Always useful for businesses, cargo vans have exploded in popularity with recreational buyers. We're seeing a rerun of the 1960s Volkswagen Microbus movement.
But today's vans are bigger and more capable than those old VWs.
Which one is best to build into your dream surf wagon or ultimate getaway vehicle? To find out we dove into the popular models, studying their dimensions, powertrains, pricing and much more. The highest priority was placed on cargo volume and maximum payload capacity, two of the most important specs for anyone looking to create the perfect RV.
Here’s our list, from worst to best.
4. Nissan NV HD
If you’re looking for the most van at the lowest price, check out the Nissan NV HD. This is the only body-on-frame, rear-wheel drive van in the segment, and it starts under $29,000.
A 4.0-liter V6 engine puts out 275 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque and is connected to a five-speed automatic transmission. The combination is good for a maximum payload of 3,290 pounds and a tow rating of 6,900 pounds.
If you need more power, Nissan offers the only V8 in the segment for $1,600. The 5.6-liter engine is standard on the NV3500 and delivers 375 horsepower and 387 pound-feet of torque. That’s the most horsepower in the segment, and it brings towing capacity up to a class-leading 9,400 pounds.
The Nissan NV1500 is offered in short wheelbase, low roof configuration, while the NV2500 and NV3500 are also offered as a high roof, bringing total cargo capacity up to 323.1 cubic feet. It also raises the interior roof height to 76.9 inches, though that’s the lowest in a segment where buyers place extremely high importance on being able to stand up inside.
There’s decent value to be found here. Towing is the strength of the Nissan NV HD, but its cargo space and payload are just too small for us to recommend over the other large vans on the market.
3. Ram ProMaster
Under the hood of the front-wheel drive ProMaster is the same 3.6-liter V6 engine Ram puts in its pickup trucks. It makes 280 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, which is strong for the segment. The Ram is also available with a 3.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine rated at 174 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.
Tied to a six-speed automatic transmission, the resulting capability is impressive. Maximum payload is 4,420 pounds for a 3500 High Roof with the V6. That’s more than the V8-powered Nissan NV, although at 5,100 pounds, the big Ram can tow less than the Nissan and the Ford Transit.
Two body styles are available, low roof and high roof, along with three wheelbases ranging from 118 inches to 159 inches. The longest high roof model is one of the largest vans around, with 463 cubic feet of space. Still, it’s less than you’ll find in the equivalent Ford Transit, which offers 487.3 cubic feet of space.
The Ram has a tight 40.7-foot turning circle and the lowest load floor at 21 inches, an advantage when it comes to hoisting things inside. The Ram ProMaster 1500 starts at $30,000, and a long, 3500 High Roof starts at $38,145.
Big space, improved fuel efficiency from the optional diesel engine and an impressive maximum payload capacity make the Ram ProMaster a solid choice for lifestyle buyers looking to create a mobile home away from home.
2. Ford Transit
The Ford Transit is the F-150 of Europe. For decades it has been the vehicle that gets goods and services across much of the world. It’s also the best-selling van in the U.S.
The Transit is available with three engines: a 3.7-liter V6, a turbocharged 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 and a 3.2-liter five-cylinder diesel. The base V6 makes 275 horsepower, while the turbocharged 3.5-liter, also in the F-150 pickup, makes 310 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque — the torque king of the class. The diesel is rated at 185 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, significantly more powerful than the Ram’s smaller diesel. All three engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Transit’s interior roof height for the standard version starts at 56.9 inches, and the high roof option is a very-generous 81.5 inches. The Ford also offers significantly more overall cargo space than the Nissan and the Ram.
Transit pricing starts at $31,610. An extended high roof starts at $38,000 with the V6 and has a maximum payload of 3,510 pounds, more than the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and a V6-powered Nissan NV2500. Its max towing capacity of 6,100 pounds is also more than the Mercedes and the Ram. Ford says the max payload of an extended van with the 3.5-liter is an impressive 4,590 pounds.
Disappointingly, Ford doesn’t offer any of the F-Series’ advanced safety technology systems on the Transit. Still, this van’s impressive combination of price, size and capability make it a desirable choice. It just isn’t quite as versatile as the Mercedes Sprinter.
1. Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Although it’s the most expensive van in the segment, with a starting price of $34,000, the rear-wheel drive Mercedes sprints to the top of this list for its large size, unique safety features and available four-wheel drive – which conversion shops say is a hit with lifestyle buyers and provides the best resale value in the segment.
The Sprinter van is also the only entry here with a standard diesel engine, which makes it more affordable than diesel models from Ford and Ram. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel rated at 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque with a seven-speed automatic transmission. There’s also an optional 3.0-liter BlueTec turbodiesel V6. It’s paired with a five-speed automatic transmission and produces 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Though they haven’t been certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, Sprinter owners rave about the fuel efficiency from both engines.
The Sprinter’s maximum payload is a class-leading 5,000 pounds, and it can tow 5,000 pounds. The low roof Benz also has a tall interior height of 66.5 inches, the high roof is 77.8 inches tall and the super-high roof offers a class-leading 87.8 inches. The biggest extended wheelbase Super High Roof, which also gets a dually rear axle, has a massive 516.5 cubic feet of cargo space.
Mercedes also offers the longest list of safety technology in the class. Beyond a backup camera and parking sensors, the Sprinter is the only van in the segment available with Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and Collision Prevention Assist.
With the most space, a standard diesel, class-leading safety technology, an available dually rear axle and available four-wheel drive, the Mercedes Sprinter van is an easy pick as the best choice for the lifestyle buyer. Versatile and capable, its many variations allow you to custom order the right van for your specific needs.