Introduced in 1985 as a rival to the first front-wheel-drive (FWD) Chrysler minivans, the midsize, truck-based Astro was Chevrolets original entrant into that market. Still available with either rear-wheel drive (RWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD), the Astro is positioned between Chevys FWD Venture and the full-size, RWD Express.
For the 2003 model year, the Astro minivan gets standard four-wheel disc brakes. Newly styled 16-inch aluminum wheels go on the LS and LT passenger models; those trim designations are actually option groups. A new, lower-cost base model equipped with 16-inch steel wheels has been added. A two-seat Cargo Van is also available for commercial applications.
GMCs Safari is nearly identical to the Astro, but Chevys van outsells its GMC cousin by a wide margin. Neither has been selling strongly.
Produced in a single body length, the Astro rides a 111.2-inch wheelbase and measures 189.8 inches long overall. A regular-length Dodge Caravan is nearly as long as the Astro, while a Dodge Grand Caravan stretches 11 inches longer. Optional running boards help ease entry and exit in the Astro.
A sliding door is installed only on the passenger side, and swing-open rear cargo doors are standard. Dutch doors with a swing-up rear window on top and twin swing-out doors on bottom are optional. A rear defogger is included with the Dutch-door setup.
Astros are equipped with a tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and power windows, locks and mirrors. Eight-passenger seating consists of two front buckets and a pair of three-place rear bench seats. An optional seven-passenger configuration for the LT puts two second-row bucket seats in place of the bench; the LT may have optional leather seating. With the second- and third-row seats removed, cargo space totals 170.4 cubic feet.
Under the Hood
A 4.3-liter V-6 engine produces 190 horsepower. The four-speed-automatic transmission incorporates a Tow/Haul mode that alters shift patterns when transporting heavy loads. A RWD passenger model can tow up to 5,400 pounds, while the Cargo Van is capable of pulling 5,800 pounds. AWD Astros offer towing capacities that are 200 to 300 pounds lower. RWD passenger Astros have a 1,648-pound payload rating vs. 1,495 pounds for AWD models.
Optional AWD normally sends full power to the back wheels. In case of slippage, the system begins to deliver power to the front wheels until the Astro is able to regain traction.
Four-wheel all-disc antilock brakes are standard. Side-impact airbags are not available.
In terms of both size and overall driving feel, the Astro and its Safari cousin are more like scaled-down Express vans than enlarged Venture minivans. Despite refinements in current models and a load of comfort and convenience features, RWD inevitably produces more of a trucklike sensation than youd experience in a FWD Venture or its rivals. For ample hauling capacity and a spacious cargo hold, the Astro can be a useful compromise. But for everyday driving, most people would be more comfortable in a conventional, FWD minivan.