By on December 15, 2017


v8 engine

Woody writes:

Hi Sanjeev,

My wife complains that I don’t even notice when she doesn’t shave her legs; yet every time I say something about it, she complains at me about how she has no time because of kids, school, dinner, etc. Help a guy out. (You’re on your own with that, son! — SM)

No, really. Hi Sajeev — I’ll start out with the problem. I have an 2001 Astro van. As much as I love my cult classic, my Chevy box is starting to get tired. I need 8 seats (yes, I have been busy) and the ability to tow.

Before everybody suggests I go grab a Suburban or Tahoe (no sliding door), I’d like to pose a hypothetical. As only van drivers can understand, I like my current vehicle. With tax returns right around the corner (seven dependents … $$$), I’d like to get your opinion on some frivolous spending. The 4.3-liter Vortec V6 is not a bad motor. With a little effort I can strap a turbo on it and perform the various tuning tweaks needed to get it running tip top (timing change, higher PSI injectors).

Or, I could shoehorn a 5.3-liter in there. It will match up with the existing 4L60e (that will probably blow up under the added stress — SM) transmission, has great stock horsepower and torque, and you can pick one up at the junkyard with the computer for $310 ($275 for the motor + $35 for the ECM at LKQ in Central Florida) I know the the price of labor will probably cost more than either one of these kits. I am a fairly competent shadetree, which might help offset some of the cost. You have to be to keep one of these things going this long.


Sajeev answers:

I admire your loyalty to the Astro; as a Ford man I have a huge soft spot for the Aerostar, especially the two-tone brown unit eventually converted into The Bigfoot Shuttle.

But times are a-changing: now we know the Astro was made for people who hate their left leg, with possibly even more footwell intrusion than my beloved Aerostar. I can’t believe I’m letting rational thought take over what should clearly be LSX-FTW Astro, as there’s a proud history of V8 swaps for this machine. And they look like soooo much fun.

But, once more, we are talkin’ about a father and his kids here.

I almost never recommend an SUV (but that doesn’t stop anyone from wanting them), so do us a solid and get a newer minivan for around $5,000.  Like a 10-year old Ford Freestar/Mercury Whatever, Chrysler van, or any GM U-body for that price. Sure, they are car-based and don’t let you be a macho Daddy doing gnarly burnouts while hauling around your kids, but why risk life and limb (literally) when you can get a far superior design for not much extra cash?

Your “frivolous spending” on a tired van of questionable safety is a rather bad idea. Time to start shopping for a safer sleigh, perhaps doing an LS4-swap instead with next year’s tax return? Now that’s an EXCELLENT IDEA! 

Best and brightest?

[Image: Shutterstock user Zelfit]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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50 Comments on “Piston Slap: An LSX-FTW Christmas Wish, Revoked?...”

  • avatar

    If possible, I say just keep the Astro van until it dies on the side of the road.

    If you have the skill and tools to do a 100% DIY job then maybe the engine swap would be worthwhile for a project in the future.

    I wouldn’t bother spending $5,000 on a 10 year old front wheel drive minivan that’s likely going to be minimally maintained and under-spec’d.

    • 0 avatar

      Huh? Astro’s are RWD. And some have the 6 lug wheels ans HD suspension.

      • 0 avatar

        I was referring to Sajeev’s suggestion:

        “so do us a solid and get a newer minivan for around $5,000. Like a 10-year old Ford Freestar/Mercury Whatever, Chrysler van, or any GM U-body for that price.”

      • 0 avatar

        Astro vans came in both RWD and AWD variants. It still amazes me how many Astro vans are still on the road today. They are either very easy to work on, or some of them just keep running and running. I had to drive one for work 20-some years ago. I didnt hate it.

        But I agree with Sajeev – the safety features of an Astro van pale in comparison to a more modern van, especially when hauling 7 occupants. Its time to ditch the Astro and move on to something more modern and much safer.

        • 0 avatar

          They are not that easy to work on, and the AWD ones are far worse. And there is a random mix of SAE and metric fasteners (bolts into head holding spark plug wire brackets: 1/4-20; bolts into intake manifold holding ignition coil: M6-1.0).

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, unless he budgets *every* tax refund for a mechanical overhaul for so long as he owns it. Those vans are junk.

      I always said if I ever ran my own dealership and someone insisted on trading in a Wind/Freestar/Monterrey or a U body, the most I’d offer would be $500 and it would automatically go to the crusher. I would not curse anyone by reselling it. The fewer of those things left, the better.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Please do the swap. Then provide photos to and a write up to TTAC. Perhaps even a drive by JB along with a write up similar to the one he did for Haggerty covering a 77′ Bandit T/A. Either way, this would make TTAC great again.

  • avatar

    What’s wrong with a Nissan NV3500? That’s got a sliding door and will tow 8700lbs…

  • avatar

    “(that will probably blow up under the added stress — SM) ”

    Uh, you realize that Tahoes and Suburbans and Silverados, etc use the 4L60E matched up to the 5.3L from the factory, right?

    They to tend to crap out somewhere around 150k miles-ish (or make it to 200k+ YMMV). But rebuilds are well understood and many shops can do a good job, and are generally fairly affordable as far as auto trans rebuilds go.

    Frankly I’d keep it simple and throw in a Jasper reman 4.3L, if the trans is feeling a bit tired get a reman one of those as well, maybe a shift-kit to firm things up and possibly even extend lifetime (a trans cooler as well if you don’t already have one). Catch the old Astro up on some suspension maintenance (how are your idler arms?) and whatever else is outstanding, and keep on truckin’.

    Or as was suggested, get a newer used FWD van, the caveat there is finding one that isn’t a biohazard and has a transaxle with life left in it.

  • avatar
    Jean-Pierre Sarti

    we obviously don’t know the OP or his circumstances beyond what is up in the post and normally I am the first one to cater to the whim of a car guy and his ride but when I read 7 dependents my first thought is : “dude, you have 7 dependents, time to stop thinking about you and start thinking about them” regarding this ride.

    taking a quick look at my local craigslist, there are plenty of people movers that is safer than that Astro.

  • avatar

    The U-body crashes just as badly as the Astro.

    Get a 2011-on FCA RT van. They come with 280-hp Pentastars.

    • 0 avatar

      The U-bodies after 2005 do much better in crashes. But they were not as numerous as the earlier ones. And they’d be equally worn out by now.

      Actually, *all* of the 2011-present FCA vans come with a Pentastar. But, good luck finding a used one that isn’t a rolling biohazard.

  • avatar

    Meanwhile, back at the truth about families…

    Forget the Astro, you’re already a minivan driving Dad so just go for the Grand Caravan, no point in trying to impress anyone now.

    If you get a 2007 you can get a 2nd bench seat from the wreckers in the middle position for true 8 passenger capacity. My brother tells me his 6 kids enjoy climbing over the bench to get to the back. It’s like a free jungle jim.

    Save up some coin and down the road buy something interesting for a project if some of the kids want to help.

    Good luck from another minivan driving Dad with interesting projects.

  • avatar

    How come Sanjeev didn’t answer this question? ;)

    If I were the OP, I’d take my $5K and look for a nice Express passenger van with the 5.3L already installed. I’d love to know how this guy is cramming 8 people into an Astro. They weren’t *that* roomy to begin with (I know, I did some time in those little beasts. My left leg has yet to recover.).

    A friend of mine has six kids and when they were small he had an Express 1500 window van with all of the seats. I think they had it 15+ years & 300K+ miles before it finally gave out. By then the oldest three kids had their own cars, but they kept driving it because it was paid off.

    I’d almost second the suggestion about a FWD minivan, but they’re damned hard to find biohazard and abuse free. I got lucky with mine as it had been owned by someone’s Grandparents, but it was the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    • 0 avatar

      Express SWB Passenger FTW!
      Update #3: I still love this thing. The LS engine is still a beast and is still running strong (the orig alternator finally gave up the ghost @ ~215k). The android stereo is still a great install and has pacified many a child on interstate road trips and milk and bread runs. The 3500 rides rough but that’s the price you pay for ~10,000lbs of towing capability. On the bright side if you put 8 people into it the ride will soften.
      If Woody is as capable as he says/thinks then he should have no hesitation about buying a high mileage Express.

    • 0 avatar


      AWD Express 12 pass are like $3500-5000 in my area with like 100k.

      No resale value on huge vans, and this is even in Amish country NE Indiana, where they are in demand.

      Saw a red AWD one sit a month in someone’s front yard before it sold. Had $3500 on the window and 117k. Looked clean, no rusty rockers or anything. I was trying to invent a reason to buy it and turn up the motor… AWD LSX FTW

      • 0 avatar
        Woody in FL

        Didn’t know they had AWD Savannah vans, something I need to look into. I kick myself even today for not getting the all-wheel Astro and swapping out the transfer case for a selectable.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Almost like TTAC was reading my mind. Last night had a conversation about how many Astro/Safaris we still see on the road and how few Ford minivans are still around.

    Most Astros/Safaris we see are either being driven by contractors or towing something.

    Ford Windstars/Freestars and Aerostars are about as common in the GTA as Eagles.

    The OP has not stated that there is anything in particular ‘wrong’ with the engine, except that it is ‘tired’. So why invest the time and money into a vehicle that will still have a number of other tired parts, and which is known to be below par in crash standards? Ours was much more ‘robust’ than our Caravan from the same generation.

    My recommendation would be a GM minivan from the ‘large nose’ 2005 on SV6 or Uplander ( or Relay or Terraza if any are around).

    Or do what my ex-neighbour with 7 children did. Get a full sized van like an Express or Savanna (Geozinger just beat me to posting that but I 2nd that recommendation). Handles all of the OP’s requirements. Are generally plentiful and should last until the youngest of his children is off to college.

    • 0 avatar

      Please, not the big nose vans – cynical GM engineering at its very worst.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Didn’t edit my response clearly. Our SV6 was in our opinion a far superior vehicle to the same model year Caravan that we also owned, at the same time.

      The Caravan met an earlier demise. The SV6 is now used to transport industrial mechanics and their equipment.

      The ‘large nose’ GM vans may look ungainly and require frequent tie rod replacements but they are very stable in the wind and quite good on winter roads. And I believe have a much improved safety rating than their predecessors.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, the U-bodies are really decent drivers. In my family we have one of each of the minis from the domestic makers. My (to be) son in law has a SWB Voyager with the Mitsu V6, still my favorite to drive. My U body is next, and my daughter’s Mercury Monterey is my least favorite to drive.

        As noted earlier, GM vastly improved the crash performance of the U bodies with the 2005 update, I’m sure that’s where the big nose came from.

        An Express 1500 (or better yet 2500) would handle anything you’d throw at it, and for better or worse, uses the same mechanicals as the pickup trucks do. Should be easily repair and cheaply, too.

    • 0 avatar

      The reason Windstars/Freestars are thin on the ground is that they are junk. Family had one, there’s a reason Ford no longer makes a mini van.

      If the OP has the ability, a ls swap would be cool as all get out, but can the van be down that long?

      I’ve heard very good things about the Chevy express vans, and that would be a much better upgrade. Don’t know about safer for the passengers.

    • 0 avatar

      What’s even funnier is that I see plenty of Aerostars outside of the salt belt, way more than I do period Chrysler vans and about on par with the GM RWDs. I haven’t seen a first gen U body in quite a while, not that I’m complaining.

      And you’re really suggesting the reliability nightmare that is the later U body while talking about the Aerostar as if it isn’t a sturdy, durable workhorse (that is admittedly rust prone, which explains why you don’t see many)? Geeze. What a trip. Those things are pure garbage. Electrical gremlins, suspension/steering, engines, trans, you name it. Them and the Wind/Freestar actually make the Caravan look reliable by comparison, and that’s a hard hurdle to jump. Why not throw out a first gen Sedona if you hate the guy that much?

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Well we are in a high salt use area and I cannot remember the last time I saw an Aerostar on the road.

        Personally had 4 GM U-bodies and 4 Caravans. The final U-body was the best of all of these vehicles. Sold it to my employer who uses it as a shuttle van for equipment and technicians.

        The engine and transmission are still strong. The paint looks like new. The front end does require regular maintenance.

        My previous company ran a fleet of vehicles for 20+ years. Minivans and full size vans from all the ‘domestic’ manufacturers. The Astro/Safari were the most durable of the ‘minivans’. For some reason the full size Ford ‘Econolines’ were the most durable of all.

        Anecdote may not be evidence, but with just under 1 million personal combined kms of ownership experience in Caravans/GM minivans, the final year U-Bodies appear to be the ‘cream of the crop.

  • avatar

    I need 8 seats (yes, I have been busy)…

    Well see it doesn’t matter if she shaves her legs or not. ;-)

    • 0 avatar

      That was my immediate reaction as well. With 8 mouths to feed I’m surprised she has time to even take a shower! Plus 97% of LS-swap talk is just that… talk. Now if 5 of the 8 kids are old enough to help turn wrenches that changes things. Because then you are all set, just put the mini pit crew to work and the swap will be a piece of cake.

  • avatar

    Why, oh, why is everyone here completely ignoring Woody’s “I need 8 seats and the ability to tow…” comment? A minivan is a passengers *or* towing proposition, not a passengers *and* towing proposition. Sure the marketing brochures say my Odyssey is rated to tow 3500lbs (with the towing package). But once you get past the marketing materials and look at the actual rear axle loading capacities, you’ll discover it’s a 350lb maximum tongue weight *if the back of the van is empty*. Fill even some of those rear seats (sure a toddler is light, but did you include the weight of the carseat?) and you’ll discover your available tongue weight capacity is near zero. Which is why, with 4 kids, I’ll be looking for a real tow vehicle when we buy a travel trailer…

    • 0 avatar


      I’m glad someone other than myself appears to at least halfway understand tow ratings.

      Just because the ads say best-in-class towing doesn’t mean that every example of that model can tow what the ad says. Tongue weight contributes to tow vehicle payload. Max towing claims are calculated by taking the gross combination weight rating (GVWR) and subracting the *CURB* weight of the tow vehicle, generally allowing ~150 lbs for a driver. Figure up by doing a realistic assessment of passenger weight, add to the curb weight of the tow vehicle, throw in another few hundred pounds for gear, then subtract the total from GVWR and you get your tongue weight. Multiply by 10 and you have a good trailing capacity assuming it does not exceed GCWR. I really wish it was easier to discern a GCWR for a particular vehicle, like having it printed next to the GVWR on the rating plate.

    • 0 avatar

      I towed my 1995 Jayco 12′ box pop up behind my 1999 Odyssey with 5 passengers and gear (yes, I was playing transmission roulette and I eventually lost). The label on the Jayco said it weighed 1700 lbs empty. I figured with gear, the bikes on the roof rack and the dog we were pushing the 3500 lb tow limit. The first short trip I towed with a standard ball mount and the rear squatted a lot. I then picked up a weight distributing hitch and it performed much better. I think Honda requires the WDH above 1500 or 2000 lbs.

      For the most part it did well, but it certainly felt like it was at its limit. We towed through the mountains of West Virginia with no issues. I started towing at about 175K miles and I blew a transmission line at 205K. I had the line replaced and it drove fine but it was time to upgrade. I traded it on a 2010 Saturn Outlook XR with the factory tow package and a 5200 lb tow rating. It was much happier pulling that Jayco.

  • avatar

    How heavy of a load is he towing? If it is more than a small pop up trailer go with the full sized van. Plenty of room and towing capacity.

    As far as minivans, not many have belts for 8 people so your choices are limited there as well.

  • avatar

    Sajeev’s right. As fun as the Astro From Hell would be, if I had eight kids I’d be more interested in safety. Definitely a mid-2000s van. A couple of years back, my mom’s restaurant bought a mid-2000s Chrysler van for its’ catering business for something like $6,000. It’s darned nice.

  • avatar
    Peter Voyd

    Interesting question!

    The OP did not mention the financial constraints – why the $5,000 limit? A Sienna or Odyssey lease, perhaps? (these are available as 8-seaters, but it will be tight.)

    I am a bit surprised by the U-body recommendation – didn’t those have very poor crash scores?

    How about a used Sedona – should be well depreciated.

    I rented a 12-seat Chevy Express to transport 3 families, and was pleasantly surprised by its ride (over smooth roads), visibility and fuel economy.

  • avatar

    Do not buy a Freestar. It’ll blow head gaskets with the 3.8L and blow its transmission.

  • avatar

    You seem like a traditional guy. What you’re looking for is a 1995 Roadmaster Wagon. Find the nicest one within 200 miles, replace the shocks and never look back. The LS swap next year will be easy. And maybe get a vasectomy.

  • avatar

    Swapping a 5.3L into a tired, old Astro seems more like LSX-WTF to me. But I’d still applaud Woody if he actually does it.

  • avatar

    I know of the Astro’s cult-like following, and its more like a hate of normal minivans with their glass transmissions and head gasket chewing habit if you look at them wrong. A V8 Astro would be awesome I’m sure, and should’ve been a factory option if your ask me, same with most anything midsize, especially if it’s rwd/awd and based on a BOF pickup.

  • avatar

    ” so do us a solid and get a newer minivan for around $5,000. Like a 10-year old Ford Freestar/Mercury Whatever, Chrysler van, or any GM U-body for that price. ”


  • avatar
    Woody in FL

    Sorry I’m late to the party everybody. Just got done with the week-long flu and a round trip from one end of Florida to the other.
    You guys really are the best with all your concern about my family’s safety. Lately I’ve been looking into the crash ratings on the Astro Vans and they are absolutely deplorable. I don’t want to go the FWD route because all my friends have already done that and lost. The NV 3500 Vans look very promising but they’re a little big for the little lady to be driving. One of my best friend has a conversion van on a savannah platform. To its defense it may be a lemon but the thing just does not run. Going to have to break down and become a two car family.
    Now for the next Piston Slap, Odyssey vs. Sienna.

    • 0 avatar

      Both are solid choices, the Sienna is probably a smidge more reliable, the Odyssey a smidge more enjoyable to drive.

      What are your towing needs? The GM Lambdas can be had with 8 seats & a 5,200 towing capacity. Of course, with 8 on board that’s reduced by the weight of the 7 passengers. You must get one with the factory tow package, however, to get that rating. The early ones were not so great on the reliability front, however.

      I believe that the Durango can be configured to tow 7,500 lbs, but I’m not certain if it can be had in an 8 passenger configuration. I think the 3rd row is 2 passengers.

      Beyond that, there’s the tried & true Tahoe & Suburban. Given your needs, this is probably the right choice, frankly.

  • avatar
    Woody in FL

    Realistically >16ft boat, borrowed pop-up, cargo trailer for when I inevitably help someone move. I only need seats full+towing capacity at the same time maybe 5 times a year. I did not know the new FWD’s could actually tow though, something to look into.

    • 0 avatar

      A minivan might do for you.

      I think most minivans are about 3,500, properly equipped. For my ’99 Odyssey that meant adding a transmission cooler and using a weight distributing hitch (Reese makes one, the 350 mini, that works with light weight trailers like a pop up.)

      The popup is probably your worse case. Assuming the additional 7 are kids and average 100lbs each, you’ve got 2,800 lbs of trailer & gear to play with. Doable if your trailer is small-ish. The thing about camping is not only are you toting your clothes, you’ve got all your food and drink, pots & pans, camp chairs, bedding, maybe bikes, firewood, etc. It adds up pretty fast.

      My Odyssey did OK pulling our large-ish popup with all of our gear. The popup’s tag said it weighed 1700lbs, but older models listed the base weight only, no options. The spare, the LP tank, the awning, the fridge, etc. all added to that. Given that and 7 days worth of gear, I assumed that we added about 800lbs of stuff. Then add the 4 passengers and the dog and I’d guess we were at ~3,000 lbs. or so It did fine.

      Honestly, a GMC Acadia (pre-2017) or Chevy Traverse might be better. We traded our Odyssey on an 8 passenger 2010 Saturn Outlook (same platform) and we filled it with 8 people more than once. If equipped with the factory tow package they are rated to tow 5,200. The Outlook towed much better than the Odyssey did. Don’t go too old, the early ones weren’t too reliable. Check the stats at

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