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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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