At first glance, the 1994 Chevy Astro van looks a bit like a delivery vehicle with its squarish profile, short hood and old-fashioned rear double doors.
It's a traditional design that may not compare favorably with some of the slinky, aerodynamic minivans from Chrysler and Ford, but the '94 Extended-Body Astro CS we tested had its strong points. Bonus passenger and cargo space, heavy towing capabilities and surprisingly easy handling were a few pluses that helped us overlook the Astro's less-than-breathtaking styling.
Understand that the Astro CS, particularly the extended version we tested, falls somewhere between a minivan and a full-size passenger van. Our test vehicle stickered out at $19,593 and gave us options such as eight-passenger seating with reclining front buckets, an AM/FM stereo with a cassette player, air conditioning, locking differential rear axle, power locks and a tilt steering wheel. Standard equipment included a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, a 4.3-liter, 165-hp V6 and a driver-side air bag. It was well-equipped for a family van, but boaters and campers might choose the optional 200-hp V6 engine for more towing power.
The Chevy Astro CS is a utility vehicle dressed up to serve as a passenger van. Still, it's a look that works. Although the blunt front and even flatter rear put this rig in the boxy category, add the slab sides and you have, outwardly, a traditional rear-wheel drive van.
Chevy added some fancy touches up front, such as chrome inserts and moldings on the vinyl front bumper and running lights embedded in the plastic air dam just beneath the bumper. Above, we found an undistinguished plastic grille with the Chevy bow-tie logo sitting prominently in the middle, flanked by single two-way headlights and wraparound amber cornering lights. Not unpleasant, but not striking either.
More bothersome were a few minor imbalances. On one side, the hood drifted a half-inch or so beneath the fender line. Also, an irregular gap between hood and grille enabled us to reach in and yank the grille a good half-inch. If our test vehicle was typical of the entire model run, we'd place the Astro's fit and workmanship in the average category. Much more impressive was the Teal Blue Metallic paint job, which was blemish-free.
A wide side protective molding with chrome insert, slightly flared wheel wells and a two-color identification piece dressed up the sides of our Astro CS. We were also impressed with the expansive side glass and comparatively high (about 18 inches) road clearance, as well as with the oversized side mirrors that folded back upon impact. On the negative end, the vertical door-handle recesses were easy catchalls for dirt and road debris.
Out back, our Astro CS looked even more like a work van because it didn't have one of those nifty hydraulic liftgates or contoured bumpers found on most minivans. The traditional double doors swung out and away from the van's sides, making loading in a narrow driveway unwieldy. Also, the center pillars of the rear doors couldn't offer the unbroken visibility of a liftgate. You can change all of that by getting optional Dutch doors-rear half-doors below a one-piece lift-glass, which includes a rear wiper/washer.
On the plus side, a broad rear bumper protrusion-vinyl-covered and complemented by a vinyl protective molding - just above both doors - provided a handy step or initial loading point. The square taillight assemblies were large and well placed.
As we stepped into the Astro CS, we noted the benefits of its traditional van design. Entry was easy, thanks to very large door openings. We were high off the road, gazing through the expansive side glass and windshield. All around visibility, with the exception of side- and rear-door pillar points, was more panoramic than some of the lower-slung minivans on the market.
The Astro's eight-passenger seating arrangement also got high marks for appearance, comfort and support. The front buckets reclined and adjusted easily, and there was ample legroom, as well as comfortable headrests.
Being a base Astro van model, the CS didn't feature a console between the front seats. Rather, two feet of open space enabled the front-seat passenger to easily step to the middle or rear bench seats. We also liked that the Astro CS featured plenty of headroom, a good four inches for average-sized adult passengers. The rear benches were removable-though this action required a lot of elbow grease and had fold-down seatbacks for increased cargo capacity.
Near-perfect positioning of instrumentation and controls made it clear that Chevy has been working on this traditional van platform. Instruments were easy to see through the trim but solid steering wheel. The stereo and air-conditioning controls were high on the dash above the transmission cover, within easy reach of the driver. Atop the transmission cover were two deep cupholders for driver and front-seat passenger convenience.
On the road, the Chevy Astro CS was satisfying. Simply put, it performed and drove the way it looked - like a traditional, rear-wheel drive, high-center-of-gravity van.
The Astro's performance was adequate during acceleration from standing starts and highway-passing trials. However, the standard 4.3-liter, fuel-injected V6 produced some noise and seemed to limit out at higher speeds. For more muscle, we would recommend the optional central-port fuel injected version of this engine.
Parking and steering maneuvers were nearly effortless, thanks to one of the quietest and smoothest power-steering systems we've tested. We were equally impressed with the sureness of the Astro's standard four-wheel, anti-lock brakes, even in near-panic stops.
True, there was a little lean in cornering, and a trace of rock and roll when negotiating bumpy roads. But, overall, this roomy vehicle treated us to a soft, comfortable and quiet ride around town and on the highway.
Although Chevy isn't going to set many styling or performance benchmarks with the '94 Astro CS, it's still a hard-working, high-riding and reasonably priced alternative to some of the more contemporary minivans. The Extended-Body Astro CS is bigger and roomier than several of its competitors. With its rear-wheel drive and 5,500-pound towing capacity, it's also a good choice for boaters and campers.
While we gave it only average marks for fit and workmanship, the Astro CS had major pluses: It delivered a quiet, stable ride and performed consistent on the road.
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