2002 Chevrolet Astro
2002 Chevrolet Astro. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

In 1983, Chrysler Corporation caught the auto industry flat-footed with the introduction of its 1984 “Magic Wagon” minivans, vehicles which combined tremendous cargo space and seating for seven with driving characteristics similar to the front-wheel-drive K-Cars upon which they were based. The success of these innovative vehicles prompted other manufacturers to respond by launching competitive models.

General Motors was one of many manufacturers to market a vehicle to compete in what would become one of the most lucrative market segments of the 1980s and 1990s. Its early interpretation of the minivan – the 1985 Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari – was vastly different from Chrysler’s, with GM choosing to base it on the same rugged truck platform that underpinned the S-10 and S-15 compact pickups.

Where the Chrysler minis were vans designed to drive like cars, Astro and Safari were trucks through and through. A high seating position, vague steering and a soft, floaty ride were the defining characteristics of the driving experience. Sharing all that truck hardware set these vans apart: a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive drivetrain layout made repairs a little more straightforward, and trailer towing was a relative cinch thanks to the rugged body-on-frame design.

Originally only available in one size, at 4491 mm in length and with a wheelbase of 2819 mm, an extended-length version became available a few years into Astro/Safari’s life. It shared the same wheelbase as the original, but grew in overall length to 4745 mm.

If you had parked an Astro or Safari in the midst of a lot full of first-generation Chrysler minivans, it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. At 1882 mm tall, it towered over the Chrysler by 238 mm, and its 1956 mm girth was significantly wider than Chrysler’s more car-like 1833 mm. Its dimensions led many to refer to these vehicles as “midi-vans”: smaller than a full-size van, but larger and more rugged than other minivans.

2000 Chevrolet Astro
2000 Chevrolet Astro. Click image to enlarge

The extra exterior size translated into extra interior space, too. The original standard-length Astro/Safari had a cargo volume of 4,299 litres with both rows of rear seats removed, compared to the 3,256 litres a first-generation Chrysler mini could hold. The extended-length Chryslers could take on 3,936 litres with all the rear seats out. The extended-length Astro/Safari raised the ante, with 4,825 litres of cargo volume. An extended-length Ford Aerostar was the only vehicle short of a full-size van that offered as much cargo space, with a volume of 4,749 litres; even the gigantic Ford Excursion would only accept 4,146 litres of cargo with all of its rear seats folded flat.

While Aerostar came close to matching Astro/Safari in cargo volume, the GM vans had an edge in power. A 4.3-litre V6 propelled these vans from the beginning, with power output ranging from 150 hp to 165 hp and about 235 lb-ft of torque in early models, to 190 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque in 1995-and-newer versions.

Astro/Safari only really had one true competitor, Ford Aerostar, which was also based on small-truck mechanicals. The original Mazda MPV, introduced in 1989, was also rear-wheel-drive and used truck components, but was closer in size to Chrysler’s minivans. But Aerostar disappeared altogether after 1997 and MPV went to a front-drive layout in 2000, leaving Astro/Safari as the only truck-based minivan on the market.

2002 Chevrolet Astro
2002 Chevrolet Astro. Click image to enlarge

Among the minimal changes made to these vans over the years were the addition of an all-wheel-drive option for 1990, a new front end for 1994, the aforementioned power increase in 1995 and standard four-wheel disc brakes and 16-inch wheels in 2003 (all previous models had rear drum brakes and 15-inch wheels and tires). On early models, access to the rear cargo area was via two traditional outward opening doors, but later models had a nifty three-door arrangement: the top half of the tailgate swung up hatchback style, with two half-doors that swung open. Astro/Safari was never offered with a second, left-side sliding door.

Anti-lock brakes were standard equipment pretty well from the start, and driver and passenger airbags were made standard in the early 1990s.

The traits that made Astro/Safari great for heavy-duty hauling had negative trade-offs too. The ride was floaty, the steering vague and handling was ponderous at best. Fuel economy was unimpressive: while the numbers varied slightly year to year, Natural Resources Canada reported fuel economy numbers of 15-17 L/100 km in city driving, and 10-13 L/100 km on the highway. Rear-wheel-drive models were generally a little more efficient.

GM obviously knew Astro/Safari filled a need in the marketplace. It continued producing them even after the introduction of its first car-based minivans – the “dustbuster-on-wheels”-inspired Lumina APV and Pontiac Transport – for the beginning of the 1990s. And like the Energizer Bunny, these vans kept going, and going, and going, surviving a 20-year lifespan with only minor changes and updates. Despite the different names, GM never bothered setting the two apart in any way. They were identical mechanically, cosmetically, and in price from the beginning.

2004 Chevrolet Astro
2004 Chevrolet Astro. Click image to enlarge

Opinions about these vans’ reliability are mixed. On one hand, Astro/Safari gets a dismal reliability score in the 2003 Canadian Automobile Association Autopinion Vehicle Ownership Survey. On the other hand, Consumer Reports gives 2000 and newer models an average reliability score, citing durable major mechanical components. Older models received significantly lower ratings. Whatever the case, Astro/Safari contains proven mechanical components shared with several other General Motors light trucks, so replacement parts should be affordable and easy to find.

If reliability has been hit and miss, it’s very clear that these vans are a tremendous value on the used market. A two-year-old, fully-loaded, all-wheel-drive 2003 LT model retails for $21,450, according to the Canadian Red Book. That’s less than two-thirds of its MSRP of $33,560. Go back a couple more years and that same fully-loaded, all-wheel-drive LT retails for $13,150, or 37 per cent of the $35,430 it sold for new. And if you don’t mind driving a 10-year-old vehicle, a budget of about $4,000 would buy a well-optioned 1995 Astro or Safari in good condition, according to the Canadian Red Book older vehicle price guide.

Early Astros and Safaris scored very poorly in crash tests conducted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but newer models fared much better. Vans built in 1996 and later were the safest: from 1996 through 1998, Astro/Safari earned three stars for driver and passenger in frontal crash testing. Models built from 1999 and onward scored three stars for driver protection and four stars for front passenger protection in frontal crash testing. These vans weren’t subjected to side impact testing until 2003, but they scored five stars for both front and rear seat occupant protection.

These vans never offered a great driving experience, but their simple, rugged construction and low resale values make them an excellent bargain if you need a vehicle suitable for towing or hauling a lot of stuff.


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003064. Units affected: 323,584

1995-1997: Certain vehicles (not involved in recall 98-150) may experience a windshield wiper failure due to cracked solder joints on the controller circuit board. If this were to occur in a severe weather situation, driver’s visibility could be reduced, which could result in a vehicle crash without prior warning. Correction: Dealer will replace defective wiper motor until 7 years or 112,000 km from date vehicle was originally placed into service or for those vehicles currently outside of this coverage, until March 31 2004.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003062. Units affected: 40,759

1998: On certain vehicles, a short in the electric outside rearview mirror switch could develop. If this were to occur, it could result in an inoperative switch, heat damage to the driver’s door, and/or ignition of components in the driver’s door and a subsequent vehicle fire without prior warning. Correction: Dealer will install a fused jumper harness to the electric outside rearview mirror switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003218. Units affected: 6,782

2003: On certain vehicles, interference between the lower ball joint rubber boot and the steering knuckle could result in cutting the boot. If the lower ball joint boot were cut, contamination from the road could enter the ball socket area of the ball joint. Contamination could cause the ball joint to wear out faster than one that remained sealed. Correction: The dealer will modify the spindle for clearance.

Transport Canada Recall Number 1997077. Units affected: 2013

1996-1997: In vehicles with seven-passenger seating, dynamic testing indicates that the right-hand rear bucket seat outboard seatbelt webbing could separate during an impact. In the event of separation, the occupant of this seat could be more severely injured. Correction: Dealers will install a protector on the rear seat cushion frame.

Transport Canada Recall Number 1998040. Units affected: 89752

1996-1998: Vehicles equipped with 4.3 litre engines do not comply with CMVSS 1103 – exhaust emissions. Vehicles may have been built with the ignition coil wire too close to metal brackets or the transmission fluid fill tube (m/l van only). If the coil wire is too close to these metal objects, arcing may occur and cause failure of the wires which can in turn lead to a stalling/no start condition and/or catalytic converter failures. Correction: coil wire will be repositioned to assure adequate clearance from metal brackets and/or transmission fluid fill tubes.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001097. Units affected: 73,459

1996-1999: Certain vehicles fail to comply with requirements of CMVSS No. 208, “Occupant Crash Protection.” The “fasten safety-belt” audible warning occasionally may not come on or may terminate in less than four seconds as required by the standard. Correction: Dealers will install a new alarm module.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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