If you’re searching for a cargo van or a commercial van, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve listed a few key items to consider when trying to figure out which van is best for you. And while we haven’t steered you toward any particular van, we hope our guide helps you decide which traits are most important to you.
Of course, shoppers interested in cargo vans are almost always considering size. There are two major size concerns for most drivers: interior size and exterior size.
Interior size is important, and today’s vans cover a wide range. The smallest is the Ford Transit Connect, which offers around 135 cu ft of space in its sole configuration. On the other end of the spectrum are full-size vans such as the Mercedes Sprinter, which offers anywhere from 318 cu ft in its most basic configuration to nearly 550 cu ft in its high-roof, full-size trim.
The problem is all that interior space comes at a price — and the price is exterior size. While the Transit Connect is just 181 inches long (about the same length as a Toyota Corolla), the full-size Sprinter is an enormous 289.8 inches long. That’s about six feet longer than a Chevrolet Suburban — and it’s too long for many drivers. Bridging the gap are vans such as the Chevrolet Express (224 inches in standard form, or 246 inches in extended) and the Nissan NV (241 inches).
Cost is another big factor when deciding between cargo vans. Once again, the Transit Connect ranks among the cheapest thanks to a base price of around $22,000. The RAM Cargo — essentially a cargo version of the Dodge Grand Caravan — is only slightly more expensive, with a base price of around $23,000. The enormous Sprinter can haul just about anything — but with a starting price of around $37,000, you may be able to afford only a used model. Other vans, such as the NV and the Express, start in the mid-$20,000 range but can be equipped up to well over $40,000 in the right configurations.
Gas mileage is also a big deal for van shoppers — especially those who use their vans all the time. Being the cheapest and smallest, the Transit Connect is the most efficient at 21 miles per gallon city/27 mpg hwy. Numbers drop off rapidly from there, as most vans use a V8. While the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t rate the Express or the NV, expect fuel economy numbers in the mid teens. Despite its size, the Sprinter’s gas mileage is a little better thanks to a fuel-efficient 2.1-liter turbodiesel engine. The same will likely be true of the RAM ProMaster, which is expected to debut later this year with diesel engine options.
If you’re looking to carry big loads, payload capacity will be important. The Sprinter’s payload capacity ranges from 3,000 pounds to over 5,500, depending on the model you choose. That’s a far cry from the Transit Connect’s payload capacity of just 1,600 pounds. Once again, most other vans come in between: The RAM Cargo is around 1,800 pounds, while the Chevrolet Express gets as high as 4,400 pounds.
If you plan on driving your van in an urban area, maneuverability will be important. We wouldn’t recommend looking at turning circle statistics. While they do a good job telling just how quickly the van will make a U-turn, they’re often not applicable in real-world situations, such as backing into a parking spot or taking a tight corner packed with pedestrians.
Our advice: If maneuverability is important to you, take a long — and thorough — test drive. Be sure to try the van in streets where you might actually drive it, or close copies. And be sure to try making lane changes and reversing maneuvers to see if the van offers acceptable visibility.
If you’re buying a van for commercial purposes, you may want the cheapest one possible. But "cheap" could mean more than you realize. Many base-model vans lack CD players, power accessories and keyless entry. We think power mirrors are an essential feature — many vans are too wide to reach across and adjust the mirrors, which means you have to get out to make changes. That can be a problem if you’re backing up in tight spaces. To that end, we’d also recommend parking-assist systems or even reversing cameras. Those features can be extremely helpful in avoiding costly property damage.
Another cargo van test drive tip: Go to the dealer with a tape measure. If your business requires you to haul large, bulky items, it can be extremely important to know more than just cubic feet. How long is the cargo area? How wide do the doors open? How tall is the van’s roof?
Sometimes these questions are answered on a manufacturer’s website, but more often it’s easier to get answers when you’re with the van in person. So bring a tape measure to find out exactly whether the cargo van you want fits the dimensions you need.
Choosing the right van can be difficult. There aren’t many models on the market, but the ones that are available offer only subtle differences. Our suggestion: Take a thorough test drive of every van. And before you make your choice, read over our list to ensure you haven’t forgotten any cargo-van essential.