Battle of the Vans: Old Van vs New Van

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So you want to buy a van. Should you go for a new van or opt for an older rig? We’ve compiled a list of pros and cons to consider when deciding between an old van vs new van.

They say a house is the biggest purchase you’ll ever make and although choosing a van may not be quite that, buying a van to live in is a pretty major decision. Some people have distinct visions for their van life. Maybe cruising through the sunset in a candy-coloured VW bus or ripping through the mountains in a decked-out Sprinter. But for anyone weighing out their options, here are a few pros and cons to consider.

The best vans to live in balance size, capability, and your budget. Not just your upfront purchase but your monthly gas, insurance, and maintenance expenses too. When deciding between an old van vs new van, you should first figure out a few things. Consider how much you can afford, what you plan to do with your van, and how much space you need. The best van for van life should tick all of these boxes.

Also, I want to clarify that when I say “old van” I mean anything pre-new millennium. In the car world, pretty much anything over 10 years old is considered to be old. But in the van world, there are a ton of vintage rigs kicking around that still have plenty of life left in them. Using that benchmark, a “newer van” would be pretty much anything made in the 2000s onward but it seems like the past 15 years have been the most prolific.

IN THIS CORNER: OLDER VANS

Generic Van Life - Old Van Vs New Van - Old VansPROS

Usually significantly cheaper upfront cost

Our van only set us back 5 grand while it’d be a bit of a challenge to get a newer one for under $15k (CAD). Buying a used van will always be cheaper upfront.

They’re everywhere

We’ve travelled a good chunk of this continent and in every state or province, there are older used vans around. They made a lot of these things in the 70s and 80s and most are still in use in some way or another. Basically, if you have a non-rich person budget, you’ll probably have more to choose from if opting for an older rig.

They’re easier to fix

This doesn’t apply to ALL old vans but a good majority of American-made models were so widely mass-produced that the parts are still easily available at any auto parts store. You can also benefit from pick-n-pulls or junkyards to find used parts. You’ll probably feel way more confident about doing the repair yourself as an amateur mechanic than you would with some spaceship-looking modern vehicle. To that same point, it’s much easier and more realistic to learn how to do routine maintenance like oil changes, filter changes, and brake pad replacements yourself on an older vehicle.

It might already be a conversion van

Camper vans were all the rage for many years before they got grouped into the luxury RV market. If you’re a 20-something who can afford a Winnebago or Pleasure-Way van then kudos to you but they’re usually geared toward retired folks with far more capital. Our van was already converted so we didn’t have to worry about installing tricky things like a propane system. Instead, we only had to spend a month and less than $1000 freshening it up before being able to hit the road.

They’ve got character

Older vans can be pretty quirky – we see this as something that adds to the van but it’s fair that some people don’t. I think it’s really cool that other people have gone on fun road trips and had awesome experiences in our van and that we’re able to keep adding to these memories 30+ years later.

Insurance is usually cheaper

I say usually because insurance has so many facets that influence rates. For us, it’s about a $300-500/yr difference if we were to have a 2005 Sprinter, for example. Plus, conversion vans can be tricky to insure if you did the build yourself and not by a professional.

CONS

Fuel economy

This speaks for itself…we get about 5 km/L or 12 mpg, which is pretty terrible. We also have a 137L (36 gallon) gas tank so you can imagine that our gas fill-ups aren’t cheap.

More likely to have rust or other sorts of body damage

Again, pretty straight forward. It’s been on the road longer and if it hasn’t been stored in a garage all the time then rust can be somewhat inevitable – especially if you’re in a place that uses road salt.

They can be “interesting” to drive

Back to the quirks thing, driving an older van can be a pretty different experience from driving a modern vehicle. For example, our van has a carburetor, which requires a special pattern of gas pedal pumping and engine revving to get started and idling correctly. Similarly, older Volkswagens have air-cooled engines which might limit how much going you can do at one time in hot places among other things.

Performance capabilities

Of course with a new engine and other costly replacements, an old van can run like a hot rod. However, lots of older used vans in their current states need to drive a little slower and might struggle with mountain passes and other situations that are stressful on the engine. In any case, most people are fairly receptive to older rigs and will give you your space or pass as they do with transport trucks. Some people are still jerks though and just love to ride your tail.

IN THIS CORNER: NEWER VANS

Generic Van Life - Old Van Vs New Van - New VansPROS

Clean slate

By going for a Sprinter or other cargo van, it’s much more likely to find them completely empty or with minimal structure to remove before converting. Even if you have to remove rows of seating, buying an empty van allows you to do whatever you want with it and not adhere to an already established layout that may not work for you. Most cargo vans are blank canvases so you can make the best setup for your van life needs.

Warranty or financing options

Whether you’re buying brand new or new-ish, you’re more likely to have financing options or still be under some sort of manufacturer/dealer warranty. Personally, this wasn’t something we cared about but having financing as an option is helpful if you’re buying a pricier rig. Warranty can also relieve a lot of stress for people who aren’t mechanically sound, even though going through warranty often ends up being a huge headache.

Fuel economy

Yeah, this is a big one. Less fill-ups and more efficient fuel consumption can save you a lot in monthly expenses.

Modern conveniences

If having dash air conditioning and things like GPS or Bluetooth-enabled radio is important to you then a newer vehicle is probably a better fit. That’s not to say that older used vans won’t or can’t have these things but it’s far less common or would require your own modifications. Safety features are also a thing but even all the bells and whistles won’t save you if you’re a reckless driver. It’s all about going low and slow, regardless of the age of your vehicle.

Stealth/Anonymity

This doesn’t apply to all old vs. new vans but usually, a white cube van parked in an industrial area or even a residential street doesn’t scream “camper van.” Meanwhile, many older rigs are a bit more forward. In good and bad ways, our van attracts a lot of attention and has a distinct look while Sprinters blend in pretty much anywhere.

More size options

You can get some pretty long and tall Sprinters, Transits, and Promasters that are similar in size to a small RV. These things come out of the factory with tall roofs and extended bodies while a lot of older vans have had these modifications done after-market.

CONS

More upfront expenses

The initial purchase price of a newer vehicle is going to be higher unless you’re going for some crazy souped-up collector’s van that Mick Jagger might have sat in once. According to your budget, you have to weigh out if it’s more realistic for you to pay more for the van itself and less on fuel over the years or vice versa.

Costly repairs

Looking under the hood of a newer vehicle is not the same as looking at the guts of an older vehicle. Usually, the new compartmentalized style is geared toward having to get a professional to do most of your repairs and of course, paying a pretty penny for it. Also if you’re in a rut and on warranty, repairs done by you or a non-certified garage can void it. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, this can tack on a lot of extra stress.

Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better

A lot of things nowadays are built with planned obsolesce in mind. Would a manufacturer genuinely want you to buy a vehicle and then barely spend any money on it for a decade? Of course not. They want you to buy brand-specific parts and do maintenance at arbitrary factory-determined intervals. Also, just like a new pair of shoes or a baseball glove, things are just better once they’re broken in.

Higher insurance rates

It’s pretty simple, the newer vehicles are worth more so they are naturally more expensive to insure. Plus, a conversion van can be difficult to insure.

Lack of windows

In many cases, Sprinters or Ford Transits are cargo vans and not passenger vans so owners have to install windows themselves if they want them. Personally, we love being able to get tons of natural light and have the feeling that we’re outside when we’re not from the panoramic windows. If you’ve ever lived in a basement apartment, you’ll get it.

AND THE WINNER IS….

There is no winner. Womp womp womp. Ultimately, this is a very personal decision based on your budget, mechanical know-how, and how much work you want to put into it. The best vans to live in are those that work with your needs, lifestyle, and budget. Owning an older vehicle is a labour of love that’s priceless for some and completely unappetizing for others. If you’re willing to learn and are motivated to do repairs yourself then even with the higher costs of fuel, an older van will still probably end up costing you less after 5 years. As this redditor puts it,

“[…]if I compare my Econoline at 12mpg to a new equivalent Transit at 17mpg, it takes 204k miles at $2 a gallon to pay back even $10k of extra cost on the Transit.”

A lot of things added in modern vehicles geared at making your life easier can often make your life hell when they’re not functioning properly. Computerization can be a blessing and a curse. I suppose the final thing to consider is how long you plan to own the van and how its resale value will be affected after that term. New vehicles lose value as soon as they drive off the lot so let someone else take the depreciation hit. Just remember, newer doesn’t always mean better and whichever route you choose, make that van your own and get cruisin’!

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6 comments
  1. Thanks for explaining that the type of passenger van we buy needs to be a personal decision based on our budget and know-how. My husband and I are considering buying a van so we have more space for guests and luggage when we travel. I’m glad I read your article because you gave me some interesting facts to consider in our decision.

  2. This is some really good information about different types of vans. I liked that you explained that it would be smart to check for warranties. It is nice to know that you would want to think about getting a professional help picking out the right type of van for you and your needs.

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