Like the similar Chevrolet Astro, the Safari is GMC’s long-lived midsize van; both date back to 1985. The truck-based Safari remains available in passenger and cargo-carrying versions and with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Base, SLE and upscale SLT trim levels of the passenger-carrying Safari are available; the SLE and SLT trim designations are actually option groups.
Last year, larger 16-inch wheels and tires were installed as standard equipment on all models, and aluminum wheels became standard on the SLE and SLT. More affordable entry-level models were added. A new standard argent-toned grille on base models is the only change for the 2004 model year.
Passenger vans seat up to eight occupants and can tow trailers up to 5,400 pounds. Chevrolet also offers the front-wheel-drive Venture minivan, but GMC does not have a comparable model in its lineup. GMC sells far fewer Safaris than Chevrolet does with its Astro.
Both the Astro and Safari ride a 111.2-inch wheelbase and stretch 189.8 inches long overall. A regular-length Dodge Caravan is nearly as long, but the Safari is 6 inches taller.
A sliding door is installed only on the passenger side of the Safari. Side-hinged swing-open rear cargo doors are standard. Optional rear Dutch doors consist of a swing-up rear window on the top and twin swing-out half-height doors on the 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 features two bucket seats in place of the second-row bench. Cargo volume totals 170.4 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats removed. All passenger 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 loads or towing a trailer or boat. Safaris have payload ratings between 1,666 and 1,764 pounds, and towing capacities range between 5,100 and 5,800 pounds.
Optional all-wheel drive 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 Astro look and behave more like scaled-down versions of the GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express full-size vans than like front-drive minivans. Despite recent refinements and a healthy helping of comfort and convenience features, their rear- and all-wheel-drive layouts inevitably produce more of a trucklike experience than you’d get in a front-drive minivan.
With a burly hauling capacity and a spacious cargo hold, the Safari serves as a useful compromise. But for everyday driving, most people would be better suited in a conventional front-drive minivan.