Established somewhere between big full-size vans and ubiquitous minivans are the mid-size GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro. What sets the Safari and Astro apart is that they are larger than minivans without being monstrous. They have more power than minivans yet they can be driven easily in traffic. And -- most significant -- they are rear-wheel drive.
While these mid-size GMC and Chevy vans may seem like technological throwbacks to some people, they serve a very real and valuable purpose to others: With powerful engines and rear-wheel drive, they can tow much heavier trailers than front-wheel-drive minivans can handle. These mid-size vans are a good choice when recreational pursuits include boats, camping trailers, jet skis, dirt bikes, race cars or anything else that rides to the play site, yet the vehicle is also needed to haul kids around. They are easier to maneuver in city traffic than manhandling a full-size van or sport-utility vehicle.
We evaluated a GMC Safari in the mid-range SLE trim, but the Chevrolet Astro is practically identical to the Safari.
Our Safari proved to be a great tow vehicle with plenty of size and power to deal comfortably with a trailer weighing 5500 pounds. GM's 4.3-liter V6 engine is a real workhorse with lots of torque for pulling heavy loads.
The Safari comes in only one size, with one engine and one transmission. Three trim levels are available: the base SLX, our mid-level SLE and the top-of-the-line SLT. As mentioned, rear-wheel-drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is optional and very useful where weather can turn nasty. The only transmission choice is an electronically controlled four-speed automatic, which for 1998 has some changes aimed at enhanced durability.
The 4.3-liter V6 is rated at 190 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque. Known as the Vortec 4300 V6, this is a rugged powerplant. Hitch the boat and trailer up, pile the family inside, turn on the air conditioner, head up for the mountains. This thing can handle all of it.
The all-wheel-drive option utilizes a viscous limited-slip center differential and gives great traction for getting out of the ski resort's snow-covered parking lot or when pulling a boat and trailer up a slimy boat ramp. On the downside, it adds 230 pounds and therefore knocks the rated trailer capacity from 5500 down to 5000 pounds.
The base SLX trim level includes air conditioning, dual airbags, AM/FM stereo, four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS), intermittent wipers, rear-door child safety locks and five-passenger seating with seven- or eight-passenger accommodations optional. The SLE adds adjustable front seat lumbar supports, power door locks, tilt wheel, cruise control and standard eight-passenger seating. The SLT adds deep-tinted windows, power mirrors and windows, aluminum wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless entry and more luxurious seating. There is a long list of options. We prefer the SLE because it includes a nice level of appointments and most of the good stuff while allowing the freedom to choose the desired options.
Among the major options are a CD player and sound system upgrades, locking rear differential (a worthwhile item for dealing with really bad weather), rear heater, roof-mounted cargo carrier, rear radio and cassette controls and a trailer towing package. One option worth investigation is the choice of rear Dutch doors. The normal configuration with split doors allows easy access but inhibits rearward vision due to a large center pillar where the doors meet. The Dutch door option uses a swing-up liftgate with a single window, and two lower half doors that swing outward. There's no blockage of rearward vision, and the lower swing-out doors allow you to load or unload heavy cargo without having to reach over a fold-down tailgate.
GMC's Safari is built higher off the ground than the smaller, front-drive minivans, so getting in requires making at least something of a climb to get inside. To those who are height-challenged or who place a premium on decorum during entry and exit, the height may be an issue. Once inside, there is more of a feeling of being in a truck-like vehicle than the car-like feel of smaller minivans. It's not rough or crude, but you do sit higher and the seating position won't confuse you into thinking you're behind the wheel of a sedan.
If those things are not issues, the Safari has a lot to offer. With all seats in place there is 41.3 cubic feet of cargo space; with the center and rear seats out of the way you'll have room for a whopping 170.4 cubic feet of sample cases or home improvement supplies.
Once seated, you'll find the comfort level to be surprisingly good, a big benefit in something that is likely to be used for long trips. This is a wonderful long-distance hauler.
The instrument panel design is rounded and flowing, the instruments are clearly legible. Controls for the sound system and the heating and air conditioning are easy to operate. Further down in the center console are a pair of cupholders that will accept cans or mugs, and a moderate-size glovebox. There are numerous other storage areas throughout the interior: Map pockets in the front doors, a big compartment along the left-hand side of the center seating area, a cupholder for the center seat, large storage areas under the third seat armrests, open bins behind those same armrests and two more cupholders for the third seat. In addition to the cigarette lighter there are three 12-volt power outlets, two in front and one in the rear, useful for inflatables, electric coolers and other outdoor accessories.
With the eight-passenger seating configuration the center and rear seats are three-person benches. In the SLT, these benches are split-back with folding armrests and a center console. Optional seven-passenger seating replaces the center bench with a pair of high-back, reclining buckets.
Outward visibility is excellent, especially from the front. You sit up high and the windshield and side windows are huge, so you have an absolutely commanding view of the road. The Safari is a wonderful long-distance runner, with the size, power, comfort, interior room and features that can knock that trip to grandma's house down to manageable size.
The Safari doesn't exactly ride and drive like a car. But it isn't exactly truck-like either. It's somewhere in between. The strong engine delivers ample performance, so the Safari moves well with traffic and has plenty of power to tackle long hills and merge with faster freeway traffic, even when loaded.
Steering feel is direct; the Safari goes down the highway with sure and relentless stability. Our personal experience in the Safari includes an all-day drive loaded past the window sills with gear. We had to get there by sundown and the speedometer spent most of the time in a range far beyond the posted limit, but it was comfortable and easy as we simply let the Safari do the work.
In terms of ride quality, there is a noticeable gap between the Safari and the better front-drive minivans--some of which approach luxury-car standards. But only the most critical will find the Safari's ride quality objectionable; the trade-off seems worth it when the workhorse abilities of van are considered.
GMC's Safari and Chevy's Astro are not for everyone. It may not be the best vehicle for picking up the soccer team and some may not appreciate the climb to get in. But if you don't want to herd a monster van around town, and you need some extra people or cargo space, and you tow something larger than a pop-up camper or personal watercraft, then the Safari and Astro may be the only thing that fits the bill. It's been around a long time but, for a lot of valid reasons, it remains one of our favorites.