The type of vehicle that will 'make you realize that life is too big for a minivan' the Astro was introduced by Chevrolet in 1985 with seating for up to eight passengers. Riding on a 111.0 inch wheelbase, the engine options ranged from 145 to 190 hp kW 4.3L V6 engine, and depended on ones options, or the model year chosen, and was also fitted with the 200 hp 'W' engine. A rear-wheel drive mid-sized van, the Astro was launched as competition to the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager and the Japanese Toyota Van. The GMC Safari shared the Astro's platform.
A roomy alternative to a minivan, the Chevrolet Astro was also available as a cargo van, or converted to a small conversion van. Sized betwixt the Venture/Lumina APV unibody minivan and the full-size Chevy Van/Express, the Astro was referred to as a minivan. During the 1980's the Astro seated only five passengers in two rows, but in 1990 Chevrolet introduced an Extended version with an extra ten inches, and an option to equip with a third-row bench that increased capacity to eight. Chevrolet only offered the extended-length Astro from 1995 onward. Comparable to the Ford Aerostar, the Astro used many of the same engine components of GM's light trucks, but with a unibody chassis with a front sub-frame that supported the engine and front suspension. Because of it's powerful truck-based powertrain, the Astro and Sarfari could haul 5,500 pounds with the right equipment. Front-wheel drive minivans could only tow around 3,500 pounds.
The GM M-van had a bolt-on subframe incorporating the front suspension from a GM B/body station wagon with a leaf-spring rear suspension, like the second-generation GM F-body and X-body vehicles. Bigger than their B-body counterparts, the lower ball joints were later utilized in the final Chevy Caprice 9C1 cars made in 1995 and 1996, used by police. Many of the same mechanical similarities were found under the hood of the GMT 325/330 midsize S/T pickups and utility vehicles.
Optional in 1990 was a new all-wheel drive system developed by FF Developments (FFd) that made the Astro the first U.S. built minivan to offer. The AWD models unfortunately had a lower fuel economy at 17-mpg highway compared to 20-21 typical rear-wheel drive vans. This year also brought with is a new dashboard along with an extended body option, though the wheelbase remained identical. Hydroboost braking system was launched this year and was a system the used the same accessory belt driven pump to supply the brakes and power steering.
'Dutch Doors' were introduced in 1992. An optional feature, these doors featured two half barn doors on the bottom, and a flip-up window on the top. All Astro and Safari vans were exclusively equipped with barn doors before this. Also new this year was an optional 4.3L with central port injection and a balance shaft. Standard equipment included power steering, 15-inch wheels, AC, cloth seating, AM/FM stereo, cruise control and power accessories. Options included leather upholstery, rear AC, upgraded stereos, towing equipment, a locking rear differential and second-row buckets seats.
The following year the only transmission offered was an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. Scotchguard fabric protection was added standard on Astro vans with cloth seats, following the GM trend for 1993. The following year brought with it three new exterior colors, Indigo Blue Metallic, Medium Quasar Blue Metallic and Light Quasar Blue Metallic. GM began to manufacture most of their vehicles in 1994 with CFC-free air-conditioning systems. Though most came with R134a, some early 1995 model years vehicles produced in 1993 arrived from the factory with R-12 Freon.
Lacking in modern comforts, the Astro featured old school box-on-wheels design that placed the engine very close to the engine compartment, which made for tight quarters for driver and front passenger. The cabin was noisy, and had difficult entry for children thanks to the high step-in height. With a drive that felt more like a truck, the fuel economy was also truck-like, but was highly capable through rough weather. The van had room for up to eight passengers and featured removable rear seats and an impressive 170 cubic feet of cargo room. In 1990 four-wheel antilock brakes were made standard.
The second generation of the Chevrolet Astro was launched in 1995 and featured a front fascia update that included an extended nose that looked an awful lot like the current full-size Express vans. The short length body was dropped in 1995. The following year the Astro received a passenger side airbag in the newly redesigned dash. Beginning in 1996 Chevrolet made dual front airbags fitted to all vans. An all-new dashboard arrived the same year with easy-to-use controls. The following year speed-sensitive power steering was added to ease parking. In 1999 Chevrolet improved fuel economy by adding an all-wheel-drive system that sent power to the front wheels when the rear wheels began to slip.
GM improved the chassis in 2003 in both the Astro and Safari with larger brakes, some suspension components and six-lug, 16 inch wheels from the GMC half-ton pickup trucks and full-size Chevrolets. The braking and handling of the Astro was improved by these modifications. In 2003 the van's rear drum brakes were replaced with disc brakes. On May 13, 2005 the final Astro and Safari models rolled off the assembly line.
The Astro received rather poor ratings by the IIHS, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 1996 for structural failure and buckling of the underbody. The NHTSA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave a better rating in 1991, a single-star rating, and a three-star and four-star rating by 2000. The IIHS in 2007 did report that in real life situations, the amount of deaths in passenger vehicles were much higher than in the 2001-2004 Chevrolet Astro.
Over the years the Astro van has been very popular as a modified vehicle, both street, and off-road. Some vans have received the Chevrolet 350 engine in black of the original 4.3L Vortec V6 engine. The Astro was widely popular as a fun off-road camping vehicle thanks to its truck-type utility. A true workhorse with its hefty powertrain, all-wheel drive and large passenger and cargo space, the Astro van had considerable towing and hauling abilities. The suspension could easily be lifted and larger tires added.
Popular in Japan, the left-hand drive (only) Chevrolet Astro was exported years ago to an almost cult following. To commemorate the final years of production, Chevrolet of Japan offered a limited edition run of the final production Astro models. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Astro
By Jessica Donaldson