Part 1: Choosing a Van
Just getting started is often the hardest part. And in the van community there’s hundreds of different options, so just picking one can be quite difficult. Below I’ve laid out what worked for me, but my number one piece of advice in this part is this: If you never buy the van, it’s never going to get built.
What I did, what I used, how long it took, and how much it cost?
I decided to buy a new 2018 Ram Promaster 159 with the gas V6 engine. I spent about a month researching and test driving vans, and I ultimately ended up with $0 down and a monthly payment of $555 on a 72 month car loan. That cost each month covers both the car and the manufacturer’s warranty ($34,000).
Why I did it (including counterpoints)
New Van: Yes, I understand cars are notorious for losing value the moment they leave the lot. That being said, I’m about to live in this van for over a year. When I first went on sabbatical, I had an amazing experience buying a new motorcycle, and I had zero issues with it on the road. Could that happen with a used vehicle? Yes. But for me, the peace of mind of having a new ride for my new home was paramount. Also, new car means new features and while I debated parting with the backup camera, having it has been awesome so far.
Ram Promaster: This discussion could be an entire post on its own, so I’ll try to be brief and link some more in depth research at the end. For me, I’ll be living in my van so I knew I wanted a high roof van to be able to stand up comfortably. This effectively rules out everything except for high roof sprinter vans and school buses. Never looked into the schoolies because that just seems way too big, so that left me with either a Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Ram Promaster. After first looking into dimensions of the three, I was pretty much sold on the Promaster as I knew I wanted a stationary bed that ran side to side, and the Promaster was the only one who has an over six foot width (I’m exactly six feed tall). The Sprinter and the Transit are both a few inches shy. While the Sprinter is the only one with four wheel drive, I just don’t see myself doing a bunch of overlanding, and I’m not super excited about maintenance with Sprinters. It’s typically very expensive to source parts and they need to be worked on by Mercedes mechanics usually. Just about any shop can work on the engine in a Promaster. As for the Transit, this thing is awesome if you’re super tall (they have the highest roof at about six foot eight) but I didn’t need the extra height. Transits are a bit more expensive than Promasters and also have rear wheel drive, which puts their center of gravity higher than the Promaster. For all those reasons, the Promaster ended up being the best for me. For more details, I recommend this video and this website if you are comparing the three. The video is from Trent of Trent and Allie on YouTube and the guy really knows his stuff. Then the other link is just a place where you can easily see all the dimensions and engine details in nice diagrams and tables. Very helpful reference.
159” Wheelbase: If you want the high roof on a Promaster, it’s either 159” wheelbase, or the 159” extended. At that point it was all about how much space I need, and not taking more than I needed. Given I don’t have some of the more luxury features in my design (like a shower or toilet) I just went with a 159 inch. One thing to note: now that I own it, the 159 just barely fits in a standard parking spot in a lot or garage. I’ve checked out the 159 extended since, and while they’re only a little bit bigger, they technically don’t fit in a parking space, so just something to keep in mind depending on where your van is headed.
Gas V6 Engine: The gas V6 in the Promaster is the same engine used in tons of other vehicles in the US. This makes it easy to service and buy parts for, unlike the engines in the Mercedes. There is a diesel option for the Promaster, but given it’s harder to find pure diesel in the US (most are cut with Ethanol), it’s not a great option. Either you’re inconvenienced to find pure diesel and can’t just stop at any gas station, or you have to fill up with E10 and it starts to destroy your engine. Plus, gas mileage on the gas V6 is about as good as a high roof van can get.
What went well
I went to a Roesch Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram to get my rig and they did an amazing job. I would highly recommend going to a dealer and working with them to understand your needs. Full disclosure, the owners there are family, but nevertheless they did an amazing job walking me through my first car buying experience. Would definitely recommend if you live in the Chicagoland area.
Test rides! Be sure to get out there and drive the thing! This sounds obvious but they’re much different to drive than a car and the worst thing you could do is get all set up and then have anxiety every time you get behind the wheel.
So far I’ve been super pleased with building inside the Promaster. It’s about as close to a box truck as you can get in terms of internal dimensions. This has made things significantly easier in the build as I don’t have a lot of experience with siding, ceiling, etc. on a flat surface let alone a curved one.
The driving has been great up until now but I haven’t done anything crazy in it. It rides well on the highway and around town. Looking forward to updating this with more details once I get on the road.
What didn't go well/What I might’ve done differently
Honestly, I feel really great with my decision to have a Promaster and don’t have any issues to report up until now. I will say I didn’t look as closely at other non-sprinter van styles (like school buses, or conversion vans, or even mini vans) so maybe next time I’d be a little more open minded in that regard.
Update - October 2019 - Electrical Issues: I’ve had a few problems with some of the onboard electronics in the van. Nothing too major but one of my USB ports has stopped functioning and the 12V car outlet seems to work intermittently. Nothing too big to worry about but something I will definitely need to get looked at once I get back home for a while.
Try to get a list of high level requirements for your van up front, and prioritize which ones are nice to have and must have. This will help you easily decide what van is for you, and the faster you decide, the quicker you are to being on the road!
Alongside high level requirements, start getting measurements and designing early on in the process to help you build confidence around your decisions and to allow you to start to visualize how things will pan out. The second I got dimensions on a Promaster I started 3D modeling. I understand that’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but even just starting to think it through in your head and writing down whatever you can will help.
Last, and as I said before, most importantly, buy the van! It’s the biggest commitment you’ll make throughout the whole process, but if you don’t do it, you’ll go nowhere fast.