The Chevrolet Astro has been around since 1985, with over 825,000 of these midsize vans now hauling everything from flowers to families.
It's time for a revisit as the Astro enters 1991 little changed from 1990 except for some engine refinements. Added for 1990 was a longer version and availability of an all-wheel-drive system to improve traction on wet or snowy roads.An Astro CL with both these features was driven for this review. Badging on its flanks read "AWD EXT" for "all-wheel-drive, extended."
Its $18,360 base price is a hefty $3,780 more than a comparable standard-length, rear-drive Astro van. After a long list of extra-cost options and a $525 destination fee were tacked on, the test vehicle's sticker rose to $22,277.
Included was a $1,396 package adding air conditioning, AM-FM stereo cassette, power windows and door locks, and eight-passenger seating. A $507 trailering package that raises towing capacity to 6,000 pounds also was on board.
All Astros have anti-lock brakes on all four wheels instead of just the rear axle, although drum brakes instead of discs are found in the rear.
The Astro EXT is 10 inches longer than the standard-length version but retains a 111-inch wheelbase. The stretch adds nearly 19 extra cubic feet of interior space and raises cargo capacity to 152 cubic feet with the rear seats removed.
The AWD system, developed for General Motors by Britain's FF Limited, is full-time - meaning power is transmitted to all four wheels at all times. It adds 323 pounds and requires a special subframe.
During normal driving, the system divides engine power between the front and rear axles in a 35/65 split. Under extreme conditions, a center differential transfers power to the axle with the better grip for maximum traction.
Powering the AWD Astro is a 4.3 liter V6 engine that delivers 150 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 230 foot pounds of torque at 2,400 rpm. A 4-speed automatic is the only gearbox offered.
As expected, fuel economy is less than frugal, at 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway. But the Astro's 27-gallon fuel tank stretches fill-up intervals to over 500 miles.
Drivers face a fairly well-designed instrument panel with a large, hockey-stick shaped speedometer flanked by four smaller, similarly shaped gauges for the oil level, battery, engine temperature and fuel.
Cupholders and storage bins abound throughout the Astro's cabin. The center and rear seats either fold over or can be removed altogether as in other minivans.
But a host of niggling flaws continue for 1991, most of them inherent to the Astro's basic design.
The front-wheel housings encroach upon driver and front passenger leg room, for instance, while rear vision is hampered by the thick center posts of the rear cargo doors.
The seat belts are not very comfortable. Children and adults alike complain that the ceiling-mounted shoulder harnesses for the center and rear seats chafe their necks. And the buckles on the front belts can dig into one's leg while one exits the vehicle.
On the road, the 4,237-pound Astro is more trucklike than most other minivans in ride, noise and design. Strong crosswinds require a steady hand on the steering wheel. Its engine is powerful but roars ferociously under acceleration. And some drivers may find the pedal on the anti-lock brakes to have a numb, lifeless feel at first during normal driving.
The high step-up into its cabin also is trucklike but pays off in a better view of the road.
Still, the AWD Astro showed exemplary traction during a rain-soaked journey spanning several hundred miles over a variety of roads, including twisty backroads. Its AWD system was almost unnoticeable, save for a slight vibration at freeway speeds.
Those who like to do their own un-derhood maintenance will want to think twice. The oil filter is easily serviced from below, but items like the air filter and spark plugs can only be reached by removing the lower dashboard console, some duct work and an interior engine cover.
The level of fit and finish also deserves mention. The nearly new As-tro evaluated had various interior rattles, and its two-tone paint job was marked by overspray. There was even painted masking tape left inside two door jambs!
Still, the Astro has proved itself a viable alternative for those needing something beefier than just a front-drive minivan, and it seems directly aimed at Ford's rear-drive Aerostar, also offered with AWD and a longer length.
Chevrolet's extended Astro van now accounts for 60 percent of sales, while the AWD version should account for about 12 percent of sales.