Once the quintessential family car, now the van sits in an awkward place between the sedan and the SUV. The so-called multi-purpose vehicles (MPV) have even been lumped into the same category as pickup trucks in market reports. Does that mean vans are dead? Not at all!
They may occupy a smaller niche nowadays, but vans do have their own merits and loyal buyers. So much so, that MPVs exist in a variety of different types.
From those made for living the #vanlife to the custom-fitted mobility vans, these vehicles can provide a lot of utility for some of us. So, the time has finally come to drop the prejudice. Hop on, strap in, and let’s dive into the world of vans!
What is a van?
Since people use the word to mean different things all over the globe, we need to clarify it. The international term “MPV” refers to any vehicle that provides more internal space compared to cars of similar horizontal size. To put it simply, any boxy road vehicle (i.e. with regular clearance, not an SUV) can be considered a type of van.
With that in mind, we can classify MPVs by two criteria: size and purpose. As you will see, the van niche has much more to offer than you might have thought.
Van types by size
Contrary to popular belief, not all vans are big. For instance, Japan sees a lot of “microvans” – small, yet roomy city cars, mainly used for transporting goods. In our land of giant vehicles, we would barely even register those. With that out of the way, below are the categories we can actually see in the US:
- Mini MPV – Nissan Cube, Kia Soul, and even Chrysler PT Cruiser fall into this category. Though in the US we would not regard them as vans at all, they still meet the criteria.
- Compact MPV – Those are something like supersized hatchback vehicles (the only American example would be Ford C-Max). Europeans love their compact MPVs, even if we have barely heard of them.
- Minivan (True MPV) – Here we have the likes of Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Pacifica, and Dodge Caravan. They still have a decent customer-base that remains fairly steady from year to year. In fact, recent analyses point to likely future growth in non-US markets.
- Van – Nowadays, the terms “van” and “minivan” have become synonymous. However, actual vans are more like transporter vehicles, largely for commercial purposes. That said, a lot of them have now been adopted for the vanlife movement.
The last category can further be divided into different capacity classes, but we don’t need to go that deep. In any case, people mainly go to smaller capacity vans for personal use. Speaking of which…
Van types by purpose
At first glance, vans may seem a bit boring, but they actually hide more utility than expected. For instance, being roomy, they make for the perfect DIY campers.
People have been converting vans for camping purposes long before the vanlife trend. Their commercial versions come with windowless sides, which are also pretty barebones on the inside. That allows enthusiasts to mount whatever they want. With a bit of creativity, you can turn it into quite a cozy place with a mattress, shelves, and even an entertainment center. Some MPVs can also get off-road modifications, making camping in the woods much easier.
Although rarely mentioned, MPVs also serve as perfect mobility vehicles. That can be considered a type of conversion as well because such vans have to be custom-fitted for the job. Even so, no other vehicle type does the job that well. Minivans have reasonably low clearance and enough space to fit a person in a wheelchair.
Of course, we cannot fail to note the commercial aspect of vans. Where bigger trucks would be hindered, vans can go quite easily. That makes them perfect for small-to-medium scale logistics, especially within cities. Some vans can also transport a dozen of people and can be used as small-scale bus alternatives.
Finally, vans can easily rival SUVs in the family car aspect. Sure, they do look a bit blander and have lower clearance, but they do not have many other drawbacks. The sliding doors plus the ease of access and sheer space make up for the clearance aspect.
Should you buy a van?
If you have small children, need a lot of space, or just want a DIY camper, you cannot go wrong with a van. In fact, building your own camper can be a fun side project to try. You can even draw inspiration from transportable tiny houses. Older commercial vans can go a long way in that regard, plus you can find many of them for dirt cheap.
At the same time, MPVs are not for everyone. They fill quite specific niches and we won’t see them get as popular as they were 20 years ago. However, it will also be some time until they go away completely, if ever!