Following Chryslers 1984 debut of its front-drive minivans, Chevrolet introduced its truck-based midsize van a year later. Slotted between the Venture minivan and the full-size Express van/wagon, the Astro comes with either rear-drive or all-wheel drive. The GMC Safari is nearly identical, but the Astro outsells it by a wide margin; but sales have dipped lately, from 104,427 in 1999 to just 92,585 during 2000.
Not much is new for 2001 apart from a high-output, 105-amp alternator thats able to handle laptop computers, cell phones or even a TV at the cargo area for tailgate parties. A new powertrain control module is supposed to boost engine performance, and two new body colors are available. The Astro comes in LS and LT trim levels, either for passenger use or as a two-seat Cargo Van for commercial use.
Marketed in one body length, Astros ride a 111.2-inch wheelbase and measure 189.8 inches long overall. This minivan 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 Astro, while the Grand Caravan measures 11 inches longer. But at just under 75 inches high, the Astro is 6 inches taller than the Caravan. Running boards are available to help easy entry and exit.
A sliding door is installed only on the passenger side, with standard swing-open rear cargo doors. Dutch doors, which are standard on the LT and optional on the LS, consist of a swing-up rear window on top and twin swing-out doors below. A rear defogger is included with the Dutch setup.
Standard equipment includes a tilt-steering wheel, cruise control, a trip computer, remote keyless entry, and power windows, locks and mirrors. Most Astros are sold in the LS trim, with chrome-clad steel wheels, an overhead roof console and remote keyless entry. A CD player is standard in the LS, while the LT gets a cassette/CD unit. LT versions can have optional leather seating, as well as high-back reclining seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Eight-passenger seating in the LS consists of two front buckets and a pair of three-place rear bench seats. Upscale Astro LTs get two split-bench seats instead. An optional seven-passenger configuration for the LT puts two second-row bucket seats in place of the bench. With second- and third-row seats removed, the Astro offers 170 cubic feet of cargo space.
Under the Hood
A 190-horsepower, 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 engine is the sole powertrain and is driven by a four-speed-automatic transmission that incorporates a Tow/Haul mode for transporting heavy loads. Chevrolet claims its the biggest V-6 in its class. The Astro passenger model can tow up to 5,500 pounds, while the cargo version is capable of pulling 5,900 pounds. Astros have a 1,764-pound payload rating.
Optional all-wheel drive normally sends full power to the back wheels. In case of slippage, the system begins to deliver power to the front wheels until the Astro is able to regain traction. Side-impact airbags are not available, but four-wheel antilock brakes are standard.
In both size and the overall driving feel, the Astro and its Safari companion are more like scaled-down Express vans than enlarged Venture minivans. Despite refinements and a load of comfort and convenience features, rear-wheel drive inevitably produces more of a trucklike sensation than youd experience in a front-drive Venture or any of its rivals. For ample hauling capacity and a spacious cargo hold, the Astro can be a useful compromise. But for everyday driving, most people would be more comfortable with a conventional minivan.