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 Vizu.com 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.
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.
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.
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.