Also known as the Chevrolet Astro, the GMC Safari Van was introduced in 1985 to compete with the Japanese Toyota Van, Plymouth Voyager, and Dodge Caravan. This mid-size, rear-wheel drive features a truck-based powertrain that can pull 2500 kg or 5500 lb when accessorized with the right equipment. Because of its huge towing capacity, mid-size construction, engine compatibility with the small-block V8 engine, the now discontinued GMC Safari Van continues to attract loyal GMC fans, backyard modifiers, and off-road campers.
1985-1995: First generation
Marketed to future vehicle owners whose needs are too big for a minivan, this van has a seating capacity of up to eight passengers. The 4.3 L V6 engine was available in several configurations: from 145 to 190 hp. Depending on the model year, it could also be fitted with a 200 hp W engine. Standard features included a leaf-spring suspension, a bolt-on subframe, and large lower ball joints.
In 1990, an all-wheel drive version was released, making GMC Safari Van the first US-built minivan to feature an AWD system. This version has a more fuel-efficient engine. It can run for 17 miles per gallon on the highway, which was lower than the 20-21 miles per gallon consumption of rear-wheel vans. Several upgrades were also introduced during this year: a new dashboard, a hydroboost braking system, and an extended body option.
In the following years, new features were added. The list includes the Dutch Doors in 1992, a four-speed automatic transmission and Scotchgard fabric-covered interiors in 1993, and additional exterior color options (Medium Quasar Blue Metallic, Light Quasar Blue Metallic, and Indigo Blue Metallic) in 1994.
1995-2005: Second generation
This model was given a face lift by extending the nose and dropping the short-length body to resemble a full-size express van in 1995. In the following year, a passenger-side air bag was included in the redesigned dash. In 2003, the model received a suspension upgrade. Its chassis was equipped with six-lug, 16-inch wheels, larger brakes, and new suspension parts. As a result, the braking and handling greatly improved.
The GMC Safari Van as a mod-friendly vehicle
Despite its discontinuation in 2005, backyard modifiers and Safari enthusiasts continue to praise this model because its original 4.3 L V6 engine can be easily swapped with a small-block V8 engine. The model’s factory drivetrain parts can also be conveniently reused on an upgraded engine. Off-road campers who prefer vans with larger tires find it easy to upgrade the Safari due to its huge passenger and cargo space, flexible truck-based design, and optional locking differential. The availability and affordability of compatible aftermarket components such as leaf-spring kits, lowering spindles, and huge wheels also helps keep this van a popular vehicle among fans of lowered-suspension rides.