The Ultimate Guide: What's The Best Van To Convert For #Vanlife

The Ultimate Guide: What's The Best Van To Convert For #Vanlife

December 17, 2019 0 Comments

So you're looking to convert a van into a camper van? We dive deep into what to keep an eye out for when starting this everlasting journey.

Here's what we'll cover in this article:

  1. Dimensions of a Mercedes Sprinter
  2. Pros and Cons of a Mercedes Sprinter van conversion
  3. Dimensions of a Ford Transit
  4. Pros and Cons of a Ford Transit van conversion
  5. Dimensions of a Dodge Promaster
  6. Pros and cons of a Dodge Promaster van conversion
  7. A recap of the comparison between the three main conversion vans
  8. What to look for when ordering/buying a factory conversion van for #vanlife.
  9. 4x4 VS 2WD
  10. Gas vs Diesel

We’ve compiled information about the most common van chassis for van conversions into one area so you don’t need to sift through 5 different sites to find which is perfect for your van life. I’m sure by now you’ve realized that the digital world of van conversions is a black hole of amazing content, you may have even lost track of time (again) and it’s 3 am while you're read this.

Already know what chassis you want and you're ready to order your van? Click here to see what we recommend adding when you order your van!

This list will go through the main vans that are used for camper van conversions and what we like about each from our past van builds and from other people's experiences in the industry.

Each 3 of the main high roof vans have 3 wheelbase conversions, each van different having pros, cons, and van interior dimensions. So it’s important to have an idea of what you’re looking for in a van conversion in terms of layout, sleeping arrangements, power systems, water systems, appliances, will you be hauling mountain bikes or other gear and more.

Are you a weekend warrior? A full-time van lifer? Summer trips with the family?

All of these will present different layout needs that may dictate the minimum WB (wheelbase) size you’ll need for your van conversion.

A few quick key points before we dive a little deeper.:

Sprinter:Longest van conversion space & 4x4

Promaster: Widest van interior

Transit: Highest van interior (came out with an AWD van option for 2020)

So what is the best van for van conversions?

Sprinter Van Conversions Canada

Conversion Van Basic Mechanical Comparison

Van Engine MPG Transmission HP Torque
Sprinter 6 Cyl 3.0L Diesel 20 7 Speed Auto 188 325
    4 Cyl 2.0L Gas 17 9 Speed Auto 188 258
Transit Gas 3.5L V6 Eco Boost 17 10 Speed Auto 306 400
  3.5L V6 Gas 17 10 Speed Auto 271 260
  2.0L Turbo Diesel 20 10 Speed Auto 210 369
Promaster 3.6L V6 Gas 17 7 Speed Auto 280 258

Why does this information matter?

  • It's nice to look at this chart to compare the vans for your conversion for a few reasons. If you are going to be towing gear or doing a lot of mountain driving, a transmission with more gears and a van with more torque is going to be beneficial.
  • An easy way to remember how this works is a quote from Tims Capital Trucking. "Torque does the work, but horsepower makes the work go fast".
  • A higher torque will allow you to tow more weight with lower RPMs which in turn results in greater fuel economy.

Mercedes Sprinter Van Conversion Dimensions


 

Body Height Interior Width Wheelbase Conversion Length Exterior Length

Regular Body

Low Roof - 5' 4"

69"

144"

123"

19' 4"

 

High Roof - 6' 3"

"

"

"

"

Extended Body

High Roof- 6' 3"

"

170"

165"

22' 9"

Long Body

High Roof- 6' 3"

"

170"

180"

24"

 

Sprinter Van Conversion Pros: 

  • Until the new 2020 models of Ford Transit AWD come out, the Sprinter Van is the only van with a factory 4x4 option. This will be super beneficial if you are looking to buy a used van for your conversion to save some money.
  • Mercedes vehicles hold their value extremely well for resale value.
  • Diesel gives you the option for a Webasto or Espar heating system without building an auxiliary diesel tank.
  • Better than average MPG in the 6-cyl diesel.

Sprinter Van Conversion Cons:

  • A Mercedes vehicle comes with a higher cost upfront and maintenance fees. If anything happens with the electrical systems it is going to cost a lot more than if you owned a Dodge or Ford. Even oil changes are more (however they last longer).
  • It's a lot harder to find a Mercedes dealership (21 in Canada, 370 in USA) than it is to find a Fiat Chrysler Dodge (440 in Canada, 2500 in USA) or Ford shop (400+ in Canada, 3000 in USA). In saying that, not all mechanics are qualified to work on all vehicles.
  • With diesel options for your Sprinter Van, it can be a bit harder to travel to more southern countries where diesel and low-sulfur fuel is as less-available and sometimes the quality that is available isn't what Mercedes recommends for use in their vehicles.
  • The dreaded DEF debate. You can read more on this here.
Sprinter Van Conversion

Ford Transit Van Conversion Dimensions


 

Body Height Interior Width Wheelbase Conversion Length Exterior Length

Regular Body

Medium Roof - 5' 10"

69"

130"

106"

18' 4"

 

High Roof - 6' 5"

"

"

"

"

Extended Body

High Roof- 6' 5"

"

148"

124"

19' 8"

Long Body

High Roof- 6' 5"

"

148"

154"

22' 2"

 

Ford Transit Van Conversion Pros:

  • Ford Transits have the tallest roofs available for a van conversion. So if you're tall, this choice may be a no brainer. Even if you're not that little extra space might make a world of difference to you!
  • The Eco-boost engine is awesome, they have a lot of power and are fantastic on fuel getting similar MPG to that of the 6 cylinder diesel Sprinter.
  • Ford will have the AWD option starting in 2020 so you are no longer limited to the Sprinter van for 4x4/AWD van conversion options.
  • Plenty of dealerships and mechanic shops can work on these vans and they are cheap to have work done on.

Ford Transit Van Conversion Cons:

  • With the long body van chassis, they have a long rear end overhang (having the shortest wheelbase) so the rear end can scrape coming out of driveways or other things of that nature.
  • The wheel wells are small so it makes adding aftermarket wheels and accessories a bit more challenging, but doable.
Ford Transit Conversion

Dodge Promaster Van Conversion Dimensions


 

Body Height Interior Width Wheelbase Conversion Length Exterior Length

Regular Body

Low Roof - 5' 4"

73"

136"

106"

17' 9"

 

High Roof - 6' 2"

"

"

"

"

Extended Body

High Roof- 6' 2"

"

159"

126"

19' 8"

Long Body

High Roof- 6' 2"

"

159"

140"

20" 10'

 

 

 

Dodge Promaster Van Conversion Pros:

  • Promaster van conversions are the widest available which makes side to side bedding a breeze - depending on your height you may not even need to add flares.
  • The turning radius on these vans is amazing for a cargo vehicle. Depending on what your intended use is, this may be beneficial for manoeuvring back roads and bush-wacking. This is even noticeable in daily driving and super nice to have.
  • Plenty of dealerships and mechanic shops can work on these vans and they are cheap to have work done on.

 

Dodge Promaster Van Conversion Cons:

  • There is no way to do a 4x4 conversion on the current Dodge Promaster models.
  • With no diesel option and a lower amount of power overall, these vans are not good for towing.
  • Overall, these vans have the smallest length for a van conversion at 140". If you plan on having a lot of accessories or full-time living in this unit with multiple people, this van might not be for you.
  • The hardest van to cover internally with panels (if you plan on a DIY conversion)
Dodge Promaster Conversion

Recap:


Some questions to ask yourself before starting your van conversion:

  • What will your average length of trip be? Will you be near civilization and amenities?
    • Will you need a bathroom and shower in your conversion van? If so you might need a longer wheelbase conversion van with more available space. We go more in depth on this below.
  • How many people will be travelling with me? Do I need to add extra seating and bed options?
    • If you answered yes, you need to take the convertible interior space into consideration as every inch counts in these small spaces. A longer wheelbase conversion van might be a better option for you.
  • Do I prefer gas or diesel? How will this affect my heat and hot water sources?
    • If you have a diesel van, you can tap right into the diesel tank for hot water and cabin heat and even your cooktop.
    • If you run on gas, you can also tap into the gas tank to hear your air.

      But to heat water you'll need to run on propane, create an auxiliary diesel tank that is mounted underneath your van to run the same diesel systems, or use a glycol/electric system. Sound confusing and way too hard? Contact us, we can help!
  • Am I planning on going off-roading and taking my van conversion to paths less travelled?
    • If you answered yes, you might need to consider a 4x4 or AWD option. These are only available in the Mercedes Sprinter and the 2020+ Ford Transit models. However a 2WD van with the weight of the conversion in the cargo bay will take you most places.
  • Is there height restrictions where I live that I need to take van height into consideration?
    • If so, a shorter van or a Metris/Transit Connect might be a smarter option. Keep in mind these options also greatly limit your van conversion space on the interior.
    • Another option would be a poptop! But these can increase the work and cost of your conversion significantly.
  • Where will I be travelling in my van?
    • If you plan on going south of the US border where diesel options are limited, you may want to steer towards a gas option for your van conversion.
    • Dealerships and service stations, this is also something you want to consider for maintenance of your van. Breakdowns and maintenance is a part of any vehicle, mitigate risk before you make your investment. Ford and Dodge can be fixed at virtually all mechanic shops where as a Mercedes requires a dealership or a specialty mechanic that charges premium rates.

This info should give you a good base to start thinking more proactively in your search for the optimal conversion van. Overall, there is no bad choice for your van conversion, only personal ones. Each van has it's pros and cons and your choice is dependant on your use. We go even more in depth on what to look for if you're ordering from the factory below!

If you have any further questions or are interested in doing a custom van conversion for yourself (we can help you find a van), contact us! We would be more than happy to help get you on the road.

If you need some inspiration for your own build, check out our van conversion gallery!

Looking To Buy New?

What To Look For and Order When Buying a New Conversion Van

We get asked all of the time, what do I look for in a vehicle, conversion van or school bus, that is worth converting into a custom campervan or skoolie. When you choose to build with Paved To Pines, we can help you find and procure the vehicle for converting as we have relationships with the dealerships locally. But if you are looking on your own, there are definitely features you want to look at making sure your van has.

Must haves:

Make sure you buy a Cargo van, not a crew or passenger van –

You should be searching for cargo vans because they're a blank slate and have the least amount of features that you don't need that increase the cost.

A fantastic thing with the cargo van for van conversions is you can order specific window's to be installed whereas a passenger van is loaded with windows and you have no other options. If you find a great conversion van on the lot already and it doesn't have windows, we can add some at our shop! We have different styles to choose from.

On top of all these other benefits, a cargo van is also the least expensive option – They're typically $10,000 or more expensive when you go for the crew/passenger vans. If you want a bench seat, that doesn't turn into a bed, you may consider a crew van. Not to worry, we can always add in aftermarket seats as well.

High roof –

Nearly all of the conversion vans that we work on are high roofs. This is mostly because you can stand up in them BUT if you feel you'd have enough space with a medium roof, or something smaller, for parking, budget, or other reasons, we can work on that as well.

Even after we add roof insulation, standing height in a high roof Sprinter van, Promaster and Transit is at least 6’0. If you are taller than 6’1, we recommend going with a Transit van as they are the tallest high roof conversion van available on the market.

Wheelbase Options

The best wheelbase for you really depends on your personal preference and needs for the van conversion! The largest difference is the roof space for fans, air conditioner units, rack space, etc and the interior floor space to add more into your mini studio apartment on wheels.

As mentioned above, in the conversion van comparison tables:

The Dodge Promaster van with a 136" WB gives you 8'8.3" of buildable floor space, whereas the 159" WB gives you 10'5" of buildable space with the longest version giving you 11'6" of useable floorspace for your conversion.

The Ford Transit van with a 130" WB gives you 8'8.3" of buildable floor space, similar to the Promaster, whereas the 148" WB gives you 10'3" of buildable space with the longest version giving you 12'8" of useable floorspace for your conversion

The Mercedes Sprinter van with a 144" WB gives you 10'6" of buildable floor space, whereas the 170" WB gives you 14" of buildable space with the longest version giving you 15'6" of useable floorspace for your conversion

The smaller vans, like the Promaster 136" WB and the 159" WB (standard), the Ford Transit 130" WB and the 148" WB (standard) and the Sprinter 144" WB are great for in town maneuverability as they are all under 20' in length from bumper to bumper. The short wheelbase van conversions make it easier to navigate around cities and off-road.

The longest version of the Transit, Promaster and both models of the Sprinter 170 is a great choice for a conversion if you are looking to travel long term in your conversion van.

The reasons being, if you get an interior wet bath or need additional seating or storage in your van, you're going to need a longer van as it takes up a large footprint. The 170 WB Sprinter is longer than all models of the Transit and Promaster and is just over 20 feet at 229'9" but will still fit into a regular parking spot.

Parallel parking is tricky when you get into the longest versions of each the Transit and Promaster and next to impossible with the 170" WB Long body Sprinter. But the longest sprinter offers a ton of available space to use for your conversion and is great if you're not going to be doing a ton of city driving, which, really, is not what you wanna be doing in a camervan anyways. You wanna be out in nature.

4WD/AWD vs 2WD –

Both are great options for van conversions. the 4x4 Sprinter is one of the most popular options on the market but with the AWD Transit coming out in 2020. The market might see a massive shift due to the massive price difference and affordability by Ford offering something similar.

However, the 2WD to be is an awesome and capable vehicle for a much more reasonable price, especially with the weight of the van conversions cargo area preventing it from being too light to drive in snow and ice. With the right tires and driver, the 2WD can do what you need your van to do.

Here are several reasons we say most people only need the 2WD OR a Ford Transit AWD option which is new in their 2020 models and much cheaper than a 4x4 Sprinter Van conversion.

First, a much lower initial cost and increased availability. Purchasing a 4×4 Sprinter Van from the dealership may require a waiting period of 6-18 months or longer. Purchasing a Ford Transit AWD may also require a waiting period but they are 10's of thousands of dollars cheaper than the Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 option.

Second, lower maintenance cost and better gas mileage. The 2WD gets 2-4 mi/gal better than the 4x4/4WD and has lower costs to maintain with fewer components and moving parts. On top of that, this is another reason we redirect most of our clients to the Ford Transit for their van conversion in the first place, cheaper parts, more availability in terms of mechanics, and you still get great gas mileage and while being a much much cheaper basecamp to start your campervan on.

Third, these vans are not designed for serious 4×4 driving anyways. If you are looking for a nimble, rock crawling, mudding, sand duner vehicle, this isn't it. These van conversions can handle a lot of roads and weather conditions, even in a 2WD, but a non-ideal wheel base and low clearance height before you add on aftermarket wheels and tires and suspension kits along with the high roofs, it makes these vans susceptible to high centring or other damage. Especially if tanks and other modifications are added underneath the van.

Lastly, the 4×4 Sprinter is a limited slip system which means it is not actually a true 4×4.

At the end of the day it is your van conversion and your use that determines the van you buy, but you should get by with the Ford Transit AWD or a 2WD van in any of the models.

Gas vs. Diesel –

Once again, both are good options for your van.

A major benefit of diesel is that they last so long. It's not unheard of to hit 300,000+ miles on your vehicle before it’s considered high mileage. Diesel is also more fuel efficient. Sprinter vans get an average of 18-25mpg with diesel. If you’re towing or carrying trailers or heavier loads, diesel has more torque, which will also help with the weight of the van conversion but you'll need to make sure your payload is high enough to carry the weight properly.

Gas Sprinters are new in 2020 and are less common whereas gas options are much more common in Ford Transits and Dodge Promasters.

In saying that, a gas engine will give you faster acceleration and higher speeds than a diesel vehicle will, but less torque for carrying loads. However the new 3.5L Ecoboost has fantastic torque and horsepower.

Gas engine parts cost less and they’re more readily available, making a big difference when travelling in remote areas if you need your vehicle serviced. If you'll be travelling remote or south of the border into Mexico and South America as stated earlier in the van comparison you'll want to consider getting a petrol vehicle. In very cold climates, diesel tends to have a tougher time starting, so gas could be more applicable to extremely cold climates like Canadian Climates.

3/4 tonne vs 1 tonne (250 vs 350 or 2500 vs 3500)

We typically recommend the AT LEAST 250/2500 class Sprinters, Transits, and Promasters, but upgrading the suspension and wheels to increase the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating).

The smaller wheel wells of single axles allow for more conversion space and you'll very rarely ever need a dually. The 3500 has a single and a dually option in some of the vans, dually means larger wheel wells inside and less floor space for the conversion but a larger GVWR and tow rating.

If you will be towing heavy loads like toy trailer and having a big interior build, we recommend going with the 350/3500. Another thing to keep in mind is that the 170 extended 2500 and 3500 have the same 5000lb towing capacity and GVWR.

Roof rails –

Roof rails can be added later if need be, but they are a must.

The OEM roof rails allow you to fasten products on the roof without drilling holes or having to access the interior of the roof. It's easier to add this when ordering the vehicle vs adding it aftermarket in terms of cost.

Factory swivel bases –

This is a no brainer! Swivels are awesome and open up the entire cabin area for more usable space in your van conversion. There is a whole bunch of space and two extra comfy seats at the front, why not use them.

Swivel bases can be added later, but the factory ones are cheaper and are shorter so when you rotate your feet don't dangle depending on your height.


Wheels and Suspension –

We always recommend upgrading shocks, struts, wheels and tires to increase drivability and increase the weight rating to better handle the weight of the van conversion.

We recommend waiting to increase your suspension until you get your van to us as the aftermarket accessories are better than the factory options in this case.

Additional alternator –

This one isn't mandatory but it is a fantastic option and acts as a generator for your house battery system. It also reduces the wear of your primary alternator by separating the vehicle and the house batteries so each have their own alternator charge.

However, we can always add an isolator that regulates the charge between the batteries and alternator if you only have one.

Usually a secondary alternator is only necessary if you have a large battery bank.

If you have any further questions or are interested in doing a custom van conversion for yourself (we can help you find a van), contact us! We would be more than happy to help get you on the road.

If you need some inspiration for your own build, check out our van conversion gallery!





Also in School Bus & Van Conversions

3 Simple Steps To Finish Your Van Conversion Wall Panels
3 Simple Steps To Finish Your Van Conversion Wall Panels

December 18, 2019 0 Comments

This is a guide for all you camper van conversion DIYers looking to create your wall panels with some extra flair in your van conversion by adding patterned fabric, vinyl, or carpet.

Read More

A Simple Guide To: Flooring Your Van Conversion
A Simple Guide To: Flooring Your Van Conversion

December 18, 2019 0 Comments

This is a simple blog post showing the steps and materials required to install the furring strips, subfloor, and flooring in your van conversion or school bus conversion.

Read More

A Simple Guide: Calculating Solar Power Needs For Van Conversions
A Simple Guide: Calculating Solar Power Needs For Van Conversions

December 18, 2019 0 Comments

Read More