Like the similar Chevrolet Astro, the Safari is GMCs long-lived midsize van; it dates back to 1985. The Safari is truck-based and remains available in passenger and cargo-carrying versions with either rear-wheel drive (RWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). Base, SLE and upscale SLT trim levels of the passenger-carrying Safari are available; the SLE and SLT trim designations are actually option groups.
For 2003, larger standard 16-inch wheels and tires are installed on all models, and aluminum wheels are standard on the SLE and SLT. The braking system has been improved. More affordable entry-level models have also been added. Passenger models seat up to eight occupants and can tow trailers up to 5,400 pounds.
Chevrolet also offers the front-wheel-drive (FWD) Venture minivan, but GMC has nothing smaller than the Safari. GMC sells far fewer Safaris than Chevrolet does with its Astro, but GMC fans tend to be loyal to the brand.
All Safaris ride a 111.2-inch wheelbase and stretch 189.8 inches long overall, which are the same measurements for the Astro. A regular-length Dodge Caravan is nearly as long as the Safari, but the Safari is 6 inches taller.
A sliding door is installed only on the passenger side of the Safari. Side-hinged swing-open cargo doors at the rear are standard. Optional rear Dutch doors consist of a swing-up rear window on top and twin, swing-out, half-height doors on bottom. A rear defogger is included with the Dutch-door arrangement.
Eight-passenger seating is standard. Rear occupants get a pair of three-passenger benches in the SLE version. An optional seven-passenger configuration for the SLT puts two second-row buckets (in place of the bench) and a bench seat at the rear. Cargo volume totals 170.4 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats removed. All versions have a tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and power windows, locks and mirrors.
Under the Hood
A 190-horsepower, 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 engine mates 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 payload ratings between 1,495 and 1,636 pounds, and towing capacities range between 5,100 and 5,800 pounds.
Optional AWD ordinarily sends full engine power to the back wheels. When the wheels begin to slip, the system automatically delivers power to the front wheels until the Safari is able to regain traction.
All-disc antilock brakes and daytime running lights are standard. Side-impact airbags are not available.
Evaluated by size and overall driving feel, the Safari and the similar Astro look and behave more like a scaled-down GMC Savana or Chevrolet Express full-size van than like FWD minivans. Despite recent refinements and a healthy helping of comfort and convenience features, their RWD or AWD layouts inevitably produce more of a trucklike sensation than youd experience in a FWD 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, FWD minivan.