GM lowers base price for Safari, Astro vans


At a time when most auto manufacturers have raised prices, General Motors Corp. has cut the base price of the entry-level models of the 2003 Chevrolet Astro and GMS Safari passenger vans made in Baltimore.

The world's largest automaker has reduced the base price of the rear-wheel-drive passenger Astro 5.1 percent, Pam Reynolds, a GM spokeswoman, said yesterday. She said it amounts to a savings of $1,245 for consumers. The Safari's price was trimmed by $1,024.

The discount reduces the base price for the entry-level, passenger versions of both vans to $23,121.

The company is keeping the base prices of the 2003 cargo models of the vans unchanged from last year's prices.

The prices were cut amid a sales boom for vans that has prompted GM to cancel a one-week shutdown of the Broening Highway plant next month that would have left about 1,000 workers idle.

Sales of the Astro rose 18.7 percent in August. This was on top of a 5 percent gain in July, according to Dan Flores, a GM spokesman. The Astro's sister vehicle, the GMC Safari, actually had a bigger percentage increase, with sales up 31 percent last month.

But the plant produces more than three times as many Astro vans as it does Safaris. The Baltimore plant is the sole supplier of the vans.

Reynolds said GM took a number of steps to make the entry-level passenger versions of the Astro and Safari more affordable, including:

Removal of some exterior molding.

Replacing the CD system with an AM/FM stereo system.

Removal of the keyless entry system.

Replacing the aluminum wheels with steel wheels.

The items removed are still available on higher-priced vans.

Mark Aiello, vice president and general manager of JBA Chevrolet in Glen Burnie, said it is too soon to gauge the impact of GM's price structure.

"They are just beginning to show up," he said. "We have only received two vans as of this time. But lowering the price can only help sales."

Aiello said the Astro has an "antiquated design and it has been around for a long time," but he listed a number of advantages it has over its many competitors.

"It's the only van in its range with significant towing power," he said. "It's good for towing a boat or a camper, seats more passengers and has more headroom."

George E. Hoffer, an economics professor and auto analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said the Astro and Safari also benefit from high resale values.

He said a 6-year-old Astro or Safari retains 35.1 percent of its original selling price, better than the Ford Aerostar or Dodge Caravan.

Hoffer said Astros and Safaris involved in accidents cost less to repair than do the 17 other vans (domestic and foreign) that it competes with in the market.

"It's a sturdy, moderately priced van," Hoffer said. "That's the secret to its survival."

How long it can survive isn't certain. GM has said it will continue building the vans in Baltimore only until the third quarter of 2005.

After that, the company says, the market for the Astro and Safari vans will determine their future.

State officials are hopeful of persuading General Motors to assign the Baltimore plant a new vehicle.

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