Like many General Motors products, the midsize, truck-based GMC Safari is a near-twin to the Chevrolet Astro. GMC sells only about one-third as many Safaris as Chevrolet does with its Astro, but GMC fans tend to be loyal to the brand. Both vans arrived on the scene way back in 1985 as GMs response to the debut of Chryslers front-drive minivans a year earlier. Chevrolet also offers the front-drive Venture minivan, but GMC has nothing smaller than the Safari, which comes with rear-drive or all-wheel drive.
Changes are few for 2001, as they have been in most years, except for a new high-output, 105-amp alternator that can handle laptop computers, cell phones and even a TV at the cargo area for tailgate parties. A new powertrain control module and detonation sensor are supposed to boost engine efficiency. GMC dropped its base-model passenger van this year, leaving the SLE and upscale SLT editions. Cargo vans also are available for commercial use.
Marketed in a single size, the Safari rides a 111.2-inch wheelbase and measures 189.8 inches long overall. The Safari and Astro used to fit between the top-selling Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan in size, but things have changed since the 2001 redesigns from Dodge were made. Todays regular-length Caravan is nearly as long as the Safari, while the Grand Caravan measures 11 inches longer. But at just under 75 inches high, the Safari is 6 inches taller than the Caravan.
A sliding door is installed only on the passenger side, with standard side-hinged, swing-open cargo doors at the rear. Dutch rear doors, which are standard on the passenger-carrying SLT and optional on the SLE, consist of a swing-up rear window on top and twin swing-out half-height doors below. A rear defogger is included only with the Dutch setup.
Eight-passenger seating is standard in both models. The SLE has a pair of three-passenger benches for rear occupants. In the step-up SLT, rear passengers have split-back bench seats with folding armrests and a center console. An optional seven-passenger configuration for the SLT puts two second-row buckets in place of the bench seat, with a bench at the rear. With second- and third-row seats removed, the Safari offers 170 cubic feet of cargo space.
Standard equipment includes a tilt steering wheel and cruise control, along with power windows, door locks and mirrors. Remote keyless entry is a new addition on all 2001 models that come with automatic power door locks. SLT Safaris add aluminum wheels, as well as such convenience features as rear air conditioning and a six-way power drivers seat.
Under the Hood
All Safaris use the same 190-horsepower, 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 engine with a four-speed-automatic transmission. A Tow/Haul mode in the transmission promises the best shift points when hauling heavy goods or towing a trailer or boat. Safaris have a payload rating between 1,507 and 1,685 pounds, depending on the model.
Optional all-wheel drive ordinarily sends full engine power to the back wheels. In case of wheel slippage, the system automatically begins to deliver power to the front wheels until the Safari is able to regain traction.
Antilock brakes and daytime running lights are standard. Side-impact airbags are not available.
GMs Astro/Safari duo occupies a distinctive niche in the minivan market. Evaluated by size and the overall driving feel, the Safari and Astro seem closer to being scaled-down Savana or Express vans than to front-drive minivans. Despite refinements and a healthy helping of comfort and convenience features, their rear-wheel- or all-wheel-drive layout inevitably produces more of a trucklike sensation than youd experience in a front-drive minivan.
For burly hauling capacity and a spacious cargo hold, the Safari serves as a useful compromise. But for everyday driving, most people would be more at ease in a conventional minivan.