Toyota recently announced it is axing the youth-oriented Scion marque after 13 years. One of their first models, a rebadged Japanese-market Toyota bB known as the Scion xB, was an unexpectedly strong seller. It was curious to see such a uniquely Japanese vehicle sell so well in America, but what was even more curious was how an American van became a cult hit in Japan: the Chevrolet Astro.
This lightly modified example I photographed in my old neighborhood of Washington Heights, NY shows how this box-on-wheels can be made to look, dare I say it, rather cool. Many Astros sold in Japan were gray-market models: to get around import tariffs, most were imported as camper vans and then had the camper accoutrements ripped out once they arrived. Japanese buyers liked their size and practicality and were enthusiastic customizers of their American lifestyle vans.
This Astro I photographed nearby in Inwood shows more accurately how this mid-sized van was perceived by American consumers. A sturdy workhorse, not as large and unwieldy as a full-size Chevrolet van, many of these Astros still roam neighborhoods like Inwood, driven by fruit vendors, electricians and handymen. The bluff-fronted 1995-2005 models are more common, but they’re scarcely different underneath from the 1985-94 models. See, GM perceived the Astro (and its GMC Safari twin) as a competitor to Chrysler’s 1984 minivans but when they realized the market disagreed, they launched the front-wheel-drive U-Body minivans and left the Astro in a state of arrested development. For twenty years, the Astro had a thankless role in GM’s lineup and after withering on the vine for years and seeing sales fall, in 2005 it was axed with no replacement. How nice, then, to see the Astro had a second life and a fresh sense of appreciation.
Curbside Classic: 1993 Chevrolet Astro
I’ve always liked the Chevy Astro van. While it may have been old-school compared to the Chrysler minivans of the time.
Another fringe Asian market for Chevy vans is Korea:
Back in 2000, when I was in college, my operations management class toured the Broening Highway plant in Baltimore where the Astro was made. My fellow car enthusiast roommate was in the same class, and both of us were like “they still make the Astro?”
FWIW, the plant has since been torn down and is now the site of an Amazon warehouse. Which is good in that I get my stuff the next day, but bad in that Amazon now has a nexus in Maryland, which means sales tax.
That plant built Malibus in the ’78 to ’83 generation (my former ’82 was built there and I think my ’79 was also.) Wonder if it produced anything in the interim or if it was tooled up for Astros immediately following the Malibu’s demise?
This just confirms what I always suspected. The Japanese really do have bad taste.
That looks a lot like denigrating an entire group. Maybe you should STFU.
We owned two Astros, an ’85 and a ’94. They were perfect for our growing family. You’re right, it was a head-scratcher that GM continued to build them after rolling out the U-body dustbusters but I’m glad they did.
I know several people who were wild, slobbering fans of these, esp.those with the dutch rear doors. They really hit with a certain demographic hard. I drove/rode in one of these a lot at one place I worked that owned one and thought they were competent enough to drive but not great as a long-legged front passenger because the engine compartment made a cramped footwell on that side.
Confirms what I thought the first time I saw a Scion xB…a 3/4 scale copy of an 85 Astro….and everyone thinks the Japanese are such the innovators.
It comes around on CC from time-to-time that of the Japanese firms, Toyota has typically been the most “American” in their domestic and U.S. designs. Toyota aping a GM product but getting the quality right has been part of their business model for ages, and let them get past GM for the top spot.
I never occurred to me to think of the xB as a downsized Astro; the xB has a flatter & proportionately longer hood, for one thing.
If B imitates A, B is considered stupid or criminal, as if it’s a sin to borrow other folks’ unpatented ideas or styles. Manufacturers all over the world have done this for years with little fallout, yet only the Japanese seem to get blamed for it (e.g, the 240Z as a “cheap Japanese copy” of the XK-E).
Even J.S. Bach imitated Vivaldi, yet no musicologist blames him for it & Bach has been the more famous composer.
You obviously haven’t been in both vehicles. The ONLY thing that they share is that they are a basic box shape and a few styling cues. On the inside they couldn’t be more different with the xB having a spacious interior and the Astro having a very compromised driver/passenger layout from the RWD platform with the engine intruding into the interior.
I liked driving these when I had the chance, during high school
I was a valet and we added an airport shuttle service with one of these. I had several opportunities to drive it from the valley to LAX with a full load of vacationers. Good tips back in those days…that 4.3 vortec was a great engine for these.
As I recall they had relatively horrific safety ratings in their later years as the rest of the market surpassed them.
I’m amazed at how many really well kept Astros are still running around the Metro NYC area. There never really was anything else like them, at least not perceptually. They were more robust looking, and in practice, than their FWD competitors. Nice size, nice package.
The Aerostar was the same concept, an RWD minivan based on the compact truck architecture, but ended up quite different. The Astro definitely had the edge in longevity (even accounting for it being in production longer) and always seemed to have the numbers in trade/commercial usage.
The Japanese didnt keep them long, they shipped them here as used cars along with shiploads of Blazers all in blue.
Probably cost-of-ownership (incl. vehicle inspection), always a problem with imported vehicles of limited market, esp. bigger ones like “light” American trucks. I remember a Parker’s (UK) review calling the Ford Explorer a “large” vehicle.
A guy I work with has one in Kent UK loves it. Its a Japanese import.
As an expat living here in Tokyo for over 10 years, I wholeheartedly agree with William – for some reason that I’ve yet to figure out, a small segment of the Japanese public love these. I think it has to deal with the fact that it occupied a niche that the Japanese manufacturers somehow missed – it is wider than an equivalent Japanese Van (Toyota Noah, Nissan Serina), but not as large as the bigger class of vans (Alphard, El Grand).
I still see an occasional one chugging along the streets here.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Astro and original Jeep Cherokee are perhaps the two most frequent US cars seen in Tokyo. But the No. 1 “gaisha” (foreign car) is by far the BMW 3 series – you see them everywhere.
Still see plenty of the original 85 to 94 Astros/Safaris roaming the streets here in car capital of the U.S the LA area, some of them are still in pretty good shape. The cannot be said for the original Caravan/Voyagers here, I almost never see those. goes to show GM did something right with the Astro/Safari! Seems like they aged much better looks wise as well compared to the original Caravan.
I have the pleasure of driving an ’01 Astro AWD around as a company vehicle. This thing’s got 171k miles on it and it’s in tough shape, but I still enjoy driving it. The AWD is surprisingly good in snow, and the dutch doors in the back are pretty brilliant – I’m surprised nobody has copied that design since.
New Mini Cooper estate..and the Dacia (Renault) Logan/Lodgy used to copy it…
It’s possible that they like the durability of the vans, too. Having a truck chassis, they can take a lot of weight, but they’re also a fairly small size, so you don’t need a big panel van to haul things around.
Another thing is the visibility out of the windows……a regular van is usually a nightmare in terms of blind spots.
A coworker/friend years ago had an Astro, a 1990-ish EXT with the 4.3 V6. That thing was noisy, rough, rattly, and unrefined. However, it was also impossible to kill. It had over 200K miles on the original drivetrain with no major repairs. Not at all “carlike” but such a useful vehicle.
FWIW A friend of mine is on his second Astro; he raved about his first one (a mid ’80s model) but says his newer one is the worst vehicle he’s ever owned. I see it always has some major malfunction either crippling or immobilizing it.
My carpenter has one, an AWD version, another thing that makes these vans unique. Underneath, it looks like a 3/4 version of my K2500 pickup, same torsion bar and center differential setup in front. He likes it over a pickup for his business because he can keep his tools locked up out of sight. A roof rack is used for hauling lumber to the job site when necessary. When he works for me, we use my pickup for lumber yard runs.
Some 5 years ago when I have been searching for a possibly GM V6 van, a Used Astro Ad had caught my eyes… I’m talking about a purchase in Europe… The advertiser had announced that his Astro for sale…was his “Private Japan Import”. No not from Americas nor from the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia… I thought that if IT is/was from Japan, the Astro might be a Right Hand Drive. But no..IT wasn’t an RHD. I would also like to add a thing that there is existing a Japanese A-Platform LHD Buick Century Club as well. Pontiac Trans Sport (regular LHD) of the early and mid ’90s was very popular in the continental Europe. I could not belive my eyes when I saw an RHD Trans Sport in the UK! Some folks said that it was a factory made RHD version and not a custom made conversion. I really don’t know what is the real truth about it. Is it possible that RHD Trans Sports were manufactured in the former Tarrytown, NY Plant???
I still own a 1987 Astro I purchased new. One of the most reliable and trouble-free vehicles I have ever owned.
“The bluff-fronted 1995-2005 models are more common, but they’re scarcely different underneath from the 1985-94 models.”
If anything, the opposite is true. The second generation Astro/Safari LOOKS a lot like the first one, but they’re mechanically unrelated. The original was based on the S-10 while its replacement rode on a shortened version of the full-size GM truck chassis. It was sort of the Blazer to the Express‘s Suburban.