4X4 Vans: The Next Off-Roading Craze For Overland Fun?
The #vanlife phenomenon has taken over a serious chunk of social media bandwidth as thousands of enthusiasts abandon apartment living for the promise of open road adventure. It's not surprising, then, that there's growing overlap between the traditional Volkswagen van living crowd and the overlanding community. Both of these groups share the same fascination of living mobile, with overlanding pushing the boundaries off the beaten path and deeper down the trail.
As a result, 4x4 van builds are becoming increasingly common. Whereas in the past most off-roaders would be happy with a larger SUV if they planned to camp out during a weekend-long trip, the popularity of overlanding has created boom in four-wheel drive vans. Whether these are factory-built 4x4s or custom outfitted models, it's fair to say that go-anywhere off-road vans could be on the verge of becoming the next off-roading craze.
Stick To Stock
If you want to stay factory, there are two main branches of the 4x4 van family that will be of particular interest.
The first is the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which is available in a variety of different length and height configurations, and feature a reasonably rugged four-wheel drive system as an option (as long as you order it with a turbodiesel engine). Available since 2015, its 4x4 system sends just over half of engine output to the rear wheels through a set of open differentials, and makes use of the braking system to fight wheel spin (with more recent models updating torque management). Low-range gearing can also be ordered with the setup. A suspension lift is negated somewhat by the hang-down of the transfer case, but it does make space for more aggressive rubber at each corner, and improves approach and departure angles.
Eighties and Nineties Japanese 4x4s
Next up are the crop of now-legal Japanese market imports from the '80s and '90s. These include vans like the Mitsubishi Delica and the Toyota Van, each of which was available with a low-range four-wheel drive system, and has access to a surprisingly deep aftermarket of suspension and drivetrain upgrades. Smaller, and obviously older than the Sprinter, they are nevertheless prized for their more hardcore crawling capabilities and easier maneuverability.
Not included in the scope of overland-appropriate vans are models like the Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna, or Ford Transit, each of which deliver light-duty all-wheel drive rather than off-road capable four-wheel drive. The Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari four-wheel drive system does have its adherents, although it's similarly modest in its capabilities. Even Volkswagen's stock Syncro all-wheel drive system, which is prized among collectors, is less than useful off-road without the addition of locking differentials.
Embrace The Aftermarket. Vans Are Ideal.
For those who want to move beyond stock, there is no shortage of hardcore 4x4 van builders out there to choose from. Companies like Advanced 4WD Systems and Sportsmobile will provide popular choices like the Ford E-Series, the GMC Savana/Chevrolet Express, and the Nissan NV full-size vans with the choice solid axles or independent suspensions and all manner of chassis tricks to help deal with challenging terrain and heavy loads.
These large vans remain popular overlanding choices due to their tough full-frame construction and the amount of technology they share with similarly-sized pickup trucks. This includes access to both V8 and, in the case of the Ford E-Series, V10 engines. They also offer a significant amount of interior room and hauling capacity, which makes them ideal for longer-term living out in the bush.
Of course, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has also seen its own share of third-party modifications aimed at the overland 4x4 crowd. Winnebago's Revel is built entirely on a Sprinter platform, and includes innovative gear storage and living quarters that tuck neatly into the Sprinter's cargo box.
Pros And Cons To 4X4 Van-Life
The advantages of overlanding in a 4x4 van are obvious: acres of interior room, simple (for most designs) mechanicals making for easy maintenance, and strong availability when it comes to choosing a base for your next project thanks to the millions of fleet vehicles that routinely hit auctions.
There are some downsides to van off-roading, however, that must also be considered. Long overhangs on most commercial vans can make some obstacles a serious challenge to drive over, and the tall height of a van can make for tricky center-of-gravity moments when the vehicle is hewed at an acute angle. Then there's the cost: converting a Ford or Chevy full-size van to four-wheel drive isn't cheap, and neither are the JDM imports due to their relative scarcity in America. Finally, the readily available Sprinter's four-wheel drive system isn't appropriate for serious crawling, and the vehicle is known for both rust and reliability issues over time.
That being said, many of the issues afflicting 4x4 vans are also found in older sport-utility vehicles, which don't deliver the same ease-of-living as their cargo-oriented counterparts. It really becomes a question of where you want to spend your cash, and whether focusing on comfort, storage, and practicality or instead going for all-out capability are your most pressing overlanding concerns.