MILFORD, MI – General Motors Corp. is looking to ride extensive safety enhancements made to its ’08 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana models to a bigger share of the fullsize passenger van market.

In addition to making electronic stability control standard across its entire lineup of ’08 Chevy and GMC 12- and 15-passenger vans, GM also is adding the segment’s largest roof-rail airbags, individual tire-pressure monitors and shatterproof glass that protects fourth- and fifth-row occupants from ejection.

John P. Gaydash, director-marketing for GM Fleet and Commercial Operations, considers it the most comprehensive safety package in the segment and says the auto maker plans to make consumers well aware of the enhancements. Dealers should be fully stocked with the vehicles now.

“We already are doing well in the commercial cargo and cutaway segment, so we thought there was a real opportunity to go in a more aggressive fashion to the safety and security side of the equation,” Gaydash says during a recent product preview here.

GM will need that edge to seriously challenge Ford Motor Co. Through the first 10 months of this year, the Ford Econoline range garnered a whopping 63.3% of the U.S. large-passenger-van segment, according to Ward’s data. GM currently controls 32% of the market, with the Chevy Express, alone, accounting for more than 29%.

Chrysler LLC owns a 3.7% share with its Dodge Sprinter, assembled from knocked-down kits in South Carolina, but likely will make a push of its own in the segment with an updated chassis and powertrain on ’08 models. The sector accounts for about 350,000 unit sales annually.

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Given the recent safety history of fullsize vans, a big marketing push surrounding the GM enhancements appears to be a logical play, particularly when it comes to passenger-van buyers, which Gaydash says are more concerned about safety than those who purchase cargo models.

“Large vans tend to have a reputation, whether it is earned or not isn’t important, of being accident-prone,” he says.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Gaydash says of the upgrades. “It fits the overall goal of General Motors to improve the safety and security of all our vehicles.”

Large vans, particularly the 15-passenger varieties, have drawn criticism because of a tendency to roll over during aggressive maneuvers, such as an over-correction by an untrained driver. Passengers in large vans also tend to use seatbelts less, which leads to ejection from the vehicle during a crash, and, until recently, roofs have not been robust enough.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. says a number of factors have led to a reduced fatality toll in the sector. Those include Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 126, which requires installation of stability control systems on all vehicles under 10,000 lbs. (4,537 kg) by 2012; and public awareness campaigns that highlight the different driving characteristics of smaller vehicles and large vans and the need for proper tire inflation. Closer scrutiny of state laws that govern vehicle classifications and the sale of large vans to schools for use as buses, plus other safety advances by auto makers, also have played a role, NHTSA says.

Crashes involving 15-passenger vans resulted in 1,090 occupant fatalities between 1997 and 2006, NHTSA says. Of the total, 63% involved a rollover. But after recording a 10-year high of 130 passenger fatalities in 2001, the number shrunk to a low of 58 in 2006.

GM began installing ESC on its 12- and 15-passenger vans in ’04 and the technology now is standard equipment throughout the lineup. It continues to be optional on fullsize cargo vans, but GM says it will make it standard in those by the ’11 model year.

“It truly is remarkable,” Gaydash says of the fullsize vans’ ESC system, supplied by TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. and branded by GM as StabiliTrak. “You have more control over your environment, and once you recognize that it becomes like airbags – you would never buy a vehicle without it.”

However, some consumer advocacy groups are less enthusiastic.

“They are still inherently unstable,” Robert Shull, deputy director-auto safety and regulatory policy at Public Citizen, says of the fullsize vans. “ESC may have decreased their propensity to roll over, (but) when they do roll over they still kill people. I would say the jury is still out on whether it’s made a difference.”

GM contends its ’08 large vans exceed government regulations and consumer expectations. In addition to the roof-rail airbags, shatterproof glass and individual tire-pressure monitors, GM’s passengers vans also add as standard safety equipment a small convex mirror at the base of driver and passenger-side outboard mirrors that eliminate blind spots and an upgraded electrical system that improves data flow between controls.

It also repositioned daylight running lamps higher for greater visibility and added 3-point belts at in-board seating positions.

“Now every seat in this van has a 3-point safety belt,” says Steve Matsil, vehicle chief engineer-GM medium-duty commercial trucks and fullsize vans.

And unlike some competitors, GM offers a longer wheelbase for its 15-passenger models.

“You don’t have that long tail behind you that reacts to aggressive maneuvers,” Matsil says. “Combine that with StabiliTrak and you have a great package that gives us a competitive advantage.”

Roof strength exceeds the federal standard of 1.5 times curb weight, GM says.

“We think we now have a platform to work off,” Gaydash says.

One safety and security item the vans do not get for ’08 is OnStar, GM’s in-vehicle communications system. Gaydash says the take-rate for the technology has been too low in the fullsize vans, but with the system’s new turn-by-turn navigation capability he thinks GM might reconsider reviving the feature in coming model years.

Publicizing the safety enhancements won’t be easy. With a limited marketing budget that does not include television, GM must rely on auto shows, direct mail campaigns and a comprehensive website that includes an interactive map of the Chevy Express’ safety enhancements. Dealers also will be counted on to play a major role, Gaydash says.

“You have to rely on your dealers, so we spend a lot of time trying to educate them relative to the benefits of the vehicle,” he says.

GM vans already on the road also serve as good marketing tools, because up to 15 passengers at a time experience the product, Gaydash points out.

Speaking more broadly about GM Fleet and Commercial operations, Gaydash says sales have held up surprisingly well against a housing market depressed by the subprime mortgage crash and overall industry vehicle sales that are running close to 1.5 million units below trend.

The division supplies vehicles for more than 14 million U.S. businesses, from local florists to national construction companies.

“The economy is softer and the (home) building glut is in full force, but we’re not seeing a dramatic downturn in business,” Gaydash says. “It’s not as bad as you would think.”

He credits a resilient commercial-construction market and a rise in home remodeling. “There’s been an increase on the remodeling side, and those companies need a van or a pickup, too.”

jamend@wardsauto.com