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Established somewhere between big full-size vans and ubiquitous minivans are the mid-size GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro. What sets the Safari and Astro apart is that they are larger than minivans without being monstrous. They have more power than minivans yet they can be driven easily in traffic. And -- most significant -- they are rear-wheel drive.
While these mid-size GMC and Chevy vans may seem like technological throwbacks to some people, they serve a very real and valuable purpose to others: With powerful engines and rear-wheel drive, they can tow much heavier trailers than front-wheel-drive minivans can handle. These mid-size vans are a good choice when recreational pursuits include boats, camping trailers, jet skis, dirt bikes, race cars or anything else that rides to the play site, yet the vehicle is also needed to haul kids around. They are easier to maneuver in city traffic than manhandling a full-size van or sport-utility vehicle.
We evaluated a GMC Safari in the mid-range SLE trim, but the Chevrolet Astro is practically identical to the Safari.
Our Safari proved to be a great tow vehicle with plenty of size and power to deal comfortably with a trailer weighing 5500 pounds. GM's 4.3-liter V6 engine is a real workhorse with lots of torque for pulling heavy loads.
The Safari doesn't exactly ride and drive like a car. But it isn't exactly "truck-like" either. It's somewhere in between. The strong engine delivers ample performance, so the Safari moves well with traffic and has plenty of power to tackle long hills and merge with faster freeway traffic, even when loaded.
Steering feel is direct; the Safari goes down the highway with sure and relentless stability. Our personal experience in the Safari includes an all-day drive loaded past the window sills with gear. We had to get there by sundown and the speedometer spent most of the time in a range far beyond the posted limit, but it was comfortable and easy as we simply let the Safari do the work.
In terms of ride quality, there is a noticeable gap between the Safari and the better front-drive minivans--some of which approach luxury-car standards. But only the most critical will find the Safari's ride quality objectionable; the trade-off seems worth it when the workhorse abilities of van are considered.
GMC's Safari and Chevy's Astro are not for everyone. It may not be the best vehicle for picking up the soccer team and some may not appreciate the climb to get in. But if you don't want to herd a monster van around town, and you need some extra people or cargo space, and you tow something larger than a pop-up camper or personal watercraft, then the Safari and Astro may be the only thing that fits the bill. It's been around a long time but, for a lot of valid reasons, it remains one of our favorites.