While today's minivans offer levels of comfort and performance on par with sedans, the Chevrolet Astro was a minivan from a different era.
While today's minivans offer levels of comfort and performance on par with sedans, the Chevrolet Astro was a minivan from a different era. Born in the mid-1980s when full-size Chevy vans were still in style, the Astro modeled the looks of its bigger brothers. It also shared their tough body-on-frame construction and rear-wheel-drive layout. Compared to front-wheel-drive, car-based minivans, the Chevy Astro was a true workhorse with considerable towing and hauling capabilities.
However, it was nowhere close to more modern minivans when it came to day-to-day convenience and driving ease. Its old-school, box-on-wheels design located the engine within close proximity of the passenger compartment, resulting in cramped quarters for the driver and front passenger, and high cabin noise levels. Getting kids in and out wasn't easy either, thanks to the van's high step-in height and single sliding rear door.
Ride and handling characteristics weren't bad considering the Astro's rudimentary suspension components, though driving it was certainly more akin to a truck than a car. Fuel economy was similarly trucklike, given the engine's origins in GM's light truck line and the Astro's hefty curb weight. Chevrolet did offer the Astro van with an all-wheel-drive system, which made it one of the handful of vans, mini or otherwise, capable of tracking confidently through snow and ice.
To be sure, the Chevrolet Astro fulfilled the basic requirements for a minivan, given its accommodations for up to eight passengers, removable rear seats and considerable 170 cubic feet of cargo room. But given that car-based competitors like the Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have long been far nicer to drive and easier to use, we don't recommend the anachronistic Astro as a used vehicle choice unless you're in need of a small tow vehicle or family/cargo hauler at a rock-bottom price.
Most Recent Chevrolet Astro
Introduced for 1985, the Chevrolet Astro, and its twin, the GMC Safari, lived on through the 2005 model year without a major redesign. Along with Ford's Aerostar (which debuted the following year), the Astro was a stopgap response to the wildly popular Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager twins. Truck-based underpinnings put these late entries at a significant disadvantage alongside the front-drive Chrysler minis, and both GM and Ford eventually undertook clean-sheet minivan designs. However, a niche market emerged for the Astro, and Chevrolet sold it profitably to ordinary consumers and fleet customers alike for the next two decades.
A 4.3-liter V6 was standard on all Chevrolet Astro passenger vans. (Early cargo versions came with a four-cylinder engine.) This engine went through several iterations, producing anywhere from 150 to 200 horsepower, depending on the year and model. It held steady at 190 hp and 250 pound-feet of torque from 1997-2005. Initially, GM offered a standard five-speed manual transmission, but almost all Astros were sold with a four-speed automatic that soon became the sole transmission offering. Early vans were exclusively rear-wheel drive; Chevrolet added the option of all-wheel drive in 1990. Towing capacity was right around 6,000 pounds with either drivetrain.
Chevy Astros of the 1980s seated only five passengers in two rows. In 1990, Chevrolet created an Extended version that was 10 inches longer (190 inches overall) and could be equipped with a third-row bench, increasing capacity to eight. Notably, it rode atop the same 111-inch wheelbase as the standard van. From 1995 onward, Chevrolet sold only the extended-length Astro.
Standard equipment varied over the years, but most Astros you encounter on the used market will have 15-inch wheels (16s starting in 2003), power steering, air-conditioning, cloth seating, an AM/FM stereo, power accessories and cruise control. Options included rear air-conditioning, leather upholstery, second-row bucket seats (reducing seating capacity to seven), upgraded stereos, towing preparation and a locking rear differential.
The Chevrolet Astro changed remarkably little over the years, though there were some noteworthy developments. Four-wheel antilock brakes were made standard on Astro passenger vans in 1990. The brake system was upgraded again in 2003, when the van's rear drum brakes were swapped out for discs. A driver-side front airbag first became available in 1993, and Chevy made it standard the next year. Dual front airbags were fitted to all vans starting in '96. The addition of airbags improved the Astro's crashworthiness in government frontal-impact tests, but prospective buyers should note that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the van "Poor" (the lowest possible score) in its higher-speed, frontal-offset crash test -- hardly a surprise given the vehicle's aged structural design.
A 1995 face-lift gave the Astro a fresher exterior look. The face-lift spread to the interior in 1996, bringing an all-new dashboard with easy-to-use controls. Speed-sensitive power steering was added to ease parking in 1997, and in 1999, Chevrolet adopted a new all-wheel-drive system that sent power to the front wheels only when the rear wheels began to slip -- thus improving fuel economy.