[ deciding on a van | review | build ]

choosing a campervan platform


It took a long time to settle on a cargo van of some kind. Other platforms on the short list were a used Class B and a Tacoma + Aliner trailer combo. The long list was… longer. About the only thing I ruled out was a ginormous Class A.

Eventually my desire for ample solar panels ruled out the Class B (due to pre-ordained roof real estate layout) and my desire for passthrough ruled out the truck + trailer. A van with OEM high roof does both things exceptionally well.

So now which van? There are four serious contenders in the standing-height competition: MB/Dodge/Freightliner Sprinter, Ford Transit, RAM Promaster, and Nissan NV2500/3500. I will talk about how I chose between them. While I did do a crap-ton of reading, talked to owners, crawled around the vehicles with a measuring tape and annoy dealers, the result was a personal decision that considered my needs, my wants, and my local availability. I am not making objective claims or telling you what you should get.

the German Experience: Sprinter

I was stationed in Germany for four years and loved it. Skilled and disciplined drivers, well-maintained and -designed machinery, high standard of living: motorcar heaven!

The “problem” with German engineering (including cars) is a function of the glowing description above.

German carmakers expect that drivers of their cars will be skilled, disciplined, well-paid, informed about how to drive/maintain the machines and dedicated to following the carmakers’ instructions.

That kind of discipline and instruction-following does not fit the American psyche very well. We Americans have many strengths but those are not among them.

German vehicles are excellent when used and maintained according to plan. They are not excellent when “ridden hard and put up wet”, as horse people say. The maintenance and upkeep will always be expensive but when mistreated the costs veer of into wallet-destroying territory.

Having said that, my favorite carmaker is Porsche. The only two vehicles I’d ever owned and loved were a 1972 VW standard beetle in Shantung Yellow, and a (1973?) ex-Bundeswehr VW bus in olive green. They required constant fiddling but were simple enough and old enough I could do the work myself on the cheap. Muir’s famous manual and a few hand tools were usually all it took.

But Sprinters are not simple, and I cannot afford the purchase price or expected levels of maintenance. And the top narrows too much for me. I am rather broad-shouldered; with cabinets built into on both sides I won’t fit well in narrow spaces. Because of this aggresive angling-in at the top the Sprinter is 8″ narrower at the top than some others.

The Sprinter was the first van voted off the island.

the full-sized NV2500

Nissan makes the NV2500/3500 cargo van and the NV mini-van (which is a good looking little booger). I’m talking about the big one here.

I didn’t think the NV was for me but I went to see one anyhow. I should stop here and describe how I assessed vans at the dealership.

  1. look at the van while walking up to it. Where would solar panels mount? Where is the backup camera?
  2. climb into the cab and immediately pass through to the cargo area. Do not sit in the driver’s seat, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. I will be driving the van but living in the cargo area.
  3. stand in the cargo area a long time. Stare. Pace. Feel the space. Consider how things might fit. Hold my arms out and reach the walls. Feel the distance between my head and the ceiling.
  4. lay down in the sleeping position[s]. Dissuade the care salesman from dialing 911 to report a lunatic in his van.
  5. look at where wiring runs would go
  6. exit the side cargo door[s] and re-enter through the back cargo doors (or vice versa)
  7. if it’s still a candidate, pass back through to the cab and sit in the driver’s seat. Get a feel for the cockpit.

I went through the motions on the NV but by the time I entered the cargo area I knew it was a no-go for me. The space was weird and didn’t fit my body or my idea of something I would want to live in. I didn’t like the super trucky feel of the cockpit (it’s a Titan underneath) or the incredibly long and space wasting hood.

Having said that, I think Nissan could develop a cult Millenial and vandweller following if they had:

  1. an option for the Titan’s 4wd driveline; and
  2. an “expedition lite” vibe like an Xterra or Honda Element

And then there were two: Transit and Promaster

I think both of these vans are terrific, and I could have gone either way. I was leaning 60/40 toward Promaster by this point but I was still reading Transit forums, stalking Ford lots, watching for deals on used Transits, etc.

I like diesels but modern versions are so regulation-strangled that they are losers for me. So that leaves gassers.

Going into this final round this is how I saw the situation:

Ford Transit RAM Promaster
Pro: High roof is very high at 81″. I could play basketball in there.

Popularity means easier service and community knowledge. I like Ford in general. Many used Transits available. Bigger fuel tank.

RWD means mechanical limited slip is a possibility.

Pro: Superior living space. Widest van, wide enough for a transverse bed. Cavernous interior. Greater cargo space at each wheelbase length. Straightest walls for easier build.

2nd lowest Total Cost of Ownership (NV is lower). Lower used purchase prices. Simple. Off-the shelf gas powertrain: engine and trans are serviceable everywhere and extremely cheap in junkyards if needed. Huge amount of tiedowns in cargo area. Abundant places for wire runs. High roof available in 1500 tier. Longer wheelbases at each length but tighter turning circle. FWD means greater traction and lower roofline relative to standing room.

Con: 2nd highest Total Cost of Ownership (Sprinter is higher).

Too feature-laden for my needs. I wanted a very simple/fleet model. Lowest ground clearance of any full size cargo van (shock mounts).

Con: sales are a fraction of Transit; relatively few used models. Even dealers don’t know what they are.

FWD means no mechanical limited slip will be available, even in the aftermarket.

Only one gas option, and the 3.6L Pentastar is overpowered for my taste.

Subjectively, the Transit’s cockpit felt like a quality minivan, very carlike. The Promaster felt more like a bus or work van. Either way was fine with me.

I liked the cargo area of the Promaster better. It was wider and felt much bigger.

I found a clean Promaster at a good price from a great dealer and bought it.

My thoughts on the purchase afterwards

I am giddy with this purchase, writing this in Sept 2017, months after signing the paperwork. It is postively nimble for its barnlike size and drives easily. The engine is more than willing and the trans works and shifts very well.

Pleasant surprises: The van continues to surprise me in good ways. I didn’t realize it going in, but the FWD allows for a lower cargo deck. The lower cargo deck means there is no wasted step space inside the sliding door; the entire cargo deck is usable. The OEM backup camera is mounted over the rear doors looking down so it works with the doors open or closed. On the Transit it is mounted on a rear door and so is useless if trying to back up to a loading dock with the doors open. The battery is mounted under the driver’s floorboard, making a short wiring run for battery isolation/charging.

Nitpicks: The manuals are quite bad, and don’t do a good job describing how to do normal stuff like operate wipers, etc. Mine didn’t come with cruise control or a backup camera. I installed my own cam at the OEM location and will order the cruise control later this year as funds allow. I am currently getting 17-18mpg; I’d rather that be 19-20mpg.

the Build

[The progress of the build are chronicled in this thread on Cheap RV living and here with the build tag. Parts used are itemized in the bill of lading.]

build goals and parameters

  • made for me and my 2 dogs. No human traveling partners. Built to please me.
  • mostly boondocking, with some traveling to eventually hit some bucket list locations. I am a quiet person who prefers infrequent and limited periods of contact with other people. Silence pleases me.
  • minimal build, function and personal ergonomics most important
    work area for laptop
  • transverse bed deck at rear
  • composting toilet, so no black tank.
  • Ample fresh water tank, smaller gray water.
  • compressor fridge
  • standing galley for cooking with vented hood for easier indoor cooking in inclement weather
  • swivel front seat[s]
  • roof area maxxed with solar like this but with fan at rear. Overpaneled for marginal conditions (clouds, fog, rain, shade) and opportunity loads. Not interested in peak output under optimal conditions.
  • 12v system based on 6v golf carts for learning, then LiFePO4 once I get over the seemingly unavoidable battery murdering stage.
  • Outlets based on robust and compact connectors (Powerpoles)
  • separate wiring for opportunity loads
  • DIY converter, 15A port for shore power