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What’s the right-sized van for my business?

Choosing the best van for the job can demand a bit of homework, including some maths. Let The Van Expert guide you through the basics.

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Choosing the right-sized van for the job can demand a bit of homework, including some maths. Let The Van Expert guide you through the basics.

Whether it’s bought new or used, or leased, or on subscription, finding the best size and shape of van for your business starts with these main questions:

How and where is it going to be used?

Is it mainly short work in towns where the exterior dimensions become most important, or longer trips on motorways where the size can be bigger and the comfort of the driver – and extras such as cruise control – become more important? Access to the load area also depends on where it will be used. Will you want a sliding door on just one side, or both?

Type of cargo and weights

Are you carrying long or wide loads, small boxes or tools? You will need to know the likely maximum weight you want to carry in then van to avoid overloading it. Not only is an overloaded van unsafe and inefficient, you risk being fined if you exceed the maximum load for the van.

Who is going to drive it and will there be passengers?

If you’re hiring new drivers, how comfortable would they be driving a large van? You may need to think about vans which are more car-sized and what amount of parking assistance (sensors, reversing cameras or self-parking) to have. Also, will it just the driver or will they be joined by more than one or two people?

Dimensions

To find the right-sized van, you’ll need to work out what dimensions you need – both inside (to make sure it can carry everything you need) and outside (to make sure it will fit into all the spaces it needs to go).

Inside, you need to know what the available load length is (from the back of the seats/the bulkhead behind the seats to the closed rear door), the width between the wheel arches (the narrowest width point of the load bay, up to 40cm less than the widest) the width between the open doors, and the internal height.

Vans are often described by how many (wooden) Euro pallets they can take. The standard Euro pallet is 800mm x 1,200mm. If you transport goods on pallets, this will be a crucial measurement.

Outside, you need to be looking at the overall length, the height (will it hit the load bay roof?) and how wide it is with wing mirrors.

Duncan Chumley, CEO of our subscription partner Mycardirect and Myvandirect also advises that if you’re an owner-operator, keeping a van at home each night, to check if there any van covenants on your house. “It’s worth checking because some housing estates don’t allow long-wheelbase vans,” he says.

So what size and type of van do you need? Let’s look at your choices.

Small vans

Vauxhall Combo panel van 2021

There used to be van versions of small three-doow hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa or Renault Clio but these have almost completely died out as those cars have become five-door only.

The small class now includes models such as the Vauxhall Combo (pictured), Volkswagen Caddy or the Ford Transit Connect which were designed as vans in the first place but can also be had as mini-MPVs with windows and seats.

Small vans are available in standard- or long- wheelbase versions (wheelbase is the length between the front and rear wheels). In standard form, the overall length of these small vans is about the same as an average supermini. A Vauxhall Combo has a load length up to 2.2 metres and an overall length of 4.4 metres, with is just over the length of a Vauxhall Corsa car (4.0m).

Within the van market, there are a lot of models that are jointly developed by multiple car manufacturers and sold under different brands. For example, the Vauxhall Combo is almost exactly the same vehicle as the Citroën Berlingo, and the Peugeot Partner, and the Toyota Proace City, and the Fiat Doblò. The Renault Kangoo, meanwhile, is a very close relative of the Mercedes-Benz Citan and the forthcoming Nissan Townstar.

Medium vans

Ford Transit Custom | The Van Expert

Next size up, the Ford Transit Custom (pictured) is the mid-size panel van everybody knows. It’s also popular – not only is it the UK’s best-selling van, but the country’s best-selling vehicle of any kind.

Other household names include the Mercedes-Benz Vito, Vauxhall Vivaro and Volkswagen Transporter. Pretty much every van manufacturer will have an entrant in this category, so there are plenty of vehicles to choose from.

You can get panel vans in varying lengths and heights, but a standard wheelbase Transit has a load length of 2.6m and is 4.8m long – a Ford Focus estate car is 4.7m long, but the Transit is a lot wider; 2.3m wide with mirrors to the Focus’ 1.8m wide with mirrors.

Again, there is a lot of sharing and rebadging going on in the mid-size segment. The Vauxhall Vivaro is the same as a Peugeot Expert is the same as a Citroën Dispatch is the same as a Fiat Scudo is the same as a Toyota Proace.While you’re at it, the Renault Trafic is also sold as the Nissan Primastar.

Duncan Chumley buys in vehicles for Myvandirect’s subscription business based on the highest demand, and it’s for small and medium vans.

“In the main, they’ve probably decided they want a smaller van, a mid-sized van or a long-wheelbase van. If they’re just an engineer just carrying tools, the chances are they are probably going to use a Berlingo-sized van unless they’re carrying equipment.

“If they’re carrying goods, then they might need a larger van and with carpet or something like that. Load length becomes incredibly important.”

Large vans

Ford E-Transit front view

Compared to medium vans, a large van will need a bit of practice to drive compared to a medium van as they are significantly longer and taller. The best-known is the Ford Transit (pictured), which jumped from the medium to large size category more than a decade ago.

Vans in this category will operate up to 3.5 tonnes, which is the maximum anyone can drive with a normal car licence.

There are also heavier-duty large vans available that can push up to 7.5 tonnes. At this point you’ll need to check if the driver’s licence allows them to drive this weight of van.

The Renault Master range is a good example of this. It starts at five metres long and extend to a massive 6.8m. Large vans can be had a chassis (a platform and the cab) and specialist bodies are built on top such as drop-sides or tippers. The ‘regular’ Renault Master range runs up to the 3.5-tonne limit for a normal car licence, but there are heavy-duty Master models branded as Renault Trucks (which is actually a different company) that offer Master models up to 7.5 tonnes.

Once again, you’ll find a lot of shared models with different badges in the large van segment. The Vauxhall Movano is also the Peugeot Boxer, and the Citroën Relay, and the Fiat Ducato. The Volkswagen Crafter is also the MAN TGE, while the Renault Master is also the Nissan Interstar.

Crew vans

Ford Transit Custom Trail

Most panel vans have either two or three seats across the front, but if you need to carry more passengers plus tools and equipment, you’ll need a crew van.

These are the same size as panel vans but have a shorter load bay and a second row of seats accessed by one or two sliding doors with a window.

A crew van is still classed as a commercial vehicle, rather than a passenger vehicle. That means you’ll see pricing shown without VAT, and the vehicles themselves will be less luxuriously equipped than a similar-looking ‘people carrier’ version of the same model.

For example, the Ford Transit Custom bodyshell has two separate options for carrying several passengers. You can buy a Ford Transit Custom Double Cab (pictured above in ‘Trail’ specification), which is a commercial vehicle with two rows of seats and a smaller load area. Or you can buy a Ford Tourneo Custom, a higher-spec vehicle aimed at families and taxi services, which is a passenger vehicle and certainly not configured for working use.

Luton vans

Renault Master Luton Van The Van Expert

These are the moving house machines with a boxy body that goes right over the top of the cabin. The name comes from the town of Luton, home of Vauxhall, which started building these kinds of vans in the 1930s. The load compartment sits above the rear wheels so has the same amount of width front to back, a roller rear door and often a lifting step, and no side doors.

Based on a large van, the average Luton van body is at least 4m long, 2.2m wide and 2.2m high – over and above the van on which it’s fitted – so a bit of a challenge if you’re used to driving only cars. Again, check your licence.

For many years, Luton bodies were predominantly an aftermarket conversion – you’d order a cab-chassis vehicle, with no body behind the cabin, and then have a third-party company fit the box-shaped body to it. Nowadays, most van brands offer a Luton body option directly from the manufacturer. It may still be built as a cab-chassis then converted off-site after leaving the factory, but the manufacturer arranges it all for you before you take delivery.

Brand names don’t matter that much – many new vans are the same design

Once you’ve settled on the right-sized van for your needs, the choice of vehicles may seem big. In reality, however, many of the vehicles available are the same design – not just similar, but the same vehicles with mildly different styling and a different badge on the nose.

For a long time, many manufacturers have combined their resources to jointly develop vans, build them in the same factory and put as many as five or six different badges and names on them. 

As part of the giant Stellantis company, the Vauxhall Combo, Vivaro and Movano (small/medium/large) are the same as the Peugeot Partner, Expert and Boxer, as are the Citroën Berlingo, Dispatch and Relay and Fiat Doblò, Scudo and Ducato. The Toyota Proace City and Proace are also the same design in the first two sizes. In Europe, Vauxhall models go by the name Opel, so that’s six different brands selling exactly the same vans.

Similarly, the Renault Kangoo, Trafic and Master vans are the same as the Nissan Townstar, Primastar and Interstar.

Confusingly, all this model sharing can shift over time. As two examples, the previous-generation Vauxhall Vivaro and Movano were re-badged versions of the Renault Trafic and Master, while the last Mercedes-Benz Sprinter was jointly developed along with the Volkswagen Crafter. However, industry politics and changing ownerships have led to these relationships chopping and changing over the years.

How much weight can my can carry?

The specifications for each van will detail the cubic capacity of its load bay as if it has been loaded up to the roof. This is usually measured in litres or in square metres.

It is crucial to know the maximum safe weight your van can carry, the payload. An overloaded van will take longer to stop, be more difficult to control and be heavy on engine wear and fuel. You can be fined up to £300 or get a court summons if your van exceeds its maximum permitted weight.

If you’re shopping for a new van, the manufacturer will specify the payload for you (or give the maximum weight you can place over the front and rear axles), but for a used van you may need to work it out yourself. In either case, you need to know the weight of what you’re likely to carry and the weight of any racking you plan to put in the van.

You start with the unladen weight or kerb weight of the van. This is its weight when empty but with a full tank of fuel. The maximum a van is allowed to weigh when loaded (with fuel passengers and goods) is called the design gross weight, which you can find on your van’s vehicle identification number (VIN) plate. It’s also known as the gross vehicle weight or laden weight but they all mean the same thing.

To calculate the payload, you deduct the unladen weight from the design gross weight.  If you’re unsure how much your van weighs empty or full, You can check how much it weighs at a local weighbridge.

Lastly, the payload picture is slightly different for electric vans. An unloaded electric van typically weighs slightly more than an unloaded diesel van, due to the weight of the battery. An electric van’s maximum payload is generally less than an equivalent diesel and just as a laden diesel uses more fuel, high payloads can reduce the available electric range, as do aggressive driving and cold weather use.

Chumley warns that a mistake is often made between payload and volume. “A lot of people think a van can carry more payload than it actually can,” he says.

“If you have a 3.5-tonne van and it has a payload of two tonnes, this because it includes the chassis weight as well. Depending on the size and what you’re carrying, there’s no point in having a large cubic capacity vehicle if you carry cement slabs – there’s no point in buying a long-wheelbase van because it will always be over payload. Then it’s a big fine.”

More doors or seats?

Even though manufacturers have been cutting down the amount of option and trim choices in their van ranges because of supply shortages, it’s possible to spend hours with the online configurators. But as you’re configuring a vehicle, be careful to only add options which you will need or which the next user is likely to find useful. Additional equipment that you’re not going to use is likely to be a waste of money.

Once you know the size and engine, the major choice you have to make at the time it’s built is whether to add an extra sliding door or add a bulkhead behind the front seats to ensure you can load right up to the end.

For example, a Volkswagen Transporter 6.1 panel van (from £33.5K including VAT at time of writing) comes with a sliding door on the left (kerbside for the UK) as standard. A sliding door on the right is £840 with VAT and a full bulkhead with a fixed window including eight lashing rings for load restraint is £156 with VAT.

Might you want an extra seat in the front (stopping short of a crew cab)? “Look at what you use the van for on an average day,” says My Van Direct’s Chumley. “Some owners may drop their children of at school so sometimes they want an extra two seats. If it’s only ever you in it is there a need for more than two seats?”

Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2021 and 2022.

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