The big three when it comes to van conversions
If you’ve been interested in the vanlife for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard of the three most common cargo vans in van conversions: Mercedes Sprinters, Ram ProMasters, and Ford Transit vans.
What’s the difference? And which one is better for you?
What we like about Sprinters
Extra headroom inside
Usually diesel engines
Comes in a 4x4
What we like about ProMasters
Mid-size wheelbase has lots of room but still fits in a parking space
Wider inside, making sideways beds comfortable
Tightest turning radius
Lower floor so lower external height
What we like about Transit Vans
More height options, including extra tall
Aftermarket 4x4 kit let you upgrade a used van
Cheaper to buy and repair
The quintessential #vanlife van, there’s a mystique and (well-deserved) reputation about Sprinter vans, arguably the model that got cargo van conversions started. Sprinters are well-built vans from a quality manufacturer.
Let’s look at the body and engine options Sprinters provide.
Wheelbase and Body Length
Sprinters come in two wheelbases, 144″ and 170″, with an extra long option that adds a foot of interior space. As in all cargo van models, the shorter wheelbase is much easier to maneuver—but the longer vehicle provides you with more space for more features.
For the Sprinter, in particular, the short wheelbase is very fun and easy to drive. It easily fits in a regular parking space and maneuvers more similarly to your average vehicle. The longer Sprinter model, however, feels like a tank. While its expanded body offers all that tantalizing space (“We could have a shower, and a bedroom, and even put our bikes in here!”), be sure you’re comfortable driving it before you buy. Like the ProMaster’s and Transit’s longer wheelbase options, you’ll need to be strategic about turning and parking.
Sprinters come in two heights: low roof and high roof. While people do convert low roof vans, we don’t recommend it. Few of us can stand up inside the low roof model. In our opinion, it’s not a very fun adventure vehicle unless you put a poptop on it.
It’s worth noting the high roof Sprinter is taller than the high roof ProMaster, due to the ProMasters lowered floor. This gives the Sprinter better ground clearance but worse height clearance. The Sprinter is also slightly narrower than the ProMaster, giving it a skinnier look and less interior width than the other two vans. Sideways sleeping is still doable in a Sprinter with the use of side flares.
Sprinter is the only model of the three that offers four-wheel drive from the factory.
You’ll find most Sprinters with diesel engines. Mercedes introduced a gas-powered Sprinter in 2019.
Newer to the scene, ProMasters offer the same durability as their Sprinter counterparts with a few key body differences.
It’s front wheel drive only so it doesn’t have a transaxel which means the floor is lower than in a Sprinter or a Transit. This gives it a lower center of gravity, making it more stable and easier to turn. Due to the lower floor, the overall van height is shorter on the outside while giving the same amount of room on the inside. You will lose a few inches of ground clearance compared to a Sprinter.
Wheelbase and Body Length
The ProMaster comes in three lengths: 136″, 159″, and 159″ extended body, which adds a foot and a half of space inside. The 159″ regular body is a great option because it still fits in a normal parking space and has ease of driving while providing more room inside than the Sprinter or ProMaster short wheelbase version.
The ProMaster also comes in two interior roof heights, low and high. As with Sprinter, we recommend a high roof for van conversions. Levity Vans owner Jimmy Grey is 6’2″ and he can stand up in the high roof vans of all three models.
ProMaster’s only comes in two-wheel drive and do not have aftermarket options for a 4×4 conversion.
ProMaster’s comes in gas or diesel. One of the cons of the ProMaster is the clunkiness of the automatic transmission in their diesel engines. Although they will probably last for 400+ thousand miles, the engines shift like you’re driving a manual transmission. Note that ProMaster stopped making new model diesel vans so if you want a diesel ProMaster, you’ll need to buy used.
May be less well-known than the other two, Transit vans offer some unique features that make them worth your consideration.
Wheelbase and Body Length
Transits come in two wheelbases, 130″ and 148″ plus an extended body that adds almost two and a half feet to the interior. As in all cargo van models, the shorter wheelbase the easier to maneuver—but the longer vehicle provides you with more space for more features.
Unlike the other two, Transits come in three heights: low, mid, and high roof. If you’re below 5’10”, check out the mid-roof option but also consider that you may have company that is taller and at some point, resale of a higher roof might be more fruitful.
Transit’s come as 2 wheel drive but have an option to upgrade to 4 wheel drive with a 4×4 conversion from Quigley. That means you could buy a used Transit and turn it into a 4×4 much more easily than with a Sprinter, where you’ll need to get it stock, or the ProMaster which doesn’t come in 4×4. Keep in mind that converting a Transit van to 4×4 will cost between $10k and $15k.
You’ll find Transits in both diesel and gas engines.
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