The GMC Safari is showing age spots. Along with the Chevrolet Astro van, Safari was GM's rear-wheel-drive response to Lee Iacocca's front-wheel-drive mini-vans at Chrysler in the mid-'80s.

GM insisted van owners wanted rear-wheel-drive, truck-tough haulers, not front-wheel-drive vans built for show and not tow.

While GM eventually joined in with FWD vans, Safari continues for two good reasons, both of which were offered on our test vehicle: all-wheel-drive for Snow Belt motoring without having to opt for a sport-ute or a pickup and a most functional rear tri-panel cargo hold/door setup.

Tri-panel means you have a glass hatch window that opens separately of two swing-out doors below. The window provides unobstructed rear vision and allows for a wiper/washer/defroster. The swing-out doors allow easy access for loading/ unloading, and you can leave one open to haul that long ladder.

Showing its age, however, Safari has a too-firm ride and too-heavy handling. The 4.3-liter, 190-h.p. V-6 feels as if it has all it can handle. The mileage rating is 15 m.p.g. city/19 m.p.g. highway. After six inches of snow, firm ride, heavy handling and low mileage aren't as annoying in an AWD machine.

Base price: $23,316. Options included a $4,026 dressup SLE package with tinted glass, dual power mirrors, illuminated visor mirrors, overhead console, remote keyless entry, luggage rack, swing-out doors, AM/FM stereo with CD/cassette and cast aluminum wheels; front/rear air for $523; power driver's seat for $240; rear heater for $205; rear-window defogger for $154; earphone radio jacks for $125; leather-wrapped wheel for $54; and $595 for freight.

GM's OnStar emergency communications system is a new option for 1999.