GMC's all-wheel-drive Safari minivan may be built on a truck, but it's outfitted as nicely as a car. That's a combination some folks prefer.From a functional perspective, it works pretty much the same as other minivans. Once you're behind the wheel it feels much the same, too, except you sit higher. The interior seemed smaller and tighter than its car-oriented competitors such as the Chevy Venture or Dodge Caravan. Yet, with quad bucket seats, leather upholstery, overhead console and a long list of power equipment, it was plush. Because it is tall, getting in requires the Safari two-step: first the running board, then the floor. Front-seat legroom suffers some because the engine sits between the front wheels and intrudes into the footwells. Our test model had so many options that its $21,902 base price had swollen to $30,560, which is pretty hefty. However, considering that price includes all-wheel-drive, it is priced competitively with the all-wheel-drive Town and Country from Chrysler. Safaris comes with rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is more beneficial for getting around in snow and ice. Because the 111-inch wheelbase is shorter than other extended minivans, it can be wheeled into parking spaces easily, and was more maneuverable in tight situations. I pulled a U-turn (don't tell anyone) with room to spare. Its overall length is 10 inches less than a Dodge Caravan, yet with the second and third row of seats removed it holds fractionally more cargo. Removing the seats is not an easy chore. It takes two people to remove the third seat, which is surprisingly heavy and just barely fits through the back doors. The middle buckets were bolted to the floor, so getting them out takes quite an effort. The buckets did slide back and forth so they could be adjusted for legroom, and that was good. However, putting adults in all of the seats would be pretty tight. I would leave the third row of seats for kids. The leather upholstery was soft and smooth, and I liked that. In spite of a few chunky switches, the instrument panel is well thought out, and everything but the rear wiper switch is easy to grab. Two large cupholders are integrated into the bottom of the dash, as is a storage bin that functions as a glove box because the passenger-side airbag takes up that space. Power comes from a 4.3-liter, Vortec V6, which has 190 horsepower. With a curb weight of 4,427 pounds, our test vehicle seemed a bit sluggish when I needed more power for merging into traffic or climbing hills. Once up to speed, it cruised down the highway pretty comfortably. Even though the wheelbase is fairly short, it did not have a choppy ride. I appreciated the panoramic view from the high seating position, but getting in and out was not easy. Women in skirts would have it even tougher. Every time I slid out of the seat the seat-belt holder gouged my hip and that was annoying. The Safari is GMC's only minivan, and while it is not as space efficient as the Chevy Venture or Pontiac Trans Sport, it fills a niche for those who want rear-wheel or all-wheel drive for towing. Some folks prefer trucks, and it is ideal for them. Price The base price of our test vehicle was $21,902. It was equipped with leather upholstery, front and rear air conditioning, 7-person seating, 6-way power driver's seat, locking differential, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, cruise control, tilt wheel, AM/FM stereo with compact disc player and aluminum wheels. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: The Safari satisfies buyers who like their vans to be based on a truck. It sits high, can tow 5,000 pounds and is available with all-wheel drive. Counterpoint: The front-engine, rear-drive configuration is not as spacious some of its competitors. Getting in and out is complicated by the tall step-in, and the third seat is a struggle for two people to remove. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.3-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 111 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,427 lbs. BASE PRICE: $21,902 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $30,560 MPG RATING: 15 city, 19 hwy.
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