Starting the Conversion Van Process

Photo by dorfor at

Photo by Greyerbaby at pixabay.comMy last post, Van Design Reality, had given me some really good facts on the importance of what we do with the space we have; and believe me, a van does not accommodate much space at all. The harsh reality of giving up so many conveniences is only off set by the motivation of living a life of personal freedom and discovery.

This post focuses on finding a van that I believe will offer the most logistical use of space, be reliable for long distance trips with varying terrains, and offer the most cost effective value. I already knew a bus would be too big and a minivan would be too small, so the focus for me is with a traditional van style vehicle.

Weeding out the competition

Mercedes Airstream– If I didn‘t have to blink an eye on spending $160,000 on a van, this would be the choice. This dream boat is actually considered a luxury coach recreational vehicle. You couldn’t ask for more, but a lower ticket price. I continued my search keeping some of the Airstream’s design ideas in mind.

GMC Savanna—I wanted to keep traditional passenger vans in my research since I had seen so many terrific conversions from other van-lifers on social media. The GMC Savannah comes highly rated on Kelly Blue Book; but unless you convert to a pop-up roof, you can not stand up inside. I definitely don’t want to feel that cramped in my tiny living space so my research continues. (If you like a traditional van style the Chevy Express Cargo & Passenger vans might also be of interest to you.)

Nissan NV—The Nissan NV has a high roof option of 6’3”, but its length is too small for what I’m looking for. One real incentive to the Nissan is their 5 year/100,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty which supersedes the 3 year/36,000 mile warranty offered by most. If you’re flying solo this van’s length of 96” might be enough and the warranty will definitely help reduce long term costs.


The Candidates

After ruling out some of the competition based on interior size alone, I am down to the final three—the Promaster, the Transit and the Sprinter. My research is based on the newest data available as of January 2020.

Ram Promaster—The Ram Promaster is a favorite among many van-lifers, especially when purchasing used. This van also boasts a tight turning radius which is a selling point for me. Another bonus is this van’s payload ability of up to 4680 lbs. In 2020 they will be dropping the Diesel engine and solely offering a gas V-6; this affects fuel economy. Some other areas to consider are sparse driver assistance, limited technology options and a lower towing capability of 6800 lbs in comparison to its rivals.

Photo courtesy of Ram PromasterInterior— Height: 6’2” Length: 106”, 126”, 140” Width:  73”

Exterior—Height: 8’4” Length: 17’9”, 19’8”, 20’10”

Wheel Base: 136”, 159”

Fuel Economy—-Gas 3.5L V6 Engine, 280hp, 17mpg (Car & Driver reported 14 mpg)

Warranty—Limited: 3 yr/ 36,000 miles Powertrain: 5 yr/ 60,000 miles

Base Pricing: $32,000-$43,000

2020 Ford Transit—The Ford Transit is the only one in its class that offers two higher roof options—5’10” and 6’5”. This van also has a towing capability of 7500 lbs and offers all wheel drive. It has added bonuses of driving assistance features, smooth handling and a quiet cabin. Two cons to consider are the lower payload ability of 4530 lbs and the popular opinion that it is not as comfortable as the Promaster or Sprinter.

Photo courtesy of Ford TransitInterior— Height:  5’10”, 6’5” Length: 106”, 124”, 154” Width: 69”

Exterior—Height: 8’5”, 9’2”Length: 18’4”, 19’8”, 22’2”

Wheel Base: 130”, 148”

Fuel Economy—-Gas 3.5L V6 Engine, 275hp (there’s also a 310hp option), 17mpg

Warranty—Limited: 3 yr/ 36,000 miles Powertrain: 5 yr/ 60,000 miles

Base Pricing: $35,000-$42,000

2020 Mercedes Sprinter —The Mercedes Sprinter is known as the “king of cargo and passenger vans.” This is the only van in its class to offer four wheel drive. It comes with the most space, safety features, and versatile options. It’s comfortable with a “high quality feel” and is quiet on the highway. This van has the highest payload in its class ranging from 3800 to 6700 lbs. Besides the steeper price, some of the other drawbacks to consider are its lower towing capability (maxing at 5,000 lbs) and the lack of technology at the base level (you have to pay more for navigation, touchscreen, etc.).

Photo courtesy of Mercedes Benz SprinterInterior— Height: 6’3” Length:  123”, 165”, 180” Width: 69”

Exterior—Height: 9’  Length: 19’4”, 22’9”, 24’

Wheel Base: 144”, 170”

Fuel Economy—-Diesel 3.0L 6 cyl Engine, 188hp, 20 mpg

Warranty—Limited: 3 yr/ 36,000 miles Powertrain: 5 yr/ 100,000 miles

Base Pricing: $43,000-$59,000

Weighing the Options

Photo by qimono on pixabayNow that the basic facts have been established it’s time to weigh my options and make the best choice. I’ve chosen the winners in each category to weigh out which van is the best choice for my requirements. Which van would you choose based on the information I’ve gathered?

All three win here…

Exterior Height—Believe it or not, this is a concern for me. I want to make sure my vehicle will pass through the majority, if not all, of the bridges, tunnels and the like that I will encounter on my travels. Although the clearance on an interstate is 16 feet; a local highway underpass may only have a clearance of 14 feet, some even lower. All of the vans pass this test with some extra room for solar panels!

Interior Height—All three models offer a comparable interior height. I would probably not opt for the 5’10” Transit option since I am already 5’7” and my build out will absorb some of the interior height. Overall, between the options of 6’2” to 6’5” I will have plenty of room for standing even with insulation, ceiling, floor, or any other options I choose.

Quiet Cabin—Both the Transit and Sprinter seem to ride quietly on the highway. I’m going to give this one to all three though because a build out is not included in the reviews I read. Adding insulation, flooring, and other options should quiet down highway noise regardless of the vehicle.

Photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash

The Fords Transit wins here…

Engine—The Transit offers three powertrain options leading up to a turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 with 310 horsepower and 410 lb-ft of torque. That’s the most powerful option out of the three.

The Sprinter comes with two engine options, but the 2.0L will not suffice for the payload size of a build out; you will need the turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 diesel. The low 188hp is offset by the engines high torque output of 325 lb-ft.

The Promaster’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine provides 280 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque which puts this van in third place.

Towing—The Transit has the best towing capability at 7500 lbs. Some van-lifers bring along a secondary vehicle (car, motorcycle, scooters, etc.) for traveling locally at a destination.

Safety & Driver Assistance Features—The Transit boats the most safety and driver assistance features without additional packages to purchase. You can get more advanced features on the Sprinter if you add them on, but this will increase your cost.

Courtesy of Ford Photos

Technology—The Transit scores big here with all of the bells and whistles—navigation, WiFi hotspot, satellite radio, Bluetooth technology and more. The Promaster is close behind, but doesn’t offer Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. The Sprinter only offers technology features beyond an AM/FM radio, Bluetooth and USB port if you pay for expensive upgrading (up to $2530!).

The Ram Promaster wins here…

Photo by ramtruck.caInterior Width—Size is one of the biggest factors in deciding to convert to Van Life, but at what point is it too cumbersome? The Transit and Sprinter both have a width of 69”, but the Promaster’s width is 73”. The average parking space is 9 or 10 feet wide by 18 or 20 feet long, respectively. (Keep in mind compact spaces can be as small as 7.5 feet wide.) All three vans will fit a standard parking space, but it may be a tight squeeze getting in and out of your vehicle based on your size. In addition, if you choose an extra long van you may not fit length wise. Four inches isn’t a big increase, but it’s an increase nonetheless. The Promaster wins this category.

pile of dollar bills

Price—There could be a difference in price of at least $20,000 based on which make and model is chosen. I have read a lot of reviews on used vans and would prefer not to inherit someone else’s bad maintenance or unusual abuse of the vehicle. (Many reviews warn against purchasing a van used by a business; they are often poorly maintained and abused mechanically.) Buying new is the ultimate goal so there is an expectation of dependency. However, if the budget is super tight a Promaster will be the best choice to begin the journey.

The Mercedes Sprinter wins here…

Interior Length—Length is where you really get the space to customize your van with the options you really want. The Sprinter surpasses the Transit and the Promaster with 165” and 180” options.

Comfort—The reviews all point to the Sprinter having the most comfortable driver seat. If you spend a lot of hours on the road you will know how invaluable this can be.

Photo by Michael Simari Car and DriverGround Clearance—The Sprinter has the best ground clearance at 7.9”, surpassing its rivals by an inch or more. This is an important feature to me considering the large wheel bases that accompany these vans and the varying terrains I plan on visiting.

Payload—The Sprinter has the highest payload in its class ranging from 3800 to 6700 lbs. This means I have more options on the build out.

Fuel Economy—The Mercedes Sprinter gets the best fuel economy and this is an important factor to me for saving money long term. The mileage will add up with all of the traveling planned. As a caveat, Sprinters have been known to have a life expectancy well over 250,000 miles—even into 500,000 if maintained well.

Warranty—The Mercedes Sprinter offers the best warranty between the three choices, adding an extra 40,000 miles of powertrain reassurance.

The Verdict

Photo by Jason Morrison on freeimagesMy goal is to purchase a new van for this investment and build it out myself. A new vehicle should be more reliable overall and have a better resale value down the line. All three of the top contenders are suitable for van conversion and could be options if my budget falls short and I opt to buy used.

The Mercedes Sprinter is my top choice for purchasing a new van for conversion. Payload, interior length, comfort, fuel economy and ground clearance are really important to me.

  • I do not plan on towing another vehicle; only a couple of bikes and maybe a moped for some local fun. The towing ability of the Sprinter will work just fine for me.
  • Technology is a sore point for me. I really enjoy having Bluetooth, satellite radio, and access to WiFi on the road. It’s nice to have these built into the vehicle, mostly because after-market tech is easier for thieves to remove. The Sprinter has a package upgrade, but I’ll also research after-market components to have the best options.
  • Driver assistance is great for insurance reductions, safety, and overall easier driving tasks. You can get a ton of options, but I’m really partial to just a few of them. It’s an extra $3100 to add the packages that will include rear view camera and blind spot assist that I feel are essential, especially with a larger vehicle. This will have to be an added expense I need to include.Veteran’s Memorial Highway, Whiteface Mountain, New York
  • I definitely like an engine with some power. It’s good to be able to get out of the way of speeding traffic and power up steep inclines. Again, I will have to upgrade the Sprinter to get the better engine option. That’s an additional $4,000, but with a Diesel engine I should get that money back over time in fuel costs.
  • I put a lot of miles on my vehicles so a little extra on the warranty is always helpful. If an extended warranty is available I will most likely add it. In my experience, warranties alway pay for themselves by about 80,000 miles.

Driving in Adirondack Park, New York, Fall FoliageChoosing a van for conversion has brought me one step closer to my goal. Now I need to define my choices with the Sprinter and my build so I can set a budget. (My next post will focus on how I set my budget.) This is a big step in my journey since I began my Tiny Living adventure eighteen months ago. I’m looking forward to living a life of personal freedom and discovery.  How does that sound to you?



Published by newyorkfamilyadventures

Momager, New Yorker, Travel Blogger, Actress, Martial Artist, Amateur Photographer, Writer, Conservationist

12 thoughts on “Starting the Conversion Van Process

  1. Have you spent some time in the sprinter? I used on 72 hours a week at work on an ambulance and I didn’t enjoy the way it handled in the wind and rain compared to the other vehicles.

      1. I think what you are doing is amazing by the way, just a bit too tired to think of any elegant way to say it. My son has two teeth coming and sleep is a bit… under quota. My hat off to you! 👒

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