Why Did We Choose Blue?
Whenever we head to the grocery store, Marcie has her list. She assigns me one, or at most two items to find, usually the cereal I want for breakfast, and she does the rest of the shopping. I need to compare nutritional values for each possibility, what's on sale and, of course, the price per ounce. It’s important to be thorough. This takes awhile. Invariably, she has her cart full and her purchasing completed before I've made my final choice. So when it came time to buy a van, I was at least as thorough as I am in deciding on the right breakfast cereal, and it took me a long, but not unreasonable amount of time to make the decision. Marcie might interject here that to her, it took nearly forever, but then she’s just not a patient woman.
We had several criteria for the new vehicle. It needed to be: fuel efficient, able to ship overseas, (preferably by container), maneuverable, customizable to our specific wants and needs, energy efficient, self-contained, affordable, comfortable for two people and nice to look at. Ideally, we'd be able to live in it, drive it hundreds of thousands of miles, park it in a normal parking space – or a residential driveway, and not break the bank with maintenance or fuel costs. These criteria eliminated most every motorhome and RV we saw, and narrowed the choices down to camper conversions based on the Nissan NV2500, Mercedes/Dodge/White Sprinter (the Mercedes Sprinter was, for few years anyway, re-branded as the Dodge Sprinter and the White Freightliner), the Dodge ProMaster and the Ford Transit.
We began by looking at commercial conversions. There are several companies that start with a van – most usually a Mercedes Sprinter – and upfit it into a camper. Most are quite nicely done, although the quality of the work and materials varies widely. The biggest downside is the cost – typically $90,000 to $120,000, well beyond what we wanted to spend. The next biggest downside was the typical layout. Most seem aimed at the short-term camper, or designed for what most people think they want in a luxury camper, which isn't necessarily what we want. Having lived on a boat for nearly two decades, we have specific ideas on what works for us and what we wish to incorporate into our finished camper. In the commercial conversions, storage space has been sacrificed for roomy shower stalls, large holding tanks, microwaves and convection ovens, and generators to run all the electrical appliances. We would happily trade a lot of the extras for more storage space and a simpler, more energy efficient design.
We also checked a multitude of websites for used conversions and found a few possibilities. Many were works in progress by DIYers whose workmanship was pretty rough and were charging too much for what would probably have to be torn out and redone. Some were nicely done, but much too expensive. We did find a potential conversion in Seattle that, based on the pictures and owner's description, looked pretty good and was priced reasonably. It wasn't exactly what we wanted, but was close enough and could be modified as needed later. After traveling all the way across the country to see it, however, we ended up passing on it - the workmanship of the commercial upfitter was pretty deplorable.
The alternative was to buy an empty van and make the conversion ourselves. There are numerous blogs and forums by and for people doing just that, full of ideas – some great, some not-so-great. The cost would be much less than a commercial conversion and it would be just the way we want it (or think we want it, anyway). The trade-off, of course, would be the 8 months or so I expect it would take to do it ourselves. In the end, this is what we decided to do. The next decision was which van to buy.
I read Car & Driver magazine and got their input. I read Consumer Reports to check customer satisfaction and reliability reports. I read forums on all the candidates … there are several and I didn’t want to miss anything critical. I compared the initial extra cost of the diesel engine and diesel fuel vs. the expected longevity of the engine and the overall efficiency, i.e. the better mileage, to be obtained. I compared the various sizes available, cargo volumes, wheel base lengths and overall heights. I looked up ship container sizes to determine how large a vehicle could be placed in a container. I checked Blue Book values for various years to get a feel for the new price vs re-sale values, and the expected depreciation for each candidate. I also looked at the number of dealerships and repair places available.
The Nissan was quickly ruled out. It doesn't come in a diesel version and the gas engine had the worst MPG rating of any of the models. It's cargo space was smaller than the others. It is not as common as the others and finding repair facilities might be an issue. Finally, it's also a very odd looking vehicle.
The Dodge ProMaster was also eliminated rather quickly. Car & Driver gave it a terrible rating based on comfort and performance, and other reviewers consistently rated it below the Sprinter and Transit. In addition, I didn't think it looked as good as the other two.
Once the Sprinter and the Ford Transit made the initial cut, there were still lots of things to consider: diesel vs. gas engine; low, medium or high roof; new vs. used; ongoing maintenance/repair costs; number of repair facilities; resale values; warranty..
We decided on a diesel engine because of the longer lifetime and better fuel mileage. I did a spreadsheet comparing the overall cost of both engines, based on the national average of fuel costs, anticipated MPG, upfront cost of the diesel engine and the added value of the diesel engine on resale. The breakeven point is about 30,000 miles. The Mercedes gets slightly better mileage – 22 MPG vs 21 MPG for the Ford.
We decided on a medium roof because it will fit in a container and we liked the look better. The trade-off? I can't quite stand up without ducking my head, but I can deal with that. The long wheel base model is just short enough to fit in most parking spaces and the driveway of our Las Vegas house. The Ford gets a slight edge because its long wheel base model is 4” longer then the Sprinter.
New vs Used? The new price for comparably equipped vehicles is not much different between the Sprinter and the Transit, although Ford is offering more incentives than Mercedes at the moment. On the other hand, Nevada, where we will be registering it, charges 8.25% sales tax on new vehicles, but no sales tax on purchases between private parties – quite an incentive for buying used. The Mercedes retains its value better that the Ford for the first couple of years, then they seem to be pretty comparable after that. So, Mercedes gets the edge for resale value, but only for a newer model.
Ford has the edge in the number of repair facilities and the cost of repairs. There are Ford dealers in most every small town and city in the U.S. and Canada, and most independent garages can repair a Ford. Mercedes repair locations are fewer, and our experience with the one Mercedes we owned was that repair costs were exorbitant.
Marcie’s input on all of this? She preferred the color blue, but would settle for whatever color I found that met the rest of the criteria. She may be impatient, but she’s certainly easy.
In the end, we decided to go with the Transit. I started checking Craiglist in every major city and region in the U.S. It didn't take long to find the perfect van - in Queens, NY - much better than Seattle. It was a nice, diesel 2015 Transit from a private party with 8500 miles, still in warranty, medium roof height, long wheelbase – and blue.