We often use this space to highlight fun or quirky options in the hopes that we can help enthusiasts make choices that will scratch a weird-car itch, but even among the strange, the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari (we'll refer to them collectively as the "Astro" for simplicity here) is a bit of an odd duck. This six- or eight-passenger van (a cargo model was sold too) wasn't quite a full-sized van, nor was it a "true," car-based minivan, but some shoppers find the Astro's 'tweener footprint to be just right.
This isn't the first time we've highlighted a minivan in this featurette, but the Astro is certainly no Mazda5. In fact, even by '90s minivan standards, the Astro was pretty slow and ponderous, and it was never known for being a fuel miser. Oh, and it was about as safe as strapping yourself to the front of a shopping cart powered by a lawnmower engine and then tying your hands behind your back.
But at the expense of fuel economy, it offered all-wheel drive and a slightly larger form factor that made it more capable as a tower and hauler than smaller, car-based minivans. It also borrowed some of its core powertrain components from GM's smaller trucks and vans, which helped make it a bit more robust.
Why the Astro?
The image above really tells the story. While the Astro may have been largely cobbled together from items acquired from GM's various existing trucks and vans, it wasn't just a bucket of spare parts without a coherent mission. The Astro was engineered to be rugged and durable, with rocker panels that were designed to resist corrosion. The above is a photo of a 2005 model that spent time both on the East Coast and in Illinois, and was for sale in Michigan at the time this article was published. Not bad, eh?
Apart from that, its utility really speaks for itself. Depending on the year and equipment, some Astros were rated to tow more than 5,000 pounds. Their truck-based underpinnings, available all-wheel drive and extra ground clearance make them excellent candidates for mild overlanding expeditions, as many hikers in the Pacific Northwest (where Astros seem to be popular budget trail-head scouts) have likely noticed. They're also excellent truck replacements in a pinch. With the seats removed, long-wheelbase models (later model years, essentially) can hold 4x8 sheets of plywood even with the rear doors shut.
What options should I look for?
This is really down to personal preference. There seems little point in opting for a model without all-wheel drive, as a two-wheel-drive example of a smaller minivan would be far more efficient and comfortable for day-to-day driving. The Astro is perhaps best known for being offered with a "Dutch" door option for the tailgate, replacing the standard barn-door setup with a three-piece arrangement (as pictured above). The separate doors allow for more flexibility when accessing the rear cargo area. We wouldn't call it a gotta-have-it feature, but some shoppers may find the benefit worthwhile.
The Astro was also offered to upfitters, meaning there are many custom examples out there with more-luxurious interior appointments or cargo area enhancements. Make sure to check these over carefully to ensure that any additional features are secured and operating as expected.
Availability and listings
Thanks to its tough body and truck-based running gear, Astros are pretty solid survivors, and finding them in decent shape for a reasonable price is fairly easy to do. Cleaner, lower-mileage examples tend to be found in the mid-high four-figure range, as evidenced by those found in Autoblog's local listings. Narrow the offerings down by a radius around your ZIP code, and pay attention to the deal rating on each listing to see how a vehicle compares with others in a similar area.
Note that if you expand your search to include earlier model years than the range suggested here, you'll only find rear-wheel drive models prior to 1990, which was the first year AWD was offered as an option.
What else should I consider?
Besides its GMC Safari clone, the only van that really matches the Astro's size, construction and drivetrain layout is the Ford Aerostar. However, that was retired for 1997 when the Astro was just starting its second lease on life. As such, for the time period we're looking at, there's really not much. For those who absolutely need the most passenger capacity possible, a larger passenger van based on the Chevrolet Express or GMC Savana would likely be the better buy. A more fuel-efficient small minivan would be a better daily vehicle, and in that case you probably want a Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country, a Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey, especially if you're shopping for newer examples.
Of course, if you just want something that doesn't have the structural integrity of rotten leaves, pick literally anything else.