Pros & Cons of Different Vans for Van Life: Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster and more

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 of the most common types of vans out there and the pros and cons of each for van life.

If you want to jump around to other lessons, here are other van life topics we cover in Module 1.

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Why Panel Vans are so Popular

In recent years, panel type vans have taken off as the van of choice among van lifers. These 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 a great option 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

Now let’s talk about size.

The Sprinter Van comes in two main lengths. 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 Ford.com

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, is still cheaper than a 4×4 Sprinter. This is an option I’d consider next time around.


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 RamTrucks.com

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 that are used for camper van 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.


Resources


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About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

7 Comments on “Pros & Cons of Different Vans for Van Life: Sprinter vs Transit vs Promaster and more

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  1. 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 🙂

      Haha, thanks for sharing that Chad! That’s a great point and those vans are great options too.

    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.

    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

      That’s a great point. Thank you for sharing that, Bill!

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