GM's archetypal Astro and Safari vans were updated to their final form in 1995; a look and layout that would run for an entire decade. I finally got the opportunity to drive one; a battle-hardened 2002 LS living out its last days on the Bahaman island of Eleuthera.
(Disclosure: This Astro van "washed up" in the Bahamas, most likely via liquidation auction, and a long time ago based on the level of salt corrosion on the underside. It ended up in the hands of an island rental car agency who let my family borrow it in exchange for way too much money.)
Downhill? You bet your ass it goes downhill.
- Nearly-bald nearly-flat rear tires make delightful squeals with a flip-flop in the throttle.
- Barn doors hamper rear visibility more than I would have thought.
- Breezy interior in two out of eight seats. Sealed rear windows in the back with no A/C makes riding aft of the front seats miserable.
- Transmission feels like every shift could be its last.
- Still felt faster than a new Nissan Rogue
Someone missed the fuel filler. Again and again. Drinking and driving might be a pretty serious issue in the Bahamas.
Spending some formative years in the 90's, nothing said "van" to me like a Chevy Astro. The design is so simple that it's held up perfectly well. You want a van? GM says: here's a van. With the elegant four-headlight face we put on our trucks to toughen it up a little.
The sunburned paint and battle scars on this one really highlights the eternal flatness of every surface.
The interior will be familiar to anyone who spent time in a GM pickup or full-sized SUV in the late 90's or early 00's. One big center-mounted droopy-looking speedo is surrounded by semi-arbitrary satellite dials for more important things like battery voltage. I actually kinda miss the simplicity of these round gauges compared to the squircles of today's GM trucks.
Seating is two captains chairs up front followed by row after row of benches. I don't remember how many there actually were, as soon as I went back there everything went a little fuzzy from the oppressive heat and lack of oxygen in the rear of the van. The beige fabric in this one had been augmented with aftermarket cigarette burns and rum stains, giving it that bespoke "lived in" look.
Audio, Infotainment, Gadgets
Power windows and locks are pretty much the extend of this Astro's user accessories.
The single rear side-door was operated manually, requiring substantial effort as its bearings were so devoid of lubrication they might as well have been mummified.
The stereo worked when it wanted to. That is to say, it couldn't detect any radio stations and skipped the Avicii CD someone had left in there every time we went over a bump or rolled down a window.
There's an engine in there, I promise.
A small exhaust leak give the 4.3 Vortec V6 a nice agitated purr, but didn't do much for performance or fuel economy. Acceleration to a road-conditions limited top speed of about 50 MPH happened eventually.
There wasn't a lack of passing power, and I didn't detect the odors of any advanced leaks though the underbelly of the van ahead of the catalytic converter was pretty much soaked in various fluids. Through the mix of fresh drips and crusty stains it was tough to tell where the Vortec was really peeing from.
The transmission in this Astro felt a few shifts away from blowing itself to oblivion. Every move from drive to reverse was announced with a thump analogous to an ocean liner colliding with a dock. Moving through the forward gears was lurchy, but thankfully not enough to spill the uncapped ice coffees I was carrying around all week.
"One of the nicest places I've ever parked."
Braking was fairly effective once I got the hang of how to properly drag my foot on the pavement a la Fred Flintstone. There was a wide pedal next to the throttle that probably performed this task at one point, but you'd never know it now.
Maybe the brake fluid was nearly depleted, maybe the master cylinder was hanging on by a few threads of bolt. I couldn't tell, the hood wouldn't open. But stepping on the brake didn't do much in commanding the vehicle to stop, it was more like "making a suggestion" to a kid about how much candy to eat.
Ride & Handling
Low tire pressure did a little bit to compensate for non-functioning shocks in bump absorption, but it wasn't quite enough to make up for the brutal thrashing this Astro dealt its occupants on harder roads due to an absence of suspension bushings.
The power steering moaned in misery when the van changed direction, but it wasn't hard to move the wheel.
Hauling, Towing, Cargo Management
Finally, we've reached the Astro's time to shine. Like a terrible monster, the van swallowed up half of my extended family and their luggage without so much as a sag. Of course that's because the shocks were nearly bottomed out when it was sitting empty, but there's no doubt this thing makes good use of its interior cubic footage.
Second-gen Astros can also pull as much as 5,500 pounds, making this vehicle a pretty reasonable choice for junk-haulin'. Well not this vehicle, but one like it in much, much better condition.
Off-Road & Maneuverability
As far "off-road" as we were able to access.
Soft tires provided some help again, giving us a nice big contact patch over the white sand that padded Eleuthera's unpaved tracks. The door divider splitting the rear doors in half obscures rear visibility somewhat, but it's easy to see out the front and a short snout gives the driver a good vantage point for getting around palm trees and rocks.
You're probably wondering why I never added any air pressure to the van's tires at this point— there wasn't a pump to be found at either of the two gas stations I passed in a week's time.
Due to the supply-and-demand situation for rentable eight-seat cars on Eleuthera, the fee to borrow this Astro for a week was about twice the vehicle's value. But it didn't break down and it carried all the crap I needed it to, which is more than can be said for some Jalopnik classic reviews. I can't say I was all that disappointed with it.