You've seen the #vanlife Instagram pictures and YouTube videos, those $100,000 Mercedes Sprinter van builds with custom cabinets, full electrical system, chef's kitchen and shower. Those conversions take quite a bit of money, labor and time. Money I don't have and labor I don't really enjoy. My idea of DIY is assembling IKEA furniture at best. As for time, patience is not my strength. But I still want to travel and explore. So can I "build" a camper van with just bungee cords and tie-downs? Let's find out.
2020 Ram Promaster
136 Inch Wheelbase
The three popular high roof van options in the United States are the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit and Ram Promaster. I did not research the Nissan NV because of its strange looks, nor did I research vans requiring aftermarket high top conversion like the Ford e-series vans.
So why high roof and how important is it? For the height and the ability to stand. Duh! I have traveled in a low top van and let me emphatically say that standing upright is an absolute game changer. Imagine having to crawl around as you brush your teeth, change clothes, cook, etc. There are times when you can't make it through a drive-thru or park in a garage but those are greatly outweighed by the freedom to stand.
For most, including myself, cost is the first consideration. The Mercedes Sprinter is expensive. Not only with the initial purchase but the ongoing service, parts and maintenance. You need to take them to Mercedes dealers and then only dealers who specialize in diesel vans due to the emissions and electronic systems. Is the cost worth it? A comparably equipped Sprinter is probably $10,000 more expensive than either a Ford or Ram. For many the additional cost is worth it, as there is no doubt the Sprinter has better build quality and an overall better design than both the Transit and Promaster. But between the cost and headaches associated with servicing I ruled out the Sprinter.
The Transit and Promaster pricing is similar, with a comparably equipped Transit probably a couple of thousand more expensive. The Transit has more available features like power assisted cargo door and also comes in AWD (RWD is standard). Many say it drives better and is more refined than the Promaster. The Promaster can be aptly described as a barebones work truck.
Ultimately I went with a 2020 Ram Promaster 1500 136 inch wheelbase high roof. The 1500 means it's the least "heavy duty" in terms of cargo load (there are the 2500 and 3500 options if you need more cargo load capacity). The 136 inch wheelbase means its the smallest of the vans, coming in the size of a large truck or SUV and will fit in a standard parking space (there are other wheelbases if you need more cargo room).
Beside cost the following reasons pushed me to the Promaster.
The 136-inch wheel base Promaster is the shortest of the bunch, coming in at a tad under 18 feet. This is important for my parking situation. It also helps with general maneuverability in parking lots, on tight twisty roads, etc. Obviously you give up interior space but I prioritized compactness over space.
Low Floor Height
I have a small, older dog and wanted the lowest floor height for easier ingress and egress. The low floor height is made possible because the Promaster is FWD so doesn't require a driveshaft to the rear wheels.
The Promaster has a great turning radius, making it great for city driving, in parking lots, etc.
I don't really need AWD so between FWD and RWD I think FWD is better for inclement weather.
Boxy Square Design
The Promaster is very boxy, with walls that are very straight, making for easier customization.
As I mentioned above, the Promaster can be aptly described as a barebones work truck. It is not refined, it is not sophisticated or polished. It lacks many options the others vans have. Adaptive cruise control, not available. Blind spot monitoring, not available. Auto climate control, not available. All of this is reflected in the price. If you care about these amenities and options and desire a more "complete" vehicle then the Transit and Sprinter are probably better options.
In terms of options I found the following very useful.