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Face Off--Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari vs. "Dustbuster" Minivans

In our past face-offs, we've compared cars that were generally considered desirable, but that's not really the case this time around. As befitting our minivan theme this week, I'm pitting against each other two GM minivans--the Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari rear-wheel-drive minvan vs. the radically styled front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Lumina APV/Pontiac Trans Sport/Oldsmobile Silhouette (colloquially known as the "Dustbuster" minivans due to their unique profile).

I will elaborate on the two options and reveal my choice after the poll and the jump.

[The poll widget is no longer available because has ceased operations.]

Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari
The Astro and its Safari twin debuted in 1985 and represented GM's first response to the revolutionary and amazingly successful Chrysler minivans. The Astro was an odd fit in the segment--perhaps unsurprisingly, considering it was a 1980s GM product, the Astro represented an attempt to compete with the ground-breaking Chrysler minivans without really capturing what made them so special.

The defining characteristic of the Chrysler minivans was their remarkably efficient packaging. The combination of a compact four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, and a modified small-car unibody chassis meant that the minivans had a low, flat floor and plenty of space despite their trim, Plymouth Reliant-sized footprint. The result was a vehicle that was as easy to drive and park as a compact car but that could also swallow a large family and their gear--revolutionary in a world dominated by large, low station wagons and hulking, full-size, truck-based vans.

800px-1st_Chevrolet_Astro The Astro, on the other hand, was a minivan in the sense that it was smaller than a full-size van, but that's all it really was. Like the full-size vans, the Astro had a rear-wheel-drive powertrain, a large pushrod V engine (a V-6 in the Astro's case), and truck-like body-on-frame construction. It was bulkier and heavier than the Chryslers, the passenger compartment was less spacious and efficient, and the driving experience was far more truck-ish. If the Chryslers were revolutionary; the Astro was decidedly evolutionary.

All of this set up a choice for the public between two fundamentally different types of minivans, and over the last 25 years the market has definitively chosen the Chrysler model of front-wheel-drive, car-like minivans. You would think this would have made the Astro an embarrassing failure, and really the story almost writes itself--GM tried to jump into a wildly popular new segment with a half-hearted effort, missed the market, and suffered a colossal sales failure. Interestingly, though, that didn't happen with the Astro. Despite its competitive disadvantages, the Astro successfully carved out its own niche and sold well enough to warrant a 20-year production run with only minor changes. It even outlasted and outsold the broadly similar Ford Aerostar.

Ultimately, the Astro established itself as a successful and enduring design precisely because it was different from the established minivan paradigm. The Astro wasn't as pleasant or car-like as the Chrysler minivans, but it was sturdier and stronger. Its primitive but powerful V-6, body-on-frame chassis, and optional AWD meant that the Astro could tow more, carry more, and could go more places than its competitors. As a smaller, trimmer, more efficient version of the traditional full-size vans, the Astro was also a legitimate competitor in the commercial and fleet market in a way that other minivans never truly were. Apparently there was a niche between minivans and maxivans, and the Astro filled that niche nicely.

Dustbuster Minivans
800px-90-93_Pontiac_Trans_Sport GM quickly understood that a front-wheel-drive minivan would be necessary to be truly competitive with the Chryslers and the rapidly emerging group of minivan competitors. The Astro bought GM some time, but in late 1989, GM released its full broadside on this market--three mechanically identical and radically styled minivans that the company hoped would become the leaders the segment. The three Dustbusters were the Chevrolet Lumina APV, the Pontiac Trans Sport, and the Oldsmobile Silhouette.

That didn't exactly happen; the Dustbusters sold reasonably well, but they were never either the best-reviewed or best-selling minivans in the segment, and they were widely panned for their ... ah, unique styling. Like other minivans, the Dustbusters were essentially a box on wheels, but while a wildly raked front fascia and windshield. That front rake was highly controversial; not only was it visually jarring on a vehicle as large as a minivan, and not only did it clash with the minivan's slab sides, but it created a huge expanse between the base of the windshield and the driver. That expanse was disorienting for some drivers, and caused distracting dashboard reflections in the windshield.

As vans, the Dustbusters were competitive but certainly not class-leaders--they had decent power once GM brought in the tried-and-true 3800 V-6; adequate space, with removable, configurable seats; and they drove pretty well. They also had the dent-resistant plastic panels made famous on GM's Saturn line. GM produced these vans through the 1990s, and, to continue the theme, they were adequately successful through their run.

My Vote
I'm guessing many of you will snicker, I rather like the Dustbusters. I like the crazy windshield rake, and I even like the cladding. These vans had personality, and while that personality was perhaps a little gauche, I vastly prefer that to the wanna-be-SUV minivans that GM put out on the market in the 2000s. I'm nodding my head in appreciation as I look at this picture of the monochromatic white Trans Sport.

That brings me to the issue of naming; with the glaring exception of the Lumina APV, these vans had great names. "Oldsmobile Silhouette" is a classy and sophisticated name that was unfortunately wasted on an outre minivan; and of course "Pontiac Trans Sport" is a tour de force. The "Trans" is a nod to Pontiac Trans Ams of yore, and the "Sport" pays tribute to Pontiac's performance-forward role in the GM lineup. And, of course, put together together, "Trans Sport" describes the van's true purpose. It works on so many levels.

However, despite all this, my vote goes to the Astro. There's something refreshingly honest and straightforward about the Astro, and I love that its capability made it a viable commodity on the market for a full 20 years despite being fundamentally out of step with the minivan market. I can appreciate the Dustbuster vans, but I could see myself actually owning an Astro.

The van images here come from Wikipedia.

--Chris H.


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I got to test one of the first Trans Sport vans to be made and, like so many GM vehicles of the 80s and early 90s (Fiero, Allante, Reatta, etc.), it was let out of the kitchen long before it was done.

It had a 3-speed automatic, no ABS, so it was both underpowered and dangerous to stop in a panic situation, as it got all squirrely while braking. But after a few years, they got it right. A 4-speed tranny was fitted, and ABS came along eventually.

I actually liked the thing, as it had a strong feel of build quality... no squeaks, most everything fit well, etc. The only real complaint I've heard about these is that there's so much plastic (actually SMC for the most part) that very little of it can be recycled.

And, yes, the name--one of the best vehicle names of all time. The "Trans Sport" transported you, passengers, and cargo to most anywhere you needed to go, in style. At that time, Pontiac did build excitement.

Obviously, my vote goes to the Trans Sport. But not for the reasons above. I like the safety of the extra room between the front seats and front bumper--maybe twice as much in the Trans Sport. I had two cousins killed in an Astro on Christmas Day, 1992, when they hit a tree in a snowstorm--the tree pushed into the roof just above the windshield. Had there been more front crush space in the Chevy as in the Pontiac, they might still be here.

I vote Trans Sport because it would totally rawk with a jet engine sticking out the back.

GMC Safari - 4.3L with AWD. These things were surprisingly competent off the pavement and got around great in the snow. The 4.3 is the 350SB with two cylinders chopped off - meaning all the goodies you can put in a 350 (save for cam & crank) can be dropped right into your 4.3L.

--Big Chris

None of the above. Seriously neither the Lumina APV nor the Astro pass the curb test.

I spent a lot of time in my youth riding in the back of a maroon Astro so I'm more fond of it than the Dustbusters. A neighbor kids' parents bought one new in 1986 and I remember being amazed at how many cupholders it had.

You say the Astro lacks personality, I disagree! Two words: Dutch Doors. That GM bothered to add such a unique feature late in their lifespan shows they really cared for this product.

One of the things I liked about business travel was the chance to drive many different cars. At one time or another I've driven most of the vans discussed; the one I bought was an Astro. Where we lived the roads weren't very good and the "primitive" construction took the abouse and kept on going. We could fill every seat, pile in luggage and still move out whereas the Chrysler vans didn't take well to being fully loaded. As for the Ford and "Dustbusters" I just didn't like the windshield angle and glare.

Shawn: "You say the Astro lacks personality, I disagree!"

Did I say that? If I did, I don't mean it. I actually really like the Astro's personality - it's straightforward, rugged, and honest. In a way it's the International Scout of minivans.

I bought a used Trans Sport, blue over silver and added 15" 5 spoke alloys and 70 series tires before ever taking it home. That thing worked beautifully both around town for shuttling kids to soccer and on a trip from Louisiana to California and back through Oregon. It washed up nice and I often got compliments for it's look. It was easy to work on, I think I had to replace a couple alternators- cheap rebuilt ones but otherwise it was a decent people and gear hauler. I liked the looks!

My dad had a Safari minivan that he used to haul us around and also for his work (contract computer maintenance). In the 80s, that usually meant large parts, because he worked on large bank-class mainframes like the System 34s and System 36s and their large check sorters and printers. One cool thing that I loved about the Safari was that the middle bench seat could be faced toward the front or the rear. I rather liked the "tailgunner" setup when I was a kid, and especially when we took long trips so that my little sis and I could easily move from the seat to the rear cargo floor (with still ample room beside the luggage) to lie down and sleep.

I wore out three Astros (200K+ each) and one had the FWD option. A little spat of electrical problems but except for tires and brakes they just kept chuggin' along. They pulled 6K trailers a lot of the time too. Now have a 15 pass Ford (#2, the first went 250K and now resides in Mexico) and for the money you can't beat them. Half the price of a pickup and really comfortable to eat up the distance.

I would vote Astro, if I needed to pull a trailer. The engine is at least easy to replace parts for, anything over the counter from a commercial auto parts place. It is not an efficient Mini Van by any account, so unless I needed AWD like a few have (My Mom has one in Baja Mexico that replaced her Jeep Comanche and Suzuki Samurai) I would likely get a full size American van for towing because it is roomier but not really any less efficient.

Other wise I would avoid the Transport (scary ugly) and look into a totally different Make, likely from over seas.

I hope GM gets it together.

When I worked for Crutchfield in 1994, we had an Astro with very few miles that was one of the frailest feeling conveyences I ever had the displeasure of driving. We also had a Mercury Tracer that was just about as used up, so maybe someone was abusing the fleet. All I know about the dustbusters I learned from watching 'Get Shorty.' The rental car company called it 'the Cadillac of minivans.' Not really that high praise by that time.

Tran Sport, while it may be one of the most idiotic names for a people carrier ever the actual car is as close as any US market people carrier has come to filling the French people carrier mould. Lots of space, strange yet funky styling, interesting touches to the interior and the ability to fit two entire families inside and still have room for a weekly shop.

Y'know, the Astro's grown on me through the years. There's no way in heck I'd own one personally, but I have much more respect for it now than I did a few years back. Like you said, Chris, they're really nothing more than trucks with smaller van bodies, and, as it turns out, GM makes a pretty decent truck. Sure, some of the spit and polish is missing, but they definitely hold true to the old saw, "GM runs bad longer than most cars run."

To help illustrate that, I saw one once with over 300,000 miles on it; the owner was donating it to a non-profit I used to work for. It ran rougher than anything I'd ever seen - the engine made a horrible racket, steering was all over the place, stuff inside was biodegrading before my very eyes... but it started, it ran, and it drove. It felt like I was in a minivan that had already been through "Mad Max", only, after Mel Gibson blew it up a couple of times, somebody patched it together and kept going. It was truly an awesome experience.

I voted for the Astro just based on their durability. I worked for a private investigative firm and we used the Astros as company vehicles and they regularly went to 200k+ miles and kept on going. They were abused in every possible way you can imagine. They were fairly maneuverable and the 4.3 offered plenty of power even loaded with all our gear and returned descent fuel mileage. And as an added bonus you could spend the night in them and get a fairly comfortable nights sleep and I am 6'3". (My height is also one of the reasons I don't like the dustbusters.

I bought one for my ex-wife that had 300K on it and she abused it to no end and it ran to 500k when the alternator locked up and she kept driving it even though the belt was burning and caught it on fire.

An great added bonus is that a 350 will slide right in the Astro - try that in a TransSport.

And those dustbusters were hell on transmissions. Too much weight on a car trans didnt work out all that well.

As the former owner of an early nineties apv and current owner of a 97 astro I feed qualified to state that there's no comparison. The Astro wins hands down. More seats, space, style, and the engine's not in there sideways.

I've owned 5 Trans Sports over the years. I owned an electrical contracting company in Manhattan and I can tell you that the Trans Sports proved to be extremely durable and economical to run. All of my conventional-bodied vehicles required a couple thousand a year in body and paintwork to keep looking presentable. Trans Sports required nothing year after year of banging around the city; no dents and scratches didn't result in spreading rust.

I remember my first time behind the wheel of one and yes, the long dash expanse did feel a bit disconcerting, but that passed after a couple of days of ownership (too bad for GM that anyone test-driving one would not get used to the unconventional seating position and would probably head directly to their local Dodge or Chrysler dealer after driving an APV to put their money down).

The 3800 drivetrain is as good as it gets as far as balancing reliability, power and economy and the modular seating is extremely flexible and lightweight. As far as the styling goes, I simply love it and it probably deserves credit for the exceptional high-speed MPGs they are capable of, not to mention that it also sorta fulfills my childhood dream of piloting the Disney monorail. :D

From my perch in Upstate New York, I'd have to go with the Dustbuster, mainly because of its use of composite plastic body panels. What is the biggest frustration of all for drivers in the Northeast? RUST!!!!!!!!! Even the most well-built vehicle made of the highest quality steel will only go so far driving on roads that have been heavily and repeatedly salted with sodium chloride mixed with sand in a futile attempt to deal with lake-effect snow. NaCl + Fe = trouble in about ten years for a typical daily-driver, and it's usually in the worst weather Mother Nature can dish out that Junior simply HAS to be somewhere.

I always said the first rule of winter driving is to avoid it when you can, but that isn't always possible. So your car will rust and wear out before its time, and you'll eventually be trading in a perfectly running machine that is about to come apart at the seams. Unless the most vulnerable parts of the car are made of something that doesn't rust, like plastic.

Perhaps GM's biggest problem with using plastic to make body panels isn't the larger gaps between them that plastic requires, or the additional noise that penetrates the passenger compartments of such vehicles, but the fact that the bodies last longer, making the need to replace them considerably less frequent.

I cannot believe I am the first to post this:

Chili Palmer: What is that?
Rental Car Attendant: It's an Oldsmobile Silhouette.
Chili Palmer: I ordered a Cadillac.
Rental Car Attendant: Oh, well, you got the Cadillac of minivans.

from Get Shorty

Astro/Safari for me - I have owned one of each since 1998 - I always considered it the poor mans suburban.

Seats 8, tows a ton, and the AWD version is amazing in winter. Even the RWD isnt bad in winter, assuming you actually know how to drive one. Not a car, but surprisingly comfortable to drive long distances - I put 18 hours straight with only gas breaks in them, and could still walk at the tend

My only problems were the trannies - rebuilt two of them at 130k, just blew the sun gear at 210,000 in my second.

And the brakes - 25k is about the average.

And the terrible front end suspension - mandatory replacement at about 30k - go Moog and they last forever.

Having said that, still cant beat them for a family of seven trailering campers, boats and uhauls.

had similar thoughts about the three, and have owned several chrysler minivans, several Astros and Safaris (sometimes refered to as Strofaris) as well as a Mercury Villager and its twin, the Nissan Quest. I never had one of the dustbusters, but I did like the look (kind of...) it reminds me of the Pontiac Astec or the AMC Pacer, so ugly it almost looked good.
I have a carpet cleaning business, and the equipment might fit in a Chrysler mini van, but weight wise, the van wouldn't be able to handle it for long, so just to save a little fuel, I've ran with the Strofaris for the business, but as far as a personal vehicle, the Caravans win my vote. I recently picked up a smaller one, 2000 Caravan (missing the 8 - 10" extension of the GRAND caravan, and surprised they didn't have a longer one, offering small, medium and Larger) and have been considering another one (grand one this time) for a mini RV conversion. Its hard to ignore a rv that gets over 25 mpg with the price of fuel steadily increasing (just becasue they can).
Although its small, the minivan RV, GTRV, uses many different platforms including both the caravan and Astro as well as others, offers the fuel economy not available in the larger RVs, some getting less than 10 mpg.
I think GM missed a big oppotunity with the Astro/Safari, by discontinuing it, itstead of improving it and keeping it on the market. Another gear or two in the transmission, like they did on a few of the other full siZed truck models, and even going back to the old days of a two speed rear end, tying to two together with some plastic body panels to lighten the van, could have easily brought the mileage up into the mid twenties or better.

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