You never made the switch from eight-track tapes to CDs. Your refrigerator is avocado and your carpeting is shag. And you're one of the few people not pining away to keep up with the pack and purchase a sport-ute, even though you've got a big family and a big boat to worry about. Hey, you're exactly the person GMC had in mind when they made the 1996 Safari all-wheel-drive van. But look out if you crave style. He: I keep waiting for GMC to paint Elsie the Cow on the side of the Safari. Then it could double as a milk truck. It sure looks like a throwback to the Fifties, with that blunt nose and slab sides. The Safari certainly has its virtues, especially with the all-wheel-drive system and the big V-6 engine, but beauty is not one of them. She: Beauty is not the issue here. And it's just like a man to be totally clueless on that score. Remember the song that went, "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife?" It's the same story with the Safari. This isn't about beauty, it's about utility. If you can get all-wheel-drive in something as practical and useful as a van, why bother with a sport-ute? The Safari AWD also leaves most front-wheel-drive minivans in the dust. It can tow 5,000 pounds, compared with about 3,000 for most of the front-wheel-drive vans. It has more cargo capacity. Yeah, it looks like it's stuck in a time warp, but so what? He: Gee, I feel clueless and speechless. Good thing I couldn't remember the words to that song before we met, huh, dear? Speaking of time warps, the Safari and its twin, the Chevrolet Astro, haven't had a total makeover since they were first introduced 11 years ago. They don't even offer an optional fourth door. At least GM saw fit to redo the interiors for '96 and install dual air bags. Trouble is they never corrected the single most annoying flaw in these vans, and that's foot room. For the driver, there's simply no place to put your left foot except on top of the wheel well. This becomes a major pain in the, well, leg after about 20 miles. On long trips, it is sheer agony. And that makes it tough to appreciate some of the really nice things about the Safari. She: Too bad you have such big feet. That was not a problem to me. I liked the fully automatic all-wheel-drive system because you never have to think about switching it on or off. The optional Dutch-door tailgate is sweet. It's even possible to access it while you're towing a boat or an RV. There are under-seat heat ducts for rear passengers, a new feature on the '96 model, and there's a super radio option that allows the driver to have peace and quiet while the center passengers tap into the system through headphone jacks in the left-hand armrest. He: Although it was really assuring to have that all-wheel-drive system during some recent nasty weather, it tends to be a bit noisy, especially at higher speeds on dry pavement. And it really sucks th e gas. Our vehicle was rated at 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 on the highway, but we managed to average just over 14. I really love the 4.3-liter V-6, though, which makes 190 horsepower and leaps to life when you tromp on the pedal. You could almost forget this is a minivan - if you could only find a place to rest your foot. She: The Safari is a taller van than many of its competitors, and it seems to have a higher center of gravity and more body roll because of that. So you just don't take turns so fast. My enduring memory of the Safari is that it's a great work vehicle. I'm costuming 42 kids for the high-school play and I loaded it up one afternoon with tons of gowns and tall medieval hats, and still had room to give a bunch of kids a ride home. That same afternoon, I parked it right next to a '90 Safari, and was able to appreciate just how refined the interior has become. The new instrument panel is much more sculpted and softer-looking, and there are neat touch like a net pouch on the panel for holding everything from water bottles to maps. He: We should mention, too, that antilock brakes are standards. Some competitors charge extra for ABS. But you'd expect all the bells and whistles, wouldn't you, in a package that costs nearly $29,000? She: All I know is that we were in one of the Safari's competitors last week - the all-wheel-drive Mazda MPV - and the GMC had it beat for ease of entry. It's got a nice little built-in step, and even though it's really tall, it's a breeze to get in, especially if you're short. That would be enough to tip the balance in favor of the Safari, in my book. Yeah, the Mazda looks more like a sport-ute. But the Safari lives up to the ute spirit much better. He: If it didn't look so anachronistic, I'd say GMC had finally discovered the fountain of ute. 1996 GMC Safari XT AWD What we liked: Easy to step up into; a true workhorse; standard ABS; super towing capacity; great traction with all-wheel drive What we didn't like: Front legroom severely cramped (Paul); stuck-in-Eighties styling; mediocre gas mileage; lacks a fourth door Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, seven-passenger compact van. Price: Base, $21,446; as tested, $28,718 (inc. $560 destination charge, less $700 package discount). What's new for '96: Redesigned instrument panel with dual air bags, upgraded interior, smaller engine cover, integrated child seat option, under-seat heat ducts for rear passengers. Standard equipment: Variable-rate power steering, air conditioning, intermittent wipers, tinted glass, AM-FM stereo. Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes. Options on test vehicle: Marketing option package, includes SLT package with deep tinted glass, tilt steering column, cruise control, power windows, power locks, aluminum wheels, remote keyless entry, body-side cladding, plus roof rack, six-way power driver's seat, rear Dutch doors with washer/wiper, seven-passenger seating ($5,606); dual air conditioning ($523); AM-FM stereo cassette ($307); locking rear differential ($252); six-way power passenger seat ($240); rear heater ($205); rear defroster ($154); rear radio control and earphone jacks ($125) EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway. Engine: 4.3-liter V-6; 190-hp at 4400 rpm; 250 lb-ft torque at 2800 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Competitors: Chevrolet Astro AWD, Ford Aerostar AWD, Mazda MPV AWD, Toyota Previa. Specifications: Wheelbase, 111.0 inches; overall length, 189.8 inches; curb weight, 4,377 pounds; legroom, 41.6 inches front/36.5 inches middle/38.5 inches rear; headroom, 39.1 inches front/37.9 inches middle/38.7 inches rear; shoulder room, 64.0 inches front/50.9 inches middle/50.9 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost: $991. AAA Michigan rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tick ets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts. Where built: Baltimore, Md.
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