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.