Van Life: Which Van to Buy?

Ten years ago, today, was the start of my blog coinciding with my year long trip around the USA in my Eurovan, Vanilla.  Who would have thought on this ten-year anniversary, I would now be a proud owner of a Sprinter van…name to be determined! (Ideas welcome)

eurovan, long pool recreation area, ozark national forest

It is funny how things have come full circle.  After I sold Vanilla because I was having maintenance issues, it didn’t take long before I regretted it.  Rumor had it that Volkswagon was going to come out with a new version.  I held out for a while.

Then somehow, I got on to the Landcruiser with a poptop.  Unfortunately, these are not made in America, and they can’t be imported without living in a foreign country for six months.  I kept being hopeful something would change…NOPE!

Finally COVID came along and some of my friends, RideCrashBurn on IG, bought an RV.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  They look like they are having so much fun chasing lakes, and they inspired me to rove again.

Mercedes, Ford or RAM

As a result, I broke down and looked into the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, and the RAM ProMaster.  I have resisted them as I don’t like the look from the outside, and they seemed like they would be top-heavy to drive.  The Mercedes proved my top-heavy theory wrong.

Regardless, who knew how many options there are for camper vans now?  Despite having already driven around the country in a van ten years ago when it wasn’t nearly as popular, I faced a big learning curve.  My friend Brad, who has built out a Sprinter van, was a huge help!

Given how much I have pestered Brad and how time intensive this process has been, I decided to write about my experiences and what I’ve learned for the novices out there. Since I opted for the Sprinter Van, I will use the Mercedes naming conventions and sizes in this write-up, but it is easy to apply these to their competitors.

First, unless you are buying a pre-made van like the Winnebago Revel or you find a camper van company that builds out generic options and sells a package, you have to buy the van and provide it to camper builders for a custom build.

Due to COVID, the vans and camper designers are in high demand.  The vans are flying off the lots in hours and some designers have a year-long wait!  Additionally, due to changes in emission regulations, the 2021’s likely won’t be available until next summer.  As a result, buying a van requires a quick decision, so it is best to know what you want. 

mercedes sprinter van

Things to Know Before You Go Buy a Van

The biggest components to know are as follows:

  1. There is a cargo van, crew van, and passenger van.  Assuming you are hiring a camper company to build it out, you want a cargo van.
  2. There is a high roof and a standard roof.  You want a high roof so that you can stand inside it.  The low roof is for utility or passenger vehicles.
  3. There is a 144” wheelbase and a 170” wheelbase.  This is the length of the van, and it is obviously your preference.  Being 1 person with a dog, I opted for a 144” wheelbase as the van is BIG, and the shorter version is easier to maneuver.  Others prefer the longer wheelbase because there is more space and storage.
  4. While there is a 4-cylinder gas version of the Sprinter, the most common purchase (and most everything on the lot) is the 6-cylinder diesel.  With the 6-cylinder, the question tehn becomes do you add on 4×4.  My friend Brad says the 4×4 isn’t necessary, but since I could end up in the snow and I’m not trained on 4WD roads, I splurged for the option.  I also felt for the wintery state of Colorado, it would have good resale value.  The 4×4 is an extra $7,000, so it is something to heavily consider.
  5. Finally, you’ll have to choose from the 1500, 2500, 3500, 3500XD, or the 4500.  These classes identify the payload and weight.  I honestly don’t know all the lingo and power needed, but most people only need the 2500 and that is the most common option on the lot.  Also, the 4×4 eliminates the 1500 and 3500 choices.

So, in summary, I ended up looking for the 4×4 2500 cargo van with a high roof and 144” wheelbase.  The Mercedes in Westminster had several to choose from, and the Ford in Littleton had a comparable option.  The two dealerships couldn’t have been farther apart in Denver!

mercedes sprinter van

Between the Ford Transit and the Mercedes Sprinter, there really wasn’t a comparison with professionalism or driving performance.  Mercedes is much better.  Having said that, I was giving the Transit a try due to a handful of reasons. 

First and foremost, more people are able to work on Fords if something goes wrong.  Additionally, repairs are cheaper.  Also, the Transit is available with gasoline rather than diesel.  While diesel is considered a better engine, gas stations with diesel fuel are harder to find.  Not to mention, the engine can freeze.

As far as the RAM goes, its clearance for 4WD roads is lower. I wanted the highest possible. Not to mention, they did not have any high roofs on the lot for test driving, so my choices narrowed.

Sprinter Packages

Now that I had picked the Sprinter, I had to decide on the packages.  I got bogged down in the details online, as I wanted to test drive the van with my preferred options.  I shouldn’t have waisted my time.  The vans came with certain packages, and that was what was available.  Period!

I ended up with lots of additional options including roof rails, navigation, wood floors, side wall boards, cruise control, the comfort package as well as the basic comfort package, the drivers convenience package, the premium package, and more which added up to an additional 10 grand.

sideboard and wood floor in sprinter van
side wall boards and wood floor

There is even a higher grade model that includes electric and heated seats, a bigger navigation screen, and a phone charging without a cord.  The Westminster dealership only had that model in the standard roof.  Whew!  I managed to save $3,000 without getting that!

front cabin of sprinter van
no electric seats for me

Lesser version models did not include the comfort packages or drivers convenience package which I consider rather important since I will driving long distances.  These packages include more comfortable seats, a multi-function steering wheel, and blind spot assist among other things.

The Purchase

Having decided on the model and options, dealing with Mercedes was my best car experience yet.  While my negotiating power was limited due to the demand, because I knew Brad who already had two cars from them, I got a small discount with no haggling.  It’s the first time I haven’t felt like I need to take a shower as soon as I left the building!

With the deal complete, I didn’t leave with the van because I didn’t want to drive it around without back windows or a rearview mirror, the standard for cargo vans.  Mercedes threw in a rearview mirror for free and offered to have Summit install Mercedes glass into the back doors for an additional fee.

While I could have waited until the build and got it done for cheaper, the year long waitlist was too long for me.  I would like to say this process went smoothly, but it did not.  Mercedes shipped two right side windows instead of a left and a right.  Summit was backed up due to demand and it took three tries for the van to pass the water test. 

Finally, when Mercedes got the van back, someone in the detail department had tested positive for COVID so they were in quarantine.  Nevertheless, it is in my possession now (Mercedes delivered it to me), and during the delay, I signed a contract with a builder.  Find out more about the build out on my next post.  To be continued…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

11 thoughts on “Van Life: Which Van to Buy?

  1. i have often wondered what happened to Vanilla. I read every post about your adventures with your 2 dogs then 1 dog. It was always interesting. Then Vanilla was out of the picture and you were off to Antarctica and around the world. Still interesting but not the same. I have had a EVC since 2001 so Vanilla, great name btw, adventures around our country was something I could do. We live in the Dallas area but have a place in Loveland that we keep the EVC. Your adventures around Denver are something we could do from Loveland. I to wondered if VW would ever a able to import their new vans. Guess not and could not afford one now since retired. Good luck with your new Sprinter and I look forward to your adventures. BTW a few years ago we bought a Rialta that my grandbuddies named “the adventure van”.

    One more thing. Is your family connected with the Bankhead highway?

    1. Wow! So nice to hear you followed me. I’m originally from Dallas. Loved there 40 years.

      I have a new dog now too, Annie. Part of why I got another van so she could travel too.

      We will have to meet up the next time you are in Loveland and go on an adventure! Thx for the comment.
      And no, I don’t believe we are related to the highway. I didn’t even know about it until my roadtrip 10 years ago!

  2. One name for it to toss in the hat, CRACKER. Check with Cate, as she just got back from a month long trip in Idaho. Not sure if it was her friend in Idaho or Kingsville, TX but someone she knows well has a company that does old airstream conversions and may or may not be of help, but could Probably point you into several directions/options for an interior buildout. CCT

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