This year my family's summer road trip was made more pleasant in the conversion van provided by the accommodating folks at L.A. West Inc. of LaGrange, Ind. Built on a 2003 Chevrolet Express chassis, this van sports enough extras to make any trip more enjoyable.
The Chevy Express handles plenty of cargo and bodies without problem and dual, sliding side doors make it easy to get your gear and yourself in and out. The 31-gallon gas tank let us make the same fuel stops we'd expect when driving our family sedan and gas mileage averaged about 16 mpg, not bad for a brand-new engine. The 5.3-liter engine boasts 285 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. That means this thing can move such that you might forget it weighs about 4.5 tons. The only time I really noticed the size of the van was when braking. Even then, the four-wheel discs with ABS were easy to get used to and yielded smooth, controlled stops even in somewhat unpredictable Chicago freeway traffic. L.A. West has replaced the standard 16-in. wheels and tires with custom 18-inchers that help smooth out the ride. The wheelbase is about 11 ft but the 17.2:1 steering ratio let me parallel park on a narrow Oak Park street. I don't know anyone, however, with a garage big enough to handle the 17 X 6.5 X 7-ft exterior length, width, and height.
Conversion vans have become somewhat standardized in terms of custom treatments. This one sports leather upholstery on the four reclining captain's chairs and the convertible rear bench. The pleated window curtains, wood trim, storage cabinets, and lighting package have all been seen before. The window curtains are nice to have but I'd forgo some of these niceties to save a buck or two on the purchase price. I have no use for the "disco" lights or the small storage afforded in the overhead areas.
The standout feature of this particular van is in the entertainment package. Many living rooms are not as fully equipped for entertainment. You'll find front and rear CD players, a videotape player under the front passenger seat, DVD above the rear bench and jacks to hook up a gaming system. The surround-sound speakers (subwoofer under the bench) provide enough power to shake the van as much as driving down the highway does and, if the driver would prefer a bit less distraction, stereo headphones for all my friends. Topping the package off is a 20-in. flat-panel video display for a terrific, sharp picture. All this is neatly installed and relatively easy to use, even while on the move. Our only complaint was the location of the rear CD player. We would have used it more if it had been closer to the second-row captain's seats. The dual sliding side doors made this compromise necessary.
With the abundance of large vehicles on the road these days the size of a conversion van is not remarkable. What is remarkable is how much comfort can be packed into this type of transportation. L.A. West has built a rolling theater with a MSRP that, at about $50,000, compares favorably with many oversized road hogs and gives you a lot more vehicle for the dollar.
-- Randall Rubenking