Types of Vans

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Vans range from basic, stripped-down work vans to family-oriented models that can be outfitted like rolling living rooms. Because there is such a wide range of vans available, start your research by figuring out which type of van fits your needs best.

Minivans

Minivans have been popular with families since they hit the U.S. market in the 1980s, and with good reason. Shoppers on the lookout for a good price, plenty of cargo space and lots of seats are hard-pressed to find a vehicle that offers more cubic feet per dollar than today’s minivans.

Take the Toyota Sienna, with its available all-wheel drive, seating for up to eight and 150 cubic feet of cargo space. It has more cargo space than most minivans, and though it’s one of the more expensive minivans available, the Sienna has a base price that’s less than most seven-seat SUVs. Plus, the Toyota Sienna has a third row that’s comfortable for adults, and has optional family-friendly features like a dual-screen entertainment system, second- and third-row sun shades and built-in garage door opener.

Minivans also don’t skimp when it comes to safety. The Honda Odyssey is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, and earned five out of five stars for its overall crash test performance from the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), or compact minivans, are the smallest vans on the market. The Mazda5 is currently the only MPV on sale in the U.S., and though it doesn’t have as many seats as minivans or huge passenger vans, its smaller size benefits both fuel economy and handling. Reviewers say the Mazda5 is one of the most fun-to-drive family vehicles on the road, and it’s the only van that comes with a manual transmission. That means that if you prefer to row your own gears, but you need the seating and utility of a minivan, the Mazda5 is your best bet. With an EPA rating of 21/28 mpg city/highway with either an automatic or manual transmission, the Mazda5 also gets better fuel economy than most competing vans.

Passenger Vans

If you need more interior space or more seating than a minivan or MPV can offer, consider a passenger van. Keep in mind that picking a commercial-style passenger van over an MPV or a minivan means you’ll give up many of the tech features, high-quality interior and performance that make minivans so perfect for daily family use.

Passenger vans are generally available in a variety of wheelbase lengths and seating configurations, so most buyers can find a model that matches their needs. The Ford E-Series, for example, is available in two different lengths and can seat up to 15 people. The Chevrolet Express and its corporate sibling, the GMC Savana, both offer all-wheel drive in certain models. And high-roof models of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter are so tall that a 6-foot-4-inch adult can stand up straight inside.

Still, passenger vans aren’t for everyone. They’re traditionally used to shuttle a lot of people back and forth, which means that passenger vans aren’t designed to keep parents and kids comfortable on road trips. The 12-passenger Nissan NV, for example, doesn’t come standard with power windows or cruise control.

Cargo Vans

Some automakers offer cargo versions of their passenger van models, selling stripped-down versions with interior configurations designed to maximize working utility rather than passenger accommodations. Buyers who need as much cargo capacity as possible and can sacrifice a few seatbelts should check out a cargo van. Cargo vans usually have only one or two rows of seats, but that frees up the rest of the vehicle so you can pack in as much stuff as possible. Plus, because cargo vans don’t have as many interior features, they tend to cost less than passenger vans and some minivans. For instance, the two-seat Ford Transit Connect cargo van costs about $600 less than the five-seat Transit Connect passenger model.

With up to 547 cubic feet of cargo space, the extended-wheelbase, high-roof model of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is the largest cargo van available. Compared with MPVs and minivans, cargo vans are hard to maneuver in tight city streets and parking lots, and if you don’t need as much cargo space as the Sprinter offers, consider the Ram C/V because it’s easier to drive in the city. With a maximum of 143.8 cubic feet of cargo space, the Ram holds less than other cargo vans, but since it has a minivan platform, reviewers call the Ram C/V one of the easiest-to-drive cargo vans on the market.

Van Types and Capacities

Make/Model

Type of Van

Seating Capacity

Maximum Cargo Capacity

Fuel Economy (mpg city/highway)

Mazda5

$19,625

MPV

6

97.7

21/28

Toyota Sienna

$25,060

Minivan

7-8

150

19/24

Dodge Grand Caravan*

$20,995

Cargo, Minivan

7

143.8

17/25

Ford Transit Connect**

$23,660

Cargo, Passenger

5

118.7

22/27

Chevrolet Express**

$28,835

Cargo, Passenger

8-15

216.2

13/17

*Minivan specs and price listed     

**Passenger van specs and price listed

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