Choosing the Right Van for Conversion:
There are several factors to consider when choosing the right base van for your camper conversion. The type of van you choose will dramatically impact your layout and buildout options.
Van Type: The three main types of Van Conversion suitable for conversion are full-size cargo vans, mid-size vans, and high-top vans. Full-size cargo vans like the Ford Transit, Dodge Promaster, and Mercedes Sprinter provide the most interior cargo space but have higher purchase prices. Mid-size vans like the Ram Promaster City offer decent space at a lower cost but lack standing room. High-top vans have an elevated roof for additional headroom.
Cargo Capacity: Measure the maximum size of items you need to bring, like bikes or kayaks, to be sure the van you choose can fit them comfortably. Vans range anywhere from 125 to 250 cubic feet of cargo space.
Engine Type: Diesel engines get marginally better fuel economy but have higher initial costs. Gasoline engines are more affordable but consume more fuel. Hybrids are emerging as an eco-friendly option but have limited availability.
Mileage: Aim for under 100k miles to avoid costly repairs down the line. Newer years like 2022-2023 models have remaining factory warranty coverage.
Some other factors like price, features, and trim level will vary depending on your budget. But choosing the correct base van up front makes the entire conversion process much smoother.
Ford Transit: The Transit is the best-selling van for conversions due to its large size and reliable engine. It offers an outstanding cargo capacity of up to 361 cubic feet. Newer versions even have integrated roof rails for easier installation of roof racks and solar panels. Transits also hold their value well. However, the initial purchase price is on the higher end.
Ram Promaster: The mid-size Ram Promaster provides a more affordable alternative to the Transit with plenty of space at around 190 cubic feet. It’s widely used by small vanlife families thanks to standing room and a comfortable drive. 6-cylinder engines deliver decent fuel economy too. Downsides include less robust construction than European counterparts.
Mercedes Sprinter: As the premium option, the Sprinter delivers legendary German engineering for owners wanting luxury. Extended and high-roof models give outstanding headroom. Powerful diesel engines sip fuel efficiently. But Spartan sprinters command very high resale values and penny-pinchers may find their $50k+ price tag out of budget.
Dodge Promaster: The full-size sibling of the Ram, the Promaster rides like a cargo van with adequate power from V6 engines. It’s slightly more affordable than competing models. However, it lacks some of the creature comforts and build quality of other top converters like the Transit.
Chevy Express/GMC Savana: Chevy and GMC vans provide reliable powertrains and sufficient cargo capacity at around 150 cubic feet. The Workhorse chassis ensures a smooth ride. But they lack high-tech features, diesel options, and redesigned interiors of newer Euro competitors. Best for budget-conscious buyers.
With so many great options, choosing the right vans depends on balancing budget, needs, and long-term ownership priorities. Test-driving multiple models can help determine the best platform for your future camper conversion.
Choosing Between Popular Van Models:
Cargo Dimensions – Check height, width, and length specifications to confirm your desired layout will fit. The Transit and Sprinter have the best interior volume utilization.
Cargo Access – Rear doors that slide open the full width/height of the van make unloading much easier. Look at access dimensions, not just cargo space.
Driving Dynamics – Euro vans like the Sprinter offer composed handling. Americans like the Promaster for a car-like drive. Test each empty and with weight.
Maintenance/Repairs – Euro vans have higher-priced mechanics but reliable when maintained. Domestics are usually cheaper to fix but less durable long-term.
Resale Value – The Mercedes Sprinter has the strongest residuals, often retaining 50-60% of MSRP after 5 years. Good for resale-focused buyers.
Tech & Safety – Newer models have blind spot monitoring, parking sensors, backup cameras, and automatic braking standard or optional. Avoid older vans lacking these features.
Customization – Transit and Promaster aftermarket support is unmatched with thousands of fiberglass roof kits, shelving, and add-ons available. Harder to modify other brands.
Diesel Engines for Your Camper Van Conversion:
Fuel Economy – Diesel gets 20-25 mpg on highways versus 13-18 mpg for gas. But diesel requires fluid for emissions and costs more upfront. Consider your annual mileage.
Fuel Economy – Diesel engines are generally 20-30% more fuel efficient than gas counterparts. This can offset their higher initial costs over the van’s lifespan. Diesel averages 500 miles or more per tank compared to 350 miles for gas.
Performance – Diesel engines produce more low-end torque for hauling heavy loads up hills without straining the engine. They tow heavier capacities as well. Gas is slightly peppier for around-town driving.
Upfront Cost – Diesel vans carry a $5,000-$10,000 premium versus gas models. This price difference takes longer to pay back with fuel savings alone depending on annual mileage.
Maintenance – Diesel maintenance like timing belt changes is more costly. But the engine itself typically lasts much longer with proper care. Repairs are often expensive compared to simpler gas engines.
Emissions Technology – Modern “Clean Diesel” engines meet emissions regulations but require diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to be refilled like windshield wiper fluid. DEF is an ongoing ancillary cost.
Resale Value – Diesel vans tend to retain their value better over time due to fuel savings and heavier-duty nature. This can offset some upfront price premiums.
Consider When Choosing Diesel vs Gas:
Cold Weather Performance: Diesel engines are easier to start and warmer in colder climates down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit whereas gas engines can struggle. This is important for winter campers.
Reliability: Modern “clean diesel” engines are extremely reliable with proper oil changes if cared for. Gas engines have more fluctuating components that wear out over time like spark plugs and ignition coils.
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