Rust Never Sleeps: 2002 Dodge Dakota or 1995 GMC Safari?

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! I’m still a couple of days behind you all. I’ve often been accused of living in the past; I guess that’s literally true right now. It’s currently Sunday at 6 AM for me, and I’m in the Atlanta airport. Long story. But we’re here to compare the value of  two crappy old cars, so let’s get to it.

Yesterday I compared a Pontiac Aztek with a bad transmission to a Chevy Citation with a bad cooling fan. You all decided that the “center console cooler” made the Aztek the better value:

Anyway, let’s talk about corrosion.

Of all the things I miss about the Midwest, rust is not one of them. I had one car literally break in two from rust (1979 VW Scirocco), one that got too rusty to jack up (1984 Honda Accord), and one that had weeds growing up through the floor when I bought it (1978 Plymouth Volare, bought for $175). Rust on cars is just something you deal with, which is why moving to the West Coast was such a breath of fresh air.

But the folks at Opposite Lock who live in the Midwest thought I might be feeling nostalgic, and sent me links to a couple of really crusty old trucks. Let’s take a look…

2002 Dodge Dakota – $1,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.9 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Streamwood, IL

Odometer reading: 147,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes? No? Ad seems conflicted

I intentionally chose the front-view as the first photo of this one, because it does an excellent job of hiding what’s really going on here. From the passenger’s side, things look significantly worse:

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And if you think that’s bad, as Bachman-Turner Overdrive once said, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Check out the driver’s side.

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The driver’s side always gets it worse, and it took me years to figure out why. That side gets spray from oncoming cars as well as whatever the vehicle kicks up itself. It gets double-dipped in the briny mess.

[Editor’s Note: I tend to find that many vehicles tend to have worse rust on the passenger’s side, because that’s where pools of water tend to sit. (See my Plymouth Valiant). -DT]

I imagine that missing fender flare is lying in a ditch somewhere, a few shards of rust with bits of silver paint still clinging to them by those plastic snap thingies.

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Things look a bit better inside, and according to the seller, the 3.9 liter V6 and four-speed slushbox both do what they’re supposed to. They say the truck “runs and drives,” but “needs a new wheel bearing” and “needs to be towed.” Either that’s one gnarly wheel bearing, or there is something else they’re not telling us.

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And one tip for this seller, or anyone else: if you want to include a shot of the dash to show the odometer, do it with the engine running, with the tach sitting at a nice idle and no idiot lights on, not lit up like Atlantic City on a Saturday night like this.


1995 GMC Safari – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.3 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, AWD

Location: Winona, MN

Odometer reading: 232,000 miles

Runs/drives? We assume

These old Astro/Safari vans are great vehicles. Most have Chevy’s bomb-proof 4.3 liter V6, which is essentially a 350 V8 with two cylinders chopped off, and some, like this one, have all-wheel-drive, which makes them excellent for the snow belt. It absolutely kills the fuel economy, but an AWD Astro or Safari will go through snow like nobody’s business.

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This Safari has been around the block a time or two. 232,000 miles is a lot for any vehicle, but for a year-round-use family vehicle like this, that’s a lot of road salt kicked up into the wheel arches. A lot of slushy icebergs kicked off the fenders. A lot of time for runaway oxidation to take its toll on steel.

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What concerns me most about this van is the rust you can’t see. That gaping hole behind the sliding door on the passenger’s side is not the only rust-through, I guarantee it. Those aftermarket stick-on stainless steel lower cladding pieces could easily have been added fifteen years ago to cover up minor rust, and there might not be much of anything left behind them now.

Those running boards could be hanging by a thread. This is all more worrisome considering that the Astro/Safari is a unibody design with a bolt-on front subframe, not a separate body-on-frame like the Dakota. Any body parts that don’t open are part of the structure.

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But the inside looks well cared-for, and the drivetrain sounds like it’s in good shape, so if the rust isn’t too advanced, this could make someone a good winter beater for a couple of years, maybe more. But I wouldn’t go making any long-term restoration plans. Take it from me: fixing up a rusty car that’s too far gone to save is a recipe for heartbreak.

So there they are, two textbook examples of the effects of road salt on vehicles. Neither one will likely last long, but both could probably get you around for a while. Which one is a better deal?


Quiz makerImages: Sellers
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49 Responses

  1. Neither. I cannot fathom why anyone would buy any car from the rust belt. Hell, why would you even live somewhere that will dissolve a vehicle in 7-10 years. I love Northwest Oregon and I am never leaving.

    1. I live here because I can see snowstorms coming. you can’t see earthquakes coming nearly as well. we also are rarely on fire and the cold keeps most of the terrifying animals away. I am also far too lazy to leave the rust belt to buy a vehicle.

    1. Take out the seats, put in some shag carpeting and a bean bag. All you’d need is the bumper sticker.
      “If this van’s a rockin don’t come a knockin” cuz the rust will fall off and that is that’s holding it together.

  2. Since removing bulbs to scam people is a VERY big thing again, I appreciate the Dakota seller actually showing that all the dash lights work. (Don’t touch any car if you don’t have proof that every dash light works, whether or not they’re illuminated.) Especially since on these, it’s really easy to pull the bulbs.

    But this really isn’t a contest. Dakota, all day, every day. The worst rot is the bed, which on these is a genuinely easy swap. Disconnect the filler neck, disconnect the taillights, 8 bolts, and you’re done. And since the bed’s scrap, you don’t give a shit if you break the bolts off on it, now do ya?
    The interior’s been well cared for, because frankly, they looked that shitty at half the mileage when they were new. Only fucking cars I ever had to warranty center consoles and cupholders on regularly. And even a headliner, I shit you not. Warranty headliner. Just… yeah.
    And it’s got the GOOD motor – the 3.9 V6. Which is quite literally an LA block with 2 cylinders lopped off. Chrysler needed a V6, had no money, and said “fuck it. What have we been making for 40 years without major problems? Great. Make it 6 instead of 8.” And it works.

    Oh, and you’d have to be ignorant to even go within 50 miles of that motherfucking Astro.
    Why? Distributor AND fuel spider. The absolute worst designed, worst performing, most problematic injection system ever.

    1. I dunno, I think that anyone who feels the need to repeatedly preemptively shit down the throats of anyone who may disagree with them with damn near every post they make is pretty ignorant, no matter how much knowledge or experience they allegedly bring to the table.

    2. Seriously. I cannot even begin to tell you how fucking bad that fuel spider is. The fuel mileage on that thing isn’t bad because of AWD, it’s because the injection system is pissing gas through every opening it can make. Or just plugged up solid because GM could not decide on a failure mode to embrace. There’s an entire goddamn industry that does nothing but rebuild the spiders and sell very expensive MPFI conversion kits, because even the rebuilt and ‘upgraded’ ones? Fail in the exact same ways.
      The design is fundamentally defective, and everyone involved should not only be ashamed, but out of work. It was never going to work. It was obviously never going to work. It was so obviously stupid that it never should have been approved, ever.

      I cannot even count how many 5-8 year old GMs that got traded in for just over scrap value or fed questionable junkyard motors because the spider had done thousands in damage or completely destroyed the block from starving a cylinder. Nothing like telling the customer that instead of a $1000 fuel injection rebuild, they’ll need a whole new block because half the bores got scored glass smooth.

      And you’re absolute jerks for triggering my spider trauma.

      1. 20 years ago, my next door neighbor bought one of these at auction for a few hundred because the FI was borked and it wouldn’t run. It wasn’t a horrible fix (once we figured out what the problem was) but it is definitely a crappy design.

  3. Cripes. Cornelian dilemma in all its forms.
    Dodge engine and trans Vs reliability of a Chevy that’s tucked up under a doghouse. Either of those suck.

    Gimme the Astro, I guess. I can haul friends around?

  4. Going by the ones I’ve seen, the Astro will live forever, but will smell like stale cigarette smoke and BO. Which means it’s the obvious choice provided you pick up some Febreeze on the way home.

  5. Astro in a heartbeat. Those are amazing vans. At the least, Autopians should appreciate a vehicle that has a top lift gate and two Dutch doors beneath. (I’ve seen full lift gate and 2-door rears, but the three way is best.) AWD and with rear captains chairs at a time when that was unusual for a van. Tough and capacious as hell. We drove ours from Pittsburgh to the Rockys and back with 3 Scouts and half the troop’s gear. Other times, you could get a dozen sheep in easy to take to the auction.

  6. In my work, I deal with stressful decisions all day, usually involving lots of money one way or the other, and this damned choice faced at the end of my day to pick one shitbox or the other is just as stressful. Do I have to pick between one rust bucket, broken down hunk of junk, or the other? Yes, yes I do. Damn you! Going against the grain, Dakota. Why? Body on frame and it’s a frickin truck, not a DD, it’s got work to do, so if it held together for even a short time after some repairs, it would serve it’s purpose.

  7. A good source for these showdowns could be the Pick ‘N Pull “builders” they get that are too “nice” to put in the yard and part out. They are like abortion survivors – people take them to the junker to scrap them, but are deemed too nice and sold whole. There is currently a sweet gold ’02 Grand Caravan at our local Pick ‘N Pull for $2199.

  8. I am always wary when looking at an older pickup in the Midwest with fender flares. A solid 50% of the time, they are installed to hide rust. I did the same with my 99 Chevy, although I did fix the rust and was just hiding a bad paint repair. My 94 Ford is just starting to show some on the wheel wells and cab corners. She held out for awhile being a transplant from Florida (I call her Tallahassee), but the rust bug spares no one here!

  9. Voted Safari. I still see plenty rolling around here in MO, albeit a bit rusty like this example, and had great luck with the 4.3 in the past. All Dodge trucks absolutely disintegrate around here, even worse than the Fords and Chevys which rust plenty, themselves.

  10. astro
    we are still driving the astro as a backup. sure it sucks gas and has had some rust issues and distributor cap replacements, its not a daily driver but its a tank thru the snowdrifts. it has saved our butt when her fwd ford breaks down or can’t cut the deep snow.

    astro for snow and hauling …but not a daily driver.

  11. Buddy of mine has had three Astros, about half a million miles between them all. Door handles come off in your hand, but they keep running. Might find out this one’s far rustier than it looks, but the Dodge is embarrassingly rusty, like pants-around-its-ankles rusty. Going by the info given, the Safari is an easy call. Plus it has the nicest interior I’ve ever seen in an Astro/Safari.

  12. I went with the Astro. Not because the body is better, both are one good sneeze or fart away from disintegration.

    This is more of Drive train/Motor decision. I figure if it runs, those parts alone are worth the cost. The others are good enough to sell. Then scrap the rest.

  13. Rather have the Safari. Drove a Chevy Astro AWD for ten years and 1 day, 336,727 miles on it when it died from a Toyota pickup slamming into the front end. Best $220 ever spent on a vehicle. Hauled small motorcycles very well and 4×8 sheets of osb with the doors closed. Was harrased a lot for driving a white Astro with windows though.
    As a mechanic, the only thing I like about Dakotas is that they made me money with water pumps, front suspension, and engines failing.

  14. Dang this one is made for me! I’ve owned a dakota with a 3.9 and sold it to buy my 99 Astro! I’ve lifted it 3″, put on some more aggressive wheels/tires, installed a rear locker, rear swaybar, S10 rear springs, roof fan, battery bank with DC charger, diesel heater, etc. I LOVE MY ASTRO! It is the perfect size imho; big enough to haul big things, but short enough to have a small turning radius. The visibility is far superior to the truck as well, especially when backing up trailers. The astro will tow 5200lbs, which is about what a 3.9L dakota will tow. 100% Astro/Safari vote on this one, I wish GM would release a new one!

  15. Safari.
    My ’95 went to the high 200’s with the only major repair being a transmission rebuild subsequent to my overloading and overheating it, and yes – I had to replace the injection spider.
    I loved that van and wept when I finally dropped it off at the scrap yard.

    1. Mine too, 2001 AWD, ate front tires, 16mpg no matter what, did the water pump on the side of the road, never a fuel spider problem, fuel pump died at over 200k but I knew it was going, never could keep the outside drivers door handle working, minor b.s. along the way…
      Yessir, drove it over the scale at the junkyard, stupid brake booster finally got me out of it!
      I still miss it. 🙁

  16. It really comes down to what the undersides look like for me. Since that isn’t provided I went with the Astro because it could be cooler in the end. I owned a 1998 Dakota with the 3.9L. It never left me stranded but it always needed work. Mine was a non-rusty one and the wheel bearings weren’t exactly easy to replace. I can’t imagine the hellish job of replacing the hubs on that one. If you go with the Dakota, hopefully you have an understanding spouse as you’ll be wrenching on it every weekend.

  17. There are still a surprising number of Astro/Safari vans running around my part of the country as work vans. They are easier to maintain since GM used parts bin engineering for many years and didn’t get too fancy with features.

    1. The guy who runs the Exxon we always go to has a later model Astro AWD. I think he said it has close to 300k. I’ll have to ask him to be sure, I may be thinking of someone else.

    2. Lots of white ones still kicking around SoCal that were formerly AT&T fleet trucks. All three of the ones my buddy used for his fire extinguisher servicing company were former AT&T vans. He did have to swap a transmission once or twice in all those years (and again, around 500K miles between the three of them), but never had any fuel system woes. Biggest annoyance was how the white paint started peeling off the roof before they were three years old.

  18. I’m Team Astro, but here’s an honest question: would it be better to remove those accursed running boards, or leave them with the idea that they’re all that’s holding the lower part of the body together?

  19. I had a ’97 Dakota with the same engine, but it was a 4X4. After 9 years and 182,000+ miles, there was no rust on it and I live in Pennsylvania. My issue was at regular 40,000 mile intervals, the water pump would go. Didn’t matter if I replaced with with a new on or a rebuilt one, every 40,000 miles I was tearing the entire front of the truck down to replace the water pump. Otherwise, that truck just kept on running.

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