Introduced in 1985 as a rival to the first front-wheel-drive Chrysler minivans, the midsize truck-based Astro was Chevrolet’s original entrant into that market. Still available with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the Astro is positioned between Chevrolet’s front-drive Venture minivan and its full-size rear-drive Express.
Last year, the Astro minivan got standard four-wheel disc brakes. Newly styled 16-inch aluminum wheels went on the LS and LT passenger models; those trim designations are actually option groups. A new lower-cost base model was added.
Except for new standard 16-inch wheels, nothing has changed for the 2004 model year. In addition to passenger models, a two-seat Cargo Van remains available for commercial applications.
GMC’s Safari is nearly identical to the Astro, but Chevrolet’s van outsells its GMC cousin by a wide margin. Neither has been selling strongly against smaller, more modern front-drive minivans.
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 the Dodge Grand Caravan stretches nearly 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 the bottom are optional. A rear defogger is included with the Dutch-door setup.
Astro passenger vans are equipped with a tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and power windows, locks and mirrors. Eight-passenger seating consists of two front buckets and two rows of three-place 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 rear-drive passenger model can tow up to 5,400 pounds, while the Cargo Van is capable of pulling 5,700 pounds. All-wheel-drive Astros offer towing capacities that are 200 to 300 pounds lower. Passenger Astros have a 1,764-pound payload rating versus 1,667 pounds for all-wheel-drive models.
Optional all-wheel drive normally sends full power to the back wheels. When wheel slippage occurs, 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, rear-drive Astros inevitably produce a more trucklike sensation than you’d experience in a front-drive 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 front-drive minivan.