By on January 21, 2020

This must be some sort of irony-steeped Radwood thing. How else to explain the sudden resurgence in enthusiasm for a mid-sized van that loitered in General Motors’ lineup for two uneventful decades?

It seems there’s a concerted — though perhaps not entirely honest — effort to return the lowly Astro to the Chevrolet stable. It’s a plaintive wail that will absolutely fall on deaf ears in the boardrooms of the Renaissance Center. And so it should.

Matthew Guy brought this campaign to my attention, resulting in a round of vitriol for GM’s rear-drive Astro and its GMC Safari twin. There’s a website devoted to the effort, as well as a totally bitchin’ video that sounds, at least, like it may have aired after an ad for New Coke.

Clearly, some van types remain enamoured with the bowtie box.

Chevy Astro production ran for 20 years, 1985 to 2005, with a second-generation model appearing exactly at the midpoint of its lifespan. After the initial base Iron Duke 2.5-liter (offered in cargo variants) left the engine roster in 1990, GM upped the versatility factor via optional all-wheel drive. The lone engine from then on was a 4.3-liter V6 sourced from the General’s truck stable.

Positioned as a larger, more voluminous alternative to Chrysler’s hot-selling minivans, the Astro and Safari are more often associated with the sad, rumbling, rusted-out hulks they became later in life. There were some neato bits, however, like a futuristic-but-annoying gauge cluster (panned by John Davis) that eventually gave way to a conventional analog set. There’s one on eBay right now. Just imagine that speedometer climbing that hill on a chariot of light.

The most damning indictment of the Astro/Safari came from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which revealed the Astro’s dismal crash performance in graphic detail. That bolt-on subframe didn’t seem to lend much rigidity to the van, which folded like wet newspaper in a head-on hit. The buckling never ends!

If that driver has any leg left after that bone-snapping impact, at least the door is open for easy egress (or paramedic entry).

Given the General’s timely departure from the still-shrinking minivan segment and the continued production of a full-size commercial van line that’s barely changed since 1995, it’s unlikely GM will bend to these weirdos’ whims and create a successor to the Astro. There’s too much money to be made from the automaker’s dizzying array of crossovers and SUVs.

Spacious and versatile as it was, the Astro belongs to history now, and that’s where it should stay. There’s already a viable modern alternative for van types: the excellent Ford Transit and Transit Connect, both available as a cargo or passenger wagon.

[Image: General Motors]

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54 Comments on “Chevrolet Astro Revival? How About… No...”


  • avatar
    The Ghost of Buckshot Jones

    My God. Buy an F’n Metris and call it a day. Dealers are knocking $10k off sticker just to get them off the lot. Big box, RWD, done.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Not a weekday goes by that I don’t see at least one Astro/Safari trundling around doing yeoman service, usually for a contractor of one kind or another. And many are still in surprisingly good shape for vehicles that are now at least 15 years old.

    I have 2 friends who each still lament giving theirs up. One traded his in after a dozen years of reliably driving him and his family around the province for hockey. The other lost his when T-boned and suffered no injuries. That was an AWD model that he used for towing.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      Despite all the TTAC negativity, these are a perfect example of GM rigs that continue to grind on long after their contemporaries are ground up.

    • 0 avatar
      1500cc

      A buddy of mine (HVAC contractor) will only drive Astros. He put about 500k km on his first-gen before it was done, although I think it received two transmissions and one rear end in that time. The second-gen he replaced it with is still going. The closest possible alternative, a Transit Connect, isn’t big enough or powerful enough.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      I owned a Safari for a few years. It was a decent workhorse. The interior room was amazing. I wasn’t all that impressed with the 4.3. My 2010 F150’s 5.4 delivers better fuel economy.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    When my wife left her purse on the seat of our former C-Max and its window got smashed in 2017, the mobile glass guy who came to replace it had a well-kept later Astro sitting on lowering springs. He explained it was one of the only vans that could carry the payload he needed while being low enough to fit in all of the parking garages surrounding the city. I expect he’s still driving it today.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    People loved these. (I was not one of those people.)

    I suspect the love was due to the overall packaging/usability. If some OEM wanted to design and manufacture one of these today, they could improve the packaging some, and they could improve the mechanicals a *lot*.

    • 0 avatar
      Drew8MR

      I still have an 03 6 lug in the work fleet. You can fit a whole bunch of stuff in that van, but that 18 inches or so you save off the full sized van makes all the difference around town. Most small vans are are smaller all over,the Astro is basically a full size short bed instead.

  • avatar
    Vanillasludge

    Astro-naught. Ha ha haass!!!

    Meh. Ok.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    What we really need isn’t another Astro, it’s another Dodge Maxi Van. A million carpet and flooring guys can’t be wrong.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    GM must feel like they’re left out of the small van market.
    If they built one it would probably be based on a shrunken full sized Express/Savanah or reconfigured Blazer platform that has obviously much better crash test results.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    The best Astro is finding one spit out by the conversion van companies in a shady carport in Florida and the executor of the estate wants nothing to do with it.

    Then you just need a V8 conversion manual.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Unlike vintage Astros, current/recent minivan just don’t stands up to hard or moderate commercial use and or towing. Mainly trans and head gasket failures.

    Astros/Safaris are basically “trucks” and cheap to buy/maintain/restore.
    Plus they’re true “minivans” or relatively compact in over all dimensions.

    The downside to fairly extinct Ford Aerostars was their automatic transmissions.

  • avatar
    Menar Fromarz

    The only one of these actually “coveted” is the AWD version, that I imagine is idolized by the tens of bearded Neo-hipsters that need some traction to make it to the beard care product vendor, the weed shoppe, and the outback in time for their Vid shoot showcasing some iteration of their “lifestyle”.
    Other than that, I don’t think there is any real market for them but as a donor for the 4.3L mill to use in their boat after they let it freeze over the winter.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    My memory of my mom’s Astro was that we drove it around for quite awhile without coolant. Didn’t realize the reservoir was bone dry and we only really picked up on it when the trick of turning defrosters on high and blasting the fan didn’t pull the excess heat off the engine.

    Sold it to my uncle’s friend a short time later, didn’t realize that connection at the time – the van was originally my uncle’s. They cleaned it up and resold.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    Its trust fund hipsters who think vanning is fun and want it back and theyd nevet buy one new. Dont waste a second looking into what these adult child retirement leaching deadbeat losers want.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    This was like the Honda Accord to illeg…er undocumented, immigrants. I think it should come back if we get a Democrat Administration.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Growing up on a northern lakeside town, Astros and Safaris were absolutely everywhere. Unlike the equally ubiquitous Caravan/Voyager, the GM vans could haul boats and snowmobiles without grenading the transmission. But, as much as I’d be temtped to say there’s still a market for that, the crew cab pickup has taken over that market (at least in my hometown), and even if the van body would make more sense, I don’t see leisure truck buyers finding the sensible body more appealing than what they already have.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    A friend ran an AWD Astro for many years, long past its expiration date. I remember him always fighting brake issues and a very expensive transfer case failure that occurred more than once.

    I didn’t realize the crash test results were so horrifying – yikes.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    I got one of these 20 years ago when I went to rent a car (yes, I know, it’s not a car). More to the point, the seating position and driving experience were so miserable I went to special trouble to bring it back, even though I was only going to putter around locally. Factor in its miserable crash(un)worthiness and the sheetmetal bumper cleverly stamped to look like much heavier-gauge steel than it is until the rust destroys the illusion 3 years later, and you have a sh!tshow that was uncompetitive even in its own time — which, just to remind, was 20 years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      20 years is a blink of an eye in “GM years” – the current Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana fullsize van you can buy at your GM dealer today was introduced in 1995 (25 years ago) and facelifted in 2003 (17 years ago). [21 years ago (1999) you could still lease an EV1.]

      The predecessor to the Express/Savana was introduced in 1971 and ran until 1995 – that’s 24 years. Imagine the joys of body assembly when the metal stamping dies are ‘literally’ worn out and the resulting parts don’t hold tolerance. Mid-level managers were joking about this in the early 90’s.

      GM introduced a 15-passenger version in 1990 – 12 years after Ford (1978) and 19 years (1971) after Dodge.

      • 0 avatar
        la834

        But only GM did theirs right, extending the wheelbase rather than just tacking on a long rear cap behind the rear axle, leading to infamous handling problems when fully loaded with 15 people or lots of cargo. The Ford extended vans were especially crude, down to a plug where the rear side marker lamp would have been.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          We ran a ‘fleet’ of 15 passenger and some 12 passenger vans during the 80’s and 90’s. From all D3 manufacturers. Some converted to run on propane or natural gas.

          The GM’s were more predictable in their handling but often had problems with their power steering.

          The Fords were the most ‘robust’.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    If you want a cheap new passenger van get a grand caravan or ford transit connect wagon. The van market is at its limit. No point in new models.

  • avatar
    Oreguy

    Early in my career, I took a job transfer from Minnesota to California. It was a technical position that required occasional transport of laboratory equipment to/from customer sites. The company I worked for issued me a brand-new 1993 Astro Cargo van upon arrival. I think the only options were cruise control and an AM/FM cassette player. This was before the ubiquity of Weathertech, so the cargo area was usually an uncovered steel bed. I drove that van up and down Northern California and the Bay area on a weekly basis. It was absolutely like driving an empty toolbox, but aside from the scary forward seating position, it was rather comfortable to drive and reliable as can be. The 4.3 V6 ran like a quartz watch.

    On weekends I towed my Jet Ski to various lakes and rivers around Sacramento. Afterwards I would just pull up in my driveway, open up all the doors and spray out the sand and dirt.

    My craziest experience involved towing the Jet-Ski to L.A. where I picked up 3 of my buddies. We threw some carpet, gear, and lawn chairs in the back and continued about 250 miles down the Baja peninsula to ride out on the ocean for a weekend.

    I think back on how risky that trip was, mostly because if my boss had found out, or if the company van was stolen, my career would have been derailed in a pretty bad way.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      @ Oreguy

      In addition to towing an overloaded trailer full of gear every weekend my keyboardist’s Safari would often have all five band members in it, too. Never an issue – but for gas consumption. One memorable and non-musical occasion was when three of us ( and my drummer’s Dad ) made it from Calgary, Alberta, to Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver, B.C., in nine hours flat ( Google it – we hit the road at 3:00 AM ). We were going deep sea fishing off of Vancouver Island and had to make a certain ferry to Nanaimo. The Safari held 160 Km/h like a sports sedan, except that a sports sedan could never hold four guys; three guitars; four backpacks; and 500 beers. Great van, that was. It was replaced by a Chevy Avalanche that never saw the same duty: we flew out there, instead. Boring.

      • 0 avatar
        Oreguy

        @TV

        I Googled your route – and I’m jealous. During those years I traveled often in Western Canada, but always flew up and rented cars. None of the drives were ever as long as yours, but I did take two long drives. One was a round-trip from Calgary to Cranbrook, B.C. and back. It was absolutely beautiful country. I would love to do it again, or take the northern route as you did. The second one was between Saskatoon and Edmonton. Once was enough for that one.

        The Astros were simply bullet-proof. Engineering and technology evolves though. I’m not exactly pining for them to return, but the reality is that I don’t have a need for that type of utility at this stage in my life.

        • 0 avatar
          Tele Vision

          @Oreguy

          The Vancouver run from Calgary was nearly a rite of passage back in the day: one did it soon after getting one’s Steering Papers. Everyone I can think of has made that drive several times. We live South of Calgary and ski Fernie, so I’ve done the Cranbrook run many times, too. They’re both still great drives but are now teeming with traffic – and police – so it’s better to relax and enjoy the scenery instead of trying to set a Personal Best.

          Saskatchewan kinda sucks for driving. The most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me on a road in that province was getting into a tank-slapper at 70 MPH in broad daylight on a dead-straight highway in July. Reason? Several dozen million grasshoppers were crossing the road. The ditches looked like used car lots for a mile.

          Alberta and B.C. are better for driving.

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    I moved a friend once in one of these. This was from midtown Manhattan to Astoria, so a lot of trafficky Park Av to Second Av to Queensboro to the crowded scene of Astoria streets. I remember three things about it quite clearly. It took so much stuff. It was insanely easy to drive around in real tight saturday traffic. And it consumed gas in unbelievable amounts. I loved driving that thing around all day.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    The only way GM could realistically build this is off the Colorado/Canyon mechanical bits and frame. And that puts you into SWB Savanna territory.

  • avatar
    80Cadillac

    Yes! Well, not exactly the Astro, but the medium van segment is curiously almost non-existent in the US, and in these comments (and article), only The Ghost of Buckshot Jones shows an understanding of the segment when he refers to the Benz Metris. The medium vans are often rated for more cargo capacity than a lot of our poser pick ups, they can tow, and are mostly fitted with manual transmissions.

    GM/Chevrolet could easily rebadge a Vauxhall Vivano/Renault Trafic/FIAT Talento as a new Astro (except, oops, they sold Opel/Vauxhall!). Ford’s Transit Custom would hit the sweet spot between the too-large Transit and the too-compact Connect. I suppose Ram could offer the Talento to complement its other FIAT van derivations, but with the PSA merger, they would have the option of bringing a version of the Peugeot Expert/Citroen Dispatch/Toyota ProAce. VW? A camping version of the current medium segment Transporter would be a sensation.

    Call it an Astro, a Safari, or even a L’Universelle (GMC), and I’d be OK with it. I just wish we would see more entries in the medium van segment. I like the Metris plenty, but when I shop all of the above online, I think I would be happier with one of the French or Italian vans.

    I’m a home inspector in Western NC, so I carry a lot of tools, and seldom more than one passenger, but I don’t need something the size of a Transit. I also frequently tow a couple of fairly light RV trailers, so that rules out the compact entries.

    So I say “Bring on the new Astro!”

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      You are definitely different than the home inspectors around here. The only tools they carry other than their ladder fit in a tool bag. One of the ones I recommend to my clients uses a newer Escape and everything, including his telescoping ladder, fit in the area behind the rear seat. Lots of others use CUVs or SUVs that obviously do double duty as family trucksters.

      I am surprised that GM and/or Ford didn’t bring back the shorty versions of their full size vans once they discontinued the Astro and Aerostar. Fact is those minivans were what killed the shorty versions of the vans in the first place. For example the shorty 80’s Econoline was 187″ long while the shorty Aerostar was 175″ and the long 190″. Yes the minivans were narrower and shorter and that can be useful.

      • 0 avatar
        80Cadillac

        Haha, a better edit on my part might have made more sense. Indeed, I use my daily driver SWB GMC Envoy on inspections, and my 17-foot ladder fits easily in the back with the 40 side of the 60/40 seat folded. However, I do carry lots more tools around than needed for inspections, mainly because I work on my own car and lots of friends’ cars, and there’s a good bit of camping equipment associated with the aforementioned RVs. So, in my mind it’s inspection tools, but in reality it’s all the detritus of the all the other things I do. Hope that better explains my enthusiasm for the medium van!

        • 0 avatar
          80Cadillac

          Agreed on the shorty vans. In the early ’90’s, I did a major demo/reno of an old turn-of-the-century Main Street type storefront building, including building my residence in the upper level. I had an ’86 Dodge Ram 1500 SWB cargo van, in plain white with tan vinyl seats, a Slant 6, and a 4-speed manual. The long gear lever was nearly behind the driver’s seat! Of course it wasn’t very fast, but it was comfortable, fun, and a VERY useful vehicle to have.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    I bought an ’86 new. It was one of very few on the West Coast with a 4.3 and a 5MT (the shifter was a shoulder killer because it was way back between the front seats). Typical GM delivery maladies of that era – the one I remember most was the connector for the coolant temperature sensor didn’t get connected at assembly in Baltimore and was dangling from the wire bundle. Great van, plenty of power, mid-level trimmed inside with good materials and reasonable – again for the era – fit and finish. I’ve seen the crash test videos but other vehicles from that time weren’t all that much better, Volvo excepted maybe.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I rented an Astro once to move my daughter to college. Liked it more than I expected, it was a competent hauler and drove OK for what it was. My brother-in-law had one for years doing family truckster duty. But I can’t see bringing it back, the market has spoken, and it does not want vans.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    Can I have a GMC Astro instead? 8V-71 with a 13 speed, please.

    http://www.hemmings.com/blog/article/1969-88-gmc-astro/

  • avatar
    80Cadillac

    Haha, a better edit on my part might have made more sense. Indeed, I use my daily driver SWB GMC Envoy on inspections, and my 17-foot ladder fits easily in the back with the 40 side of the 60/40 seat folded. However, I do carry lots more tools around than needed for inspections, mainly because I work on my own car and lots of friends’ cars, and there’s a good bit of camping equipment associated with the aforementioned RVs. So, in my mind it’s inspection tools, but in reality it’s all the detritus of the all the other things I do. Hope that better explains my enthusiasm for the medium van!

  • avatar
    NN

    Back in 1989 I was 9 years old and my Dad wanted to buy a new Suburban for the family. He couldn’t swing the payments so the dealer talked him into an Astro, the “man van”. Suited our family of 6 perfectly. By the time I was driving in the mid 90’s the van was often mine. In 1999 my brother hydroplaned off the interstate and totaled the van, although he walked away just fine.
    Now it is 2020 and I drive a Ford Transit Connect for my family of 5. The modern “man van”, or closest thing to it. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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