A version of this article was first published on YesAuto UK.
The word ‘van’ covers a wide number of bases. Even though the basic concept is quite simplistic – a vehicle that is designed for carrying goods – there are quite a few different sub categories and a variety of different shapes and sizes to choose from.
These are the different body styles you need to know about if you want to make sense of the van market, and the sort of jobs that each one is likely to be doing.
Examples: Ford Fiesta Sportvan, Renault Zoe
Good for: Lightweight town work, florists, cleaners or food delivery
Pros: Drives like a car, because it is one
Cons: Can’t carry much weight, expensive
These are the simplest vans you can buy in some senses – they are a car with the rear windows blanked out, the seats removed and a basic bulkhead installed. They’ve been around for a while but are less popular these days, thanks in part to the fact that cars have got more expensive so panel vans represent better value, and there are fewer models to choose from compared to a couple of decades ago.
The most famous of the contemporary models is the Ford Fiesta Van, while you could buy a Vauxhall Corsa van until relatively recently. The electric-only Renault Zoe Van is another option.
Small panel van
Examples: Citroen Berlingo, Ford Transit Courier and Connect, Vauxhall Combo Cargo, Volkswagen Caddy
Appropriate for: Jobs that need smaller tools, smaller deliveries, electricians, plumbers
Pros: Compact and unthreatening to drive, based on car platforms
Cons: Often only big enough for two, payload not normally that high
Perhaps confusingly, these vans are also car based, but they look much more like vans than the aforementioned car-based vans.
This means that the latest generation includes some vans that have some seriously impressive tech and are really easy and good to drive. Anyone that’s taking their first step into van ownership will find the transition really easy with one of these.
They are really versatile as a result and should suit a wide range of tradespeople – plumbers, electricians and the like. They are great for urban deliveries, too, as they will fit into and under the same height restrictions as your average car. However, there are some that have some seriously impressive payloads – in excess of a tonne in some cases – so you should be able to carry a hefty amount of weight if you need to.
Medium panel van
Examples: Ford Transit Custom, Mercedes-Benz Vito, Vauxhall Vivaro, Volkswagen Transporter
Appropriate for: Jobs that need to carry bigger tools or supplies, carpenters, roadside recovery
Pros: There are loads to choose from, several different shapes and sizes, often space for three up front
Cons: Used models have sometimes had hard lives, some come with basic spec, middle seat space can be tight
Perhaps what most people picture when they think ‘van’, this is the most popular and versatile of all vans. The Ford Transit Custom is not only the UK’s biggest selling van, it often tops the country’s overall vehicle sales charts.
This success is down to their wide appeal, with everyone from big fleets to sole traders snapping up the Transit Custom and its contemporaries in their thousands. This means that there is a wide variety of different types on the market, ranging from basic white models with few frills up to highly-specced versions with satellite navigation and clever toys.
Some, but not all, vans have the choice of a couple of lengths and heights. This means that, on the plus side you might end up with a taller and more roomy van, but it could be a challenge when it comes to squeezing into urban car parks.
Large panel van
Examples: Citroen Relay, Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Peugeot Boxer, Vauxhall Movano, Volkswagen Crafter
Appropriate for: The bigger jobs, delivering lots of larger parcels, kitchen and bathroom fitters
Pros: Space for three, loads of different shapes and sizes
Cons: Big and can feel intimidating to drive around town, some models have been on sale a long time and feel old, not generally very fuel efficient
The large van is the king of the vans and the one that is most likely to turn up outside your house if you have ordered something online. These vans have the most choice in terms of size and shape of all the different conventional panel vans as you can often choose from a selection of different heights and lengths. This means you can get a seriously large van – well over 6m long and over 2.7m high in some cases.
The biggest van isn’t necessarily the strongest, though, and you will often have to go for the smallest models if you want to carry the most weight. The biggest payloads are found in the likes of the Renault Master and Fiat Ducato, which can carry more than 1,600kg. If you need to carry heavy stuff, this is your van.
You can spend vast amounts of one of these, if you go for all the kit, or you can keep things simple and have one in white that is designed to be a no frills hard-working box on wheels.
Appropriate for: Moving house, carrying bulky but comparatively light things
Pros: Loads of room inside, often come with a powered tailgate to help you get things in and out
Cons: Still subject to the same weight limits as a normal van
The Luton van is another that is likely to turn up outside your house at one point – probably on the day you move in or the day you move out due to their popularity with removal firms.
For all its bulk, household furniture doesn’t weigh a vast amount, and this is where the Luton van comes in. The boxy shape means that you can fit beds, wardrobes or chest of drawers in with ease.
They are officially conversions, which means that the back bit has been bolted onto a bare chassis, but plenty of manufacturers will do that job for you so you can buy one in the knowledge it still has all the official warranty.
Appropriate for: The really tough jobs – hauling loads of grit and sand etc
Pros: Nothing to get dirty, can take a real beating, easy to unload
Cons: Can lead a tough life
The tipper and dropside are the van-based commercial vehicles for those that need to carry rough and ready things that don’t need to be tucked away under cover.
They, like the Luton van, are bodies that are bolted onto a chassis cab platform. They are flat beds that are rugged and workmanlike in their appearance – they look a bit like a pickup truck without the frills.
The names give a big hint to how you get the contents of the loading bay out. A dropside has hinged sides so you can flip them down, while a tipper has a mechanism that lifts the front part up so everything tips out. If carrying ability is important then go for the dropside as the hydraulic system on a tipper might be fancy but it adds weight.
Appropriate for: Heading where other vans can’t, providing a more secure alternative to a pickup truck
Pros: Can go almost anywhere, car-like up front, less agricultural than a truck
Cons: Expensive to buy, don’t have as high a payload as a truck
Some jobs are in harder-to-reach spots than others. If your work sees you heading up mountains rather than high streets then this is where the 4x4 van comes in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the brand’s heritage off road, Land Rover has a couple of models you can choose from, with van versions of the Defender and Discovery both available.
There is a wide range of diversity in the sector, with the diminutive Suzuki Jimny another option, while the Mitsubishi Outlander came with a plug-in hybrid van version too.