The van segment is going through the biggest metamorphosis in its history. European van designs, which have evolved more rapidly and offer certain advantages (more variations in length, height, engine/fuel choices, and even FWD) have been adapted for the NA market. The pioneering Mercedes Sprinter gets a refresh for 2014, including a new four cylinder diesel along with the V6 diesel. The 2014 Ram ProMaster, which is strictly FWD, has just arrived. And the 2015 Ford Transit will be here next year.
There’s lots of hi-tech design and engineering in these Euro-vans, compared to the almost antediluvian American vans that have been built for decades with only modest changes. That of course has made them a tried and proven commodity. Now only the Chevy/GMC vans will soldier on. Is GM going to get left behind, or will it have the last laugh?
(Update: I bought a Promatser and my full van build is here) Since I’m in the early stages of making a decision about buying a large van to convert to a camper, I’m going to focus mostly on that particular aspect, but I’m sure some of you will pipe in with comments about these vans’ pros and cons in more commercial settings too.
I bought our ’77 Dodge Chinook in 2002 for $1200. I’ve put in maybe another $800 in cash and a bit of labor, and we’ve racked up some 40k miles all over the West and twice into Baja. But it’s getting tired, it has no cab A/C, is very noisy, etc. Every trip becomes an exercise in improvising little fixes, and worrying about what will come next, like on our last big trip to Glacier. Call us crazy, but we are planning to take it for one more big trip this winter down to sunny Arizona, New Mexico and California, but then it may be heading for the retirement home, or a new owner.
We’ll take a quick look at all of the Euro vans, as the GM vans are all-too well known to us. The one that interests me the most personally is the Ram ProMaster. That’s not because it’s another Chrysler product, but because of its FWD configuration. That is highly ideal for a camper/motor home, since it allows a lower floor height, among other things.
For those unaccustomed to the idea of a FWD truck/van, Europe has been at it for a long time, since 1940s at least, with the legendary Citroen H Van (CC here).
And the FWD Fiat Ducato, built by the Sevel joint venture between Fiat and PSA (Peugeot/Citroen) has become the dominant platform for camper and motor homes in Europe since 1981, with about two-thirds of that market. This is a gen1 Ducato. And don’t even think of questioning the Ducato’s proven toughness and reliability because of its French-Italo heritage. They have a great rep in Europe.
The ProMaster as of course substantially revised from the gen3 European Ducato for the NA market. The biggest change is the standard gas engine, the well-proven and widely used 3.6 L Pentastar V6, rated at 280 hp, and teamed up to the 68TEA six speed automatic. Essentially, it’s the same power train as used in the Chrysler minivans, but with course lower gearing. An Iveco 3.0 L diesel four (180 hp) with a “robotized manual” transmission will join it later, along with a $4000 extra cost. (Update: the diesel was cancelled after the first two years due to emission issues.)
There are no EPA numbers for this size vehicle, but Alex Dykes, in his excellent review of the ProMaster at TTAC, averaged 17 mpg. That is better than I might have expected, and plenty good enough for me (the old Dodge gets 11mpg). (Update: I get between 17 and 21mpg on my 2017 159″ high roof Promaster. It’s very much dependent on highway speed due to aerodynamics).
The ProMaster comes in three wheelbases (118″, 136″ and 159″), and in low roof, high roof, and extended body (159″ wb only), and as vans and cut-away chassis/cabs. The really big advantage of the Promaster is that its body is a full 4″ wider than those of the Sprinter and Transit, which allows full size beds to be placed transversely. Also, the high roof has great stand-up height, without making the body really tall like the Transit and Sprinter. It’s clearly the best configured space for a van conversion.
The ProMaster is expected to be very popular in the van-camper (Class B) and Class C (cab-over sleeper) industry. Winnebago has already announced two, the van-based Travato,
As well as the Class C Trend. And the hot rumor is that Germany’s Hymer, a dominant and innovative RV manufacturer from Germany is heading to the US, to take advantage of its vast Ducato experience. The Hymers are all very clever in terms of their space utilization and other details.
The problem is that the price of these commercial rigs is a turn-off. And often the configuration and materials are not to our liking. The MSRP of the Travato van from Winnebago is over $80k! The van itself is about $35k. That’s just way too much for turning it into a livable space. We have a very clear idea of what we want, which is quite minimalistic, so we’re seriously considering a DIY approach, possibly with buying pre-fab components and such. With a bit of care and time, the result, like this home-built Ducato in England, can be very nice. And I certainly have all the tools. Now I just need to finish the house I’m building!
I also will configure it like the Travato with the bed that folds up along the rear wall, so I can still use the van to haul long lumber, pipes and other materials, as well as my tools when I’m working on one of my other houses. A multi-purpose van.
Next up: Sprinter and Transit:
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