by Jeremy Cato
The Chevrolet Astro van has enjoyed more lives than your favourite cat. General Motors Corp., in fact, announced just this past June the latest official plan for the Astro: GM will continue producing the Astro and its GMC twin, the Safari, at a Baltimore plant through the 2005 model year.
Company spokesman Pat Morrissey said strong fleet sales keep the rear-wheel-drive vans profitable. Thus, the Astro, which had its debut in 1985 as a quick answer to the then-astounding popularity of Chrysler’s minivans, will at least have a 20-year run in the marketplace.
I’m not surprised by this decision. I get a lot of mail from Astro and Safari owners. Not all of them are entirely happy, mind you, but a lot are. Engine and transmission issues seem to dominate owner concerns. I would encourage any potential buyer of a used Astro/Safari to pay attention to the Buyer’s Alerts and recall notices.
That said, those who have written all agree that the Chevrolet Astro van feels, rides and handles like a truck. And they’re okay with that because like any decent truck, the Astro can pull a fairly hefty boat or trailer. Boats in particular.
The Astro (and everything I write here also applies to the Safari) is a big, rear-drive van available with all-wheel-drive – not a bad feature when you find yourself yanking a boat out of the drink and up the ramp.
Okay, a bit of background. The Astro is based on a pickup truck design, which means it has a traditional body-on-frame construction. But early versions of all these vans were hurried to market well before the engineers had done enough testing, so unless you know something almost no one else does, you’re well-advised to stay away from Astros of the 1980s. Just too many problems.
If you must go for an older Astro, get one with the 4.3-litre V6 engine, the one which received a primitive fuel-injection system in 1986. From 1985-1989, GM also offered a 2.5-litre four-cylinder. Stay clear of it; not enough power.
In 1990, Chevy began offering an all-wheel-drive model, along with four-wheel anti-lock braking and extended-length versions. That was an important development, yet buyers would be best served to shop used Astros no older than the 1993 model year – and 1995 onward would be even better.
In 1993, GM brought in an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission and those handy rear “Dutch” doors. In 1994, a driver’s side air bag and side door beams arrived. In 1995, the regular length models were dropped and a new front-end design was born. And in 1996, dual airbags became standard and the engine got a complete and powerful makeover.
Other recent milestones: 1997, standard speed-sensitive steering was added; 1998, PASSLock security system standard; 1999, an active transfer case on all-wheel-drive models replaces the electric shift transfer case; 2000, a significant electronics upgrade adds automatic headlamps, battery rundown protection, tow/haul mode and more; 2002, a new fuel injection system for the 4.3-litre V6 engine.
Enough of the history lesson. What you’ll get with an Astro is a spacious van inside, one able to seat up to eight people. With eight-person seating, though, there’s not much cargo room at the back. And because it’s truck-based, the ride is rough and bouncy for passengers. Handling is kinda clumsy, too.
But even the least-powerful V6 engine has plenty of torque for pulling heavy loads. You won’t be racing away from stop lights, mind, you, but you’ll have no trouble keeping up with traffic. Fuel economy is what I’d characterize as sub-par, and even worse for all-wheel-drive vehicles.
Used buyers should also note that servicing an Astro is not a piece of cake due to the design and placement of some key components, including the engine. The front doorways are narrow at the bottom, too, which hampers entry and exit. And the step-up into this van is relatively high, especially compared to the more car-like minivans out there now in the marketplace.
Clearly the Astro is not a van for most mainstream buyers. It does fit the bill for certain folks who need a torquey engine for towing. If that’s you, then have a look. Just make sure to do your homework before buying an older Astro.