Best Vans for Van Life: Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster

Compare the best vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster (& more) and dive into details like 4x4 & length.

In the last lesson, we talked about how your lifestyle and location will affect your van choice, and we also gave you some questions to start thinking about. In this lesson, we’ll talk about some the best vans for van life and the pros and cons of each.

We cover popular panel style vans such as the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Promaster, as well as the VW and budget-friendly cargo style vans. Whether you are looking for something budget-friendly, off-road capable, or a van with a lot of headspace, by the end of this blog post, you’ll have all of the details about the best vans to live in, so you can narrow down the options that will work for your lifestyle.

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Why Panel Vans are the Best Vans for Van Life

In recent years, panel type vans have taken off as the best vans for van life. These panel vans include the Mercedes Sprinter, the Ford Transit, and the Dodge Promaster. These have gained popularity for a few reasons.

  • In the tall roof models, you can stand up inside (unless you are taller than 6’5”, then you might have trouble).
  • They are fully customizable. You literally buy the empty shell and then the van is your oyster.
  • Depending on what the outside looks like, these can pass as work vans, allowing you to go stealth in the city.

Now let’s talk about some of these panel type vans for van life and the major differences between them, starting with the Sprinter Van.

Sprinter Van

As you may know, I have a Sprinter Van, and I’m currently on my second one. My #1 reason for choosing a Sprinter over the other vehicle types is it’s currently the only one with a factory 4×4 option. We spend a lot of time in the snow and on rough dirt roads, so this was a non-negotiable for me.

 Compare the different vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster vs Ford Econoline and more. Also, dive into details like 4x4 & length.

Sprinter Van Pros

The Sprinter is one of the best vans for van life if it’s within your budget. Here are some of the pros of Sprinter vans:

  • They get good gas mileage for a vehicle of their size (20+ mpg for the 2 wheel drive option, 13-16 mpg in the 4×4 option).
  • They’re available in both a 144″ and 170″ wheelbase for different size options.
  • They are available in diesel, which means a 400k+ mile lifetime
  • Pre 2008 Sprinters don’t require diesel exhaust fluid (DEF).
  • Compared to the other panel vans, Sprinters have a higher payload than the Transit or the Promaster, which means it can handle more weight in the interior of the van.

Sprinter Van Cons

While I love my Sprinter and still think they are one of the best vans for van life, they do have a few cons:

  • They are expensive off the bat and are expensive to maintain.
  • They operate on a complex computer system.
  • Many mechanics won’t work on them (partially because of the complex computer system), so you are stuck paying dealer prices
  • They are prone to rust.

I’m frequently asked if I’ve encountered any problems with my Sprinter. I’ve had a few minor things here and there, but nothing major. In my first Sprinter, the DEF sensor had to be replaced. Fortunately, it was under warranty.

Is 4×4 Worth it on the Sprinter?

Sprinters are expensive to begin with, but the 4×4 upgrade comes with an even heftier price tag and a couple of its own pros and cons to consider.

4×4 Sprinter Pros

  • The Sprinter is currently one of the only van options that has a factory 4×4 option available.
  • The 4×4 Sprinter has a 4″ higher clearance than the standard 2 wheel drive Sprinter (and there’s even more clearance with the 2019 model).
  • 4×4 Sprinters hold their value when it comes to resale.

4×4 Sprinter Cons

  • 4×4 Sprinters are expensive.
  • They are significantly less gas efficient than the 2wd version. I get about 13-16 mpg in my current Sprinter, while many 2wd V4 Sprinters are reported to get 20 miles per gallon or more.
  • The stock Sprinter suspension isn’t really made for off-roading, so if that’s something you want to do in your 4×4 Sprinter, you’ll likely want to consider the additional cost of a suspension upgrade.
  • In the past, there has been a limited supply of 4×4 Sprinters, so you may have to wait 6-9 months to get one once you place your order.

If you don’t plan on off-roading or spending a lot of time in the snow, then the 2 wheel drive Sprinter should be adequate for you.

With all that said, I’ve been very impressed with the performance of my 4 wheel drive Sprinter and would choose to get the 4×4 upgrade if I were to get another one. For other opinions, I’ll share some links in the resources section at the end of this lesson for you to explore.

144 vs 170″ Sprinter Van

If you’re settled on the Sprinter Van as the best van for van life, you next have to decide whether you want the 144″ or the 170″ wheelbase Sprinter.

My first Sprinter was the 144” wheelbase, and my current Sprinter is the 170” wheelbase which gives you about 3 and a half extra feet of living space. There is also a 170” extended version, but that length is not very common. Here is a detailed blog post I wrote comparing and contrasting my experience with the two lengths.

This was my first 144″ Sprinter Van

To give you a quick summary, for full-time living, I’ve been very happy with the 170” wheelbase. The extra storage and living space has more than made up for the minor inconvenience of having a larger vehicle.

The two wheelbases are very similar in the way they drive and both are highly maneuverable. You just have to be a bit more careful with the 170” wheelbase on tight turns and steep terrain. With that said, we rallied our 170” Sprinter all over the mountains of Colorado this summer, and good driving skills go a long way. We also choose to avoid busy cities with crowded streets as the stress simply isn’t worth it.

Driving my 170″ Sprinter on Colorado’s backroads

If you plan to do a lot of city driving, are only 1-2 people, and are doing van life part-time, then the 144” might be the way to go.

Finally, for anyone purchasing a Sprinter, I highly recommend the extended warranty. It’s expensive, but so is the maintenance. Because the computer on these Sprinters is so complicated, most regular mechanics won’t touch them, leaving the dealer as your only option when you have an issue.

Ford Transit

Now, let’s talk about the Ford Transit.

Compare the different vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster vs Ford Econoline and more. Also, dive into details like 4x4 & length.
Photo from

For the first time in 2020, the Ford Transit is coming out in an All Wheel Drive Version. This is not as hearty as a traditional four-wheel drive, but it’s a big step up from the regular 2wd Transit, which is rear-wheel drive. It is less expensive than the Sprinter, but as of 2020, the All-Wheel Drive Ford Transit only comes in a gas model.

The other thing to point out about the new Transit AWD is, unlike the Sprinter where the 4×4 version gets you added clearance, the Ford Transit AWD has no more clearance than the 2wd version.

Ford Transit Pros

The biggest advantages of the Ford Transit over the Sprinter are the lower cost of maintenance and the fact that you can have it serviced anywhere. Parts are easy to come by and if you break down in a small rural town, your chances of having it easily fixed (without costing a fortune) are much greater than with a Sprinter. The Ford also has the tallest interior height option for those of you over 6 feet tall.

  • Ford Transits are less expensive upfront compared to Sprinters and some of the other van options for van life.
  • They have lower maintenance costs than Sprinters.
  • They are easier to service than Sprinters.
  • Parts are easy to come by.
  • They have the tallest interior height.
  • There is a factory all wheel drive option that will be available starting in 2020.

Ford Transit Cons

  • Ford Transits have lower clearance than some of the other van options out there.
  • The new all-wheel drive model is only available with a gas engine, not diesel.
  • Ford Transits are slightly less fuel efficient compared with Sprinters.

Gas vs Diesel Ford Transit

The downside of a gas model is gas engines simply don’t last as long as diesel. A gas engine at 150,000 miles is considered near the end of its life, while diesel engines are known to run 300,000 or 400,000 miles. When you’re dumping time and money into your conversion, don’t you want the lifetime of the van to be as long as possible, if for nothing else but resale value?

The only situation where I can see the gas engine being an advantage is if you plan to drive down to Central and South America. Newer diesel engines from the US require ultra-low sulfur diesel, which is not widely available in Central and South America. If driving the Pan-American Highway is your major intention, then a gas engine or an older used van might be your best bet. Gas is also cheaper in some places.

For gas efficiency, the reported gas mileage of the gas Ford Transit is between 14-18 miles per gallon and 20 miles per gallon for diesel, which is more than the 4×4 Sprinter and less than the 2wd Sprinter.

Aftermarket 4×4 Conversion

If you are set on the Ford Transit, but want a more robust 4 wheel drive, you can always do an aftermarket conversion. Quigley is the leader in this space and as of 2019, their 4×4 conversion on the 2wd Transit costs about $13,000, which with the cost of the Transit van, may still be a bit cheaper than a 4×4 Sprinter, depending on the options you choose

Dodge Promaster

Now, onto another popular option, the Dodge Promaster.

Compare the different vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster vs Ford Econoline and more. Also, dive into details like 4x4 & length.
Photo from

The Dodge Promaster is the most economical of the panel-style vans, so it’s a great option for those on a budget. In contrast to the 2wd Transit and Sprinter, the Promaster is front-wheel drive which provides more traction but isn’t as nimble or responsive as rear-wheel drive. You’ll notice the biggest difference when driving windy mountain roads. The Promaster’s efficient eco-diesel model gets 20+ miles to the gallon – another perk for those of you on a budget. The Promaster is also more DIY friendly due to its boxy nature and straight lines inside the van which make for an easier conversion.

Dodge Promaster Pros

  • Most economic of the panel style vans.
  • Fuel efficient eco-diesel model gets 20+ miles to the gallon.
  • DIY friendly boxy shape with straight lines makes for an easier conversion.

Dodge Promaster Cons

  • The longest model is 3 feet shorter than the 170” Sprinter, so the Promaster will require you to pack more thoughtfully.
  • Ground clearance on the Promaster is 1” less than the 2wd Transit and Sprinter, so off-roading capability with the Promaster is a bit more limited.

Other Vehicle Options

Panel style vans aren’t the only option for van life. In fact, these are relatively new to the scene, so I also want to share a few other vehicles you can consider.

Ford Econoline

The first is the Ford E-Series Van, also known as the Econoline. If you are familiar with Sportsmobile, this is the vehicle platform that they traditionally used before they started converting Sprinters. The E-Series is budget-friendly with a huge used market. Some have even been converted to 4 wheel drive and these are extremely off-road capable. The downside of the Ford E-Series is they are gas guzzlers and you cannot stand up inside, unless a pop-top has been installed.

 Compare the different vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster vs Ford Econoline and more. Also, dive into details like 4x4 & length.
A Ford Econoline Sportsmobile at Open Roads Fest 2019

VW Vanagon / Westfalia

Next is the VW Vanagon / Westfalia. These vintage style vans offer tried and tested layouts, many with a pop-top, built-in bed, and a built-in kitchen. If you choose this style of van, you better be a patient problem solver with serious mechanical skills. Parts are hard to come by and with the age of the vehicle, you are bound to run into issues. These vans also tend to be expensive, despite being 20, 30, and 40 years old.

Compare the different vans for van life. Learn the difference of the Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster (& more) and dive into details like 4x4 & length. Pictured here is a VW Vanagon
BFT’s Director of Operations, Linda, in her VW Vanagon

Other Van Life Vehicle Options

While we’ve covered the most common vehicle types considered to be the best vans for van life conversions, you are really only limited by your creativity. You can create your own version of van life utilizing any type of vehicle that is big enough to sleep in. Mini-vans, trucks, Suburbans, ambulances, hatchbacks… the list goes on. The key is to stay within your budget and make sure you have a vehicle that you will be able to maintain.


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What van are you leaning towards for your van conversion? Leave a comment below and make sure to sign up for course updates!

32 comments on “Best Vans for Van Life: Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster

  1. Could you provide some information regarding where to find a good used van (converted) in the 25-30k price range?

  2. For weekend and part-time adventurers, small vans are worth considering too! The Ford Transit Connect and Ram Promaster City run on gas, get 28-30 MPG highway, handle like a car, and can squeeze into tight parking spots and parking garages like a champ. Most importantly, they can be had for less than an average crossover SUV, and are half the price of a new Sprinter. Traded my daily driver RAV4 for a Promaster City and couldn’t be happier, even if my friends think I’m a creeper for driving a white panel van 🙂

    1. You’re brave ! the poor performance in terms of reliability of all the 3 small van offered in North America make sure that I keep my Rav4 ’13 . Fix It Again Tony = No thks . Nv200 Cvt = No thks , Transit Connect made in turkey = No Thks . It’s too bad Toyota doesn’t import the Hiace .Their new Sienna Hybrid is not a long-term solution if the batteries need to be replaced after 8 years like the all Prius.

  3. Nice job on the comparison. My 2 cents is that one also must consider the discrepancy in the price of diesel and gas. That has to figure in to mpg. A properly cared for gas engine can easily go 400k miles, Ford F150’s are for sale all the time with 2-300k. I have owned Econolines with well over 200k that were doing just fine. I usually would buy at 80 to 100k. But my caveat when buying used is you are not really buying a vehicle you are buying the previous owners and how well the van was taken care of. Having maintenance records and or Carfax (etc.) is essential.

  4. deck height is another consideration
    the pro master with front wheel drive deck height is only 2’2″ from the ground compared with 2’9″ and 2’6″ on the transit’s high and medium roof heights and
    2’7″ and 2’9″ on the sprinter’s roof heights

  5. I went with a Promaster for several reasons. Longevity of diesel engines is overrated in the 21st century where gasoline engines last just as long and maintenance is easier and cheaper. I got an oil and filter change at a quick change last week for $41 for my Promaster. Ram recommends using non synthetic oils! Gasoline engines are simple by comparison and gasoline is an identical product anywhere in the world. In increasingly desperate efforts to make diesel eco-friendly complexity has been introduced into diesels along with all sorts of bio-options in the fuel itself.
    Promaster has a wide enough body to take a queen sized bed sideways. Sprinter uses fiberglass pods to try to create a wide space for a sideways bed in the Revel and I don’t imagine they are insulated. Ford uses curving sides for the Transit with very thick ribs limiting interior volume and width and reducing choice of custom windows that fit the curves..
    Front wheel drive makes for more room in the Promaster as has been pointed out with a lower deck height than the others. Front wheel drive helps give this van an extraordinarily tight turning radius as well.
    The Promaster has been built in Mexico since 2014 using a Dodge v-6 engine identical in all models which are different only in length height and suspension. They are based on the Fiat Ducato sold world wide as Peugeot/Renault/Alfa Romeo variants suggesting they are durable and less expensive than the more fashionable models preferred by influencers. They are cargo vans and you pay extra for cruise control but they come with reversing cameras and none of the electronic driving aids are available like braking and lane control overrides on the other vans.
    I have driven my 2020 van for 12 hours at a time day after day and I am 62 years old but I am 5’06” and some taller drivers complain the steering wheel is not tilt adjustable which makes for problems for the tall customers.
    60 mph on cruise control gives me 18.5 mpg and 70 mph on cruise control 15 mpg fairly consistently and my 3500 EXT (21 feet long overall with maximum height) is fully built out with 600amps of lithium, 35 gallons of water, air conditioning that runs off the batteries, four solar panels and all the impedimenta of a small house.
    Hope that rounds out the list with some real life experience. And Nissan is no longer selling their big van.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! That’s super helpful. And thank you for the update on the Nissan van. Happy travels!

    2. I just ordered the 20′ long promaster 2500 gas engine for many of the reasons you stated. I read that Nissan is going to quit making the nv but they were ready to order a custom color for me. The Dodge takes 4 months to build right now. I test drove a 2018. At 6’1″ the steering wheel does feel too high. I would think it is worse for a short person? Nissan came with more power and a couple of 120 volt inverters built in. It is too heavy and too ugly. I have 6’x12′ by 6’3″ clearance and only 20′ long. Can’t wait.

      1. It’s worth noting that the ‘4×4’ system in the Sprinter is not actually a true 4×4, it’s more like a part time AWD as it’s based on the 4Matic system by Mercedes. Ourkaravan has an excellent article that goes into many more details. Diesel quality is definitely an issue outside of N. America/ Western Europe. Modern diesel engine reliability is sadly hampered by emissions equipment, and this will especially hold true if you don’t put solid miles on the engine, as the soot will build up in the EGR.

  6. While your requirement for a 4 x 4 limits your options, just saying the Sprinter is more expensive to maintain is quite the understatement. A fleet operator, Tom Robertson, has an in-depth editorial on Linkedin detailing the long term Sprinter maintenance costs are five times that of a Transit or Promaster. I would add, lift kits are available for the Transit and Promaster for less than $3k (installed) to address the clearance issue.

  7. “If you don’t plan on off-roading or spending a lot of time in the snow”

    from what i’ve seen, a converted van with lots of rear weight and the approporiate tires should fair well in snowy and icy conditions (granted probably not so well on forrest roads). @Linda, any concerns wuth 2WD if the van will be used for getting to ski destinations with maintained roads? thanks!

    (search “WINTER SPRINTER VAN: Helpful Tips For Driving A 2WD Sprinter Van On Snow And Ice” on youtube for primary reference).

    1. Hi Oliver! Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. It really depends. In some places I’m sure you could get away with 2WD on maintained roads but in Utah, for example, chains are required by law if you don’t have 4×4. If you decide to go the 2WD route and want to travel to winter destinations, you’ll definitely want good all-terrain tires and chains.

  8. One quick question…you state that the longest Promaster is 3 ft shorter than the Sprinter 170″, but isn’t the longest Promaster 155″? Am I confusing something else? Thanks for the great comparison article!

    1. Hey Todd, great question – the 170″ and 155″ are wheelbase lengths. The total overall van lengths have a difference of approximately three feet.

  9. Mercedes did a great job marketing their “4×4” Sprinter; however, it’s just an AWD system with an open differential as I understand it. While I’m no fan of Ford, their AWD system seems to be a better option on paper – with available limited-slip diff and true 50/50 distribution of power. Neither one of them have low range and true locking differential – that’s where Quigley comes in, I suppose. All that being said, I’ve not had a chance to drive either in the snow or mud. Have you found yourself in many situations where you believe the Benz 4×4 system prevented a disaster? The added ground clearance is a great benefit; currently, I’m leaning towards the Transit AWD with a lift but would love to hear more about your off-road experiences!

  10. Safety Comparison ? Only the Transit has any safety test and it’s not great (2 starts for the passenger). Gives me pause but I can’t find any information at all about the Sprinter safety. Is there other evidence to help guide toward the safest option ?

  11. Excellent overall review. Glad that the Sprinter 4×4 is doing well so far. One thing to note – possible extremely high emission repair costs around 100-120k. See “the Fatal Flaw of Mercedes Benz Sprinters” from a fleet manager. Hopefully the situation is better now With the great MPG, 4x4ish options, and all that space it’s an enticing option if you have the money.

    Many, many people boondock in GMC/Chevrolet vans. Hi-tops are not available (unless you put one on) but they are reliable, have excellent clearance and a diesel is available which provides excellent gas mileage (20-25 mpg).

    Besides the atrocious clearance of the Ford Transit it also has dinky tires. I got stuck in places with one that I never got stuck with a Chevy. Clearance is poor on the Promaster and while it gets pretty good mpg, has lots of space, and is affordable that plus the front wheel drive really limits its capability off road.

  12. “A gas engine at 150,000 miles is considered near the end of its life…” Um, I have over 300K miles on the 4.8L V8 in my Express. Still going strong. That’s not exceptional with truck engines.

  13. Hey Kristen, I enjoyed the article as it is very timely with the booming interest in adventure vans. I have to take exception to your comment on gas vs diesel engines however “The downside of a gas model is gas engines simply don’t last as long as diesel. A gas engine at 150,000 miles is considered near the end of its life, while diesel engines are known to run 300,000 or 400,000 miles.” In our family our GMC 5.3L and Ford 4.0L gas engines are routinely getting over 300K miles without major engine work. Additionally diesel fuel is more per gallon but the price difference has shrunk to 2.85-3.12 or $.27/gal but it still stinks and the engines are noisy. Great point about the serviceability on the Ford engines and Vans. Thanks for the research.

  14. Any thoughts on the Gas version of the Sprinter? My main problem with the Diesel Sprinter is high maintenance costs, long drives to capable mechanics, and I’m worried about the emissions system’s dreaded “limp mode” or 10-restart warning at inopportune locations.

    1. Karl,

      Do yourself a favor and avoid the diesel engine. It has too many issues with the emissions system. When everything’s working it’s great, but, unfortunately, when it causes problems and it will you’ll be disabled for either a short or long period of time. What’s worse is that the ad-blue tank on some of the Sprinters is under the chassis and in order to get to this part Mercedes Benz will require that you remove a significant amount of the plumbing just to gain access to the components. I’ve been dealing with a situation where they say “yeah, it’s under warranty and a covered item, but, we want you to have the entire system dismantled before we’ll even touch it. Some of this involves taking apart one of the vent pipes that’s attached to the toilet and glued or welded on. This is outrageous. It’s their way of denying you the work. Please do NOT purchase a Mercedes Sprinter upfitted van that’s a motorhome.

  15. HI I don’t normally comment but on the comparative diesel engine life and modern gas engine life is simply not true ! I am a retired fleet mechanic and have a world class ASE certification and have maintained large fleets of gas engine pickups in the oil field and mines .nothing is harder on trucks or vans then this environment .Good maintenance is key .I worked at one oil field service shop that when I left we had Ford ,Dodge and Chevy pickups with gas v8s all with over 350 k mile that looked like hell ,doors didn’t shut right ,beat up from abuse and I would have trusted them to get me any were ,and none had more than minor engine work like a water pump , tune up ,alternator .O by the way i own a 2007 fright liner sprinter with the 3.0 Mercedes diesel .Easiest engine To change oil It took me less than 45 min the first time I touched one and some dealer want up 400 plus for a 10k mile service .that is just plain price gouging to fatten up dealers .The true reason non sprinter dealers mechanics wont work on them is not complexity all modern vehicles are like rocket science struggling to meet EPA. and CAFE standards .German built vehicles since 2010 has chosen not to share information on there vehicles .Why simply put to make more money for the dealer.Think i am exaggerating? look at a owners Manuel for example for a 2014 WV Jetta and it wont even tell you what the fuses are for .there is much more to it but manufacturers for autos and many other products are pushing laws to make it impossible for self repairs and independent shops to compete. Thank you for your web site Howard

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