failed. At least in this case you can pull the transmission dipstick and see if the fluid is fresh. (I assume these GM transmissions have dipsticks).

Mike B
Mike B
10 months ago

I hate the “check engine light is on, but it’s just a sensor” line in ads. In my state a check engine light means no inspection sticker at even the sketchiest of places, so deal breaker. If it’s just a sensor, get it fixed and get more money on the sale.

I got the check engine light fixed by changing the 02 sensor on my beater Volvo I’ll probably sell soon. Car ran fine, but no check engine light is a big selling point on them.

Now the AWD/ABS being out is a simple fix as well, it just involves a bunch of labor I don’t feel like dealing with. The tone ring on a front axle is cracked, over 30mph it throws a fault. The tone ring is only 12 bucks, but installing is essentially the same procedure as replacing an axle.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
10 months ago

The GMC, parts are easy to find. My first though was the lift was a mover and this an easy way to get stuff in the back.

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
10 months ago

Parts and service will be a little easier with the Savanna. So I’ll take that. Plus not having to deal with diesel in the cold Canadian winter is a bonus.

Paul B
Paul B
10 months ago
Reply to  rctothefuture

Canadian here, Vancouver does not get cold.

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul B

The rest of Canada does.

GertVAG
GertVAG
10 months ago

5 cylinder diesels in the T4 Transporters are really durable and they drive very well with the FWD lay-out, the VW for me, take a wire wheel to the rust and just make it a daily work horse with the option to base camp with it on the weekends.

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