Hello to all you Class B van fans!
In the ring today: The Ford Transit vs the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Which is the better mobile headquarters for #vanlife?
People have all sorts of reasons to take up the RV lifestyle. Digital nomad, retirement sightseeing, escaping the zombie apocalypse, etc.
In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that over 140,000 people were RV- or van-dwellers (not all, admittedly, by choice). It’s a growing, vibrant lifestyle.
If you’re just getting into #vanlife, you’re most likely asking yourself: “Self, how do I know which RV van is right for me?”
There are so many options available, it can seem like an impossible decision. But with a little… okay, a lot of thought, you can happily hit the road in the perfect recreational vehicle.
MEET THE CONTENDERS: TRANSIT & SPRINTER
The Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter are two of the most popular chassis choices for Class B RVs (also known as conversion vans or camper vans).
The third-generation Ford Transit was launched in 2000, just five years after the birth of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 1995.* Both rapidly became some of the best-selling van platforms of all time.
(Fun fact: Mercedes-Benz doesn’t actually build the Sprinter for the U.S. market. It’s shipped across the pond as a Complete Knock-Down Kit (CKD) and finished by Freightliner)
Today, both models are available as multiple platforms:
- Cargo panel vans
- Passenger (or crew) panel vans
- Cutaway chassis
- Chassis cab chassis
In this post, I’ll focus just on the cargo van models. These are the platforms normally customized by van outfitters and RV manufacturers like Pleasure-Way and Roadtrek. The cutaway and chassis cab versions are used for Class C RVs and commercial hauling vans, respectively.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHOOSING A CAMPER VAN
Before we sift through the nitty-gritty details, you need to establish a baseline.
- Will you be van living full-time or part-time?
- What terrain/weather conditions will you travel in?
- How many miles will you travel each week, month, or year?
- Do you plan to sell it after a certain amount of time or usage?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
- Which will look best on your Instagram feed? (Not really.)
Let’s look at some of the details that can influence your decision.
- The specs listed in this article are based on the 2022 Model Years for both the Transit and Sprinter chassis vans.
- All pictures of the Ford Transit are from Ford’s website. All pictures of the Mercedes Sprinter are from Mercedes’ website.
- We’re going with “off-the-lot” specs. Custom RV van conversion is an entirely different conversation that basically boils down to: Can you afford it?
FORD TRANSIT CAMPER VAN: PROS AND CONS
- Affordable upfront price!
- Parts and service easy to come by
- Low maintenance costs
- Tallest interior height available
- Lots of outfitters and manufacturers
- Low ground clearance
- AWD only; no 4×4 option
- Middling interior finishes
- Can be long waiting time
- Only fair fuel efficiency
MB SPRINTER CAMPER VAN: PROS AND CONS
- Best-in-class fuel efficiency
- Higher payload capacity
- Excellent mechanical design
- Excellent fit n’ finish
- Lots of square footage
- 4×4 factory option
- Excellent resale value
- Lots of DIY online instructables
- Expensive to purchase and maintain
- Diesel engines require specialized service; normally need a Mercedes-Benz dealership
- Major mechanical repairs not uncommon
- Slow acceleration
COMPARING THE SPECS: TRANSIT VS. SPRINTER
|Mercedes Sprinter||Ford Transit|
|Wheelbase||144″, 170″, 170″ Extended Body||130″, 148″, 148″ Extended Body|
|Overall Length||233.5″, 274.3″, 290″||217.8″, 235.5″, 263.9″|
|Ground Clearance||Approx. 8″||Approx. 5.5″|
|Powertrain||RWD, AWD, 4WD||RWD, AWD|
|Exterior Height||107.5″, 107.3″, 107″||109.6″, 109.6″, 110.4″|
|Interior Height||79.1″, 79.1″, 79.1″||79.1″, 81.5″, 81.5″|
|Fuel Type||Gas or diesel||Gas|
|Maintenance||Specialized and expensive||Easier to find parts and service|
|Towing Capacity||5000 – 7500 lbs||3400 – 5800 lbs|
|Cost – Conversion Van||$30,000 – $65,000||$18,000 – $50,000|
|Cost – Manufactured RV||$100,000 – $250,000||$80,000 – $200,000|
Your vehicle’s wheelbase determines the amount of space you’ll have and the maneuverability of your RV.
Single travelers might be perfectly comfortable with the shorter vehicles, but couples and families will definitely want the extra square footage.
If you’re going for maximum square footage, it’s hard to beat the Sprinter 170″ WB.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of off-roading or backcountry camping, your RV ground clearance will be something to keep in mind.
Lift kits are available for both Sprinters and Transits, but be sensible about your center of gravity.
The Ford Transit sits lower than the Mercedes Sprinter. If you frequent primitive campsites, the Sprinter might be the better choice.
As with ground clearance, your choice of drive system will depend on the terrain you plan on travelling through. Both the Mercedes Sprinter and Ford Transit RV vans are available in Rear Wheel Drive and All Wheel Drive.
The Sprinter also offers 4×4 Drive straight from the factory. (Transits can be converted aftermarket for a hefty price).
I keep waiting for the No-Wheel Drive flying cars science fiction has promised us since forever, but…
Exterior & Interior Roof Height
Both Sprinters and Transits are available in three different exterior heights. This is before any solar panels, air conditioning units, luggage racks, or other gear is mounted on the roof.
Maximum roof height is something to keep in mind when you consider things like restaurant drive-through lanes and low branches in backwoods areas. There are apps that can help plot routes that avoid low clearance bridges and tunnels, so if you’re going for the tallest Class B van, consider using one of them.
The interior height of a Class B motorhome will depend on many different factors, including type of insulation, air conditioners and other interior fixtures that extend downward, flooring materials, ground clearance (see above), etc. You won’t be playing badminton or Beat Saber in any of ‘em, obviously, but you won’t want to wear a helmet all the time, either.
If you’re 6’ tall or more, check out your van in person before buying. As an aside, taller folks should also check that the bed will be big enough for them to sleep comfortably. Class B vans will most likely have the bed mounted sideways – especially in conversions – and the average interior width of an RV van is 69”.
Fuel & Fuel Efficiency
Mercedes Sprinters are available in gas or diesel models. Ford Transit Class B RVs are only available with gas engines for now (though you can get one of their work vans in diesel and convert it if you want). Diesel models last longer and have a higher resale value, but they’re also more expensive, both for initial purchase and filling the tank.
On average, a Class B motorhome gets approximately 20 miles to the gallon, with diesel engines being a little more efficient. Obviously, this will depend on weight, vehicle shape, driving conditions, etc. If you’re going to blast across the landscape Mad Max-style, you’re going to be on the left side of that bell curve.
This is one of the biggest considerations. Most general mechanics won’t have the experience or parts to service a Mercedes Sprinter, so you’ll be visiting dealerships whenever it needs attention, and that specialized work isn’t cheap.
While parts and service are easier to obtain for a Transit, the shorter lifespan of a gas engine may offset the savings and convenience for you.
Fortunately, there are never any problems whatsoever with RVs that are driven thousands of miles a year under all conditions. What? Stop laughing. (See #9 below)
No matter how much you pare down your possessions when you decide to live in a Class B, there are some things that just aren’t going to fit into the very limited storage space you’ll have. Where do you put your drum kit, or golf cart, or fairground cotton candy booth, or scale model of Notre Dame cathedral? (Just me? Okay.) The answer, of course, is a trailer.
The most robust Ford Transit has a towing capacity of 6,500 pounds, while the Mercedes Sprinter tops out at 7,500 pounds.
Please note, though, there will be a large difference in towing capacity depending on whether your trailer has its own braking system. Always discuss this with your RV dealer before purchasing your van.
Just like with any other vehicle, the safety features on Class B RVs keep getting better and better. Depending on which model you choose, you may have:
- Lane assist to prevent drifting
- Automatic distancing to avoid tailgating
- Automatic braking to prevent collisions
- Arear-view camera
- Blind spot elimination (which uses radar)
- And even systems that can warn you before you get too tired to drive safely.
Of course, airbags and anti-lock brakes are on almost every single passenger vehicle manufactured today.
In general, barring extraordinary deals and knowing a guy who knows a guy, Ford Transits are going to be cheaper than Mercedes Sprinters.
However, diesel models last much longer and retain more value than gas models.
… but clean-diesel technology isn’t cheap to maintain! Sprinter vans cost ~20% more upfront and will keep costing more over their lifespan. Savings in fuel efficiency are usually offset by the higher costs of specialized maintenance.
Known Mechanical Issues
If you’ve ever read comments anywhere online, you know that people have opinions – sometimes very strident opinions – so asking “What problems have you had with…?” will provide hours of “entertaining” reading. That being said, owners of specific models of both Ford Transits and Mercedes Sprinters have registered some common complaints.
2015 Transits have had reports of problems with the electrical systems, while several 2016 Transit owners have made complaints about the engine suddenly losing power. Now, these particular vehicles were being used as work vans and not RVs, and just as many owners have had no trouble at all with the same models, but keep it in mind when shopping.
Similarly, Mercedes Sprinters manufactured between 2007 and 2015 have had multiple reports of Diesel Exhaust Fluid sensor failure and pipe leak. The engines can also develop a problem cheerfully called the “Black Death.” This occurs when the injector seals leak, leading to a buildup of black, tar-like sludge. Mechanical failures can sometimes trigger a safety system referred to as “Limp Home” Mode, where the onboard computer drastically reduces engine power to protect it from damage.
As we said before, this is by no means a complete list, but the above items are some of the more important things to consider when you are trying to decide between buying a Mercedes Sprinter or a Ford Transit RV.
Whichever one you end up with, you will find thousands of other Class B drivers on the roads and at the campgrounds. There are even #Vanlife festivals where you can celebrate all of the fun aspects of the lifestyle.
There is a sense of camaraderie among RV owners no matter what model you drive, and whatever issues someone might be having, someone else has gone through it and will be happy to offer advice. So do your research, make your choices, and enjoy the adventure!
Patrick has visited 11 countries and 35 of the 50 states. He has racked up thousands of miles in RVs of every class, including a hand-crafted Romani vardo. His retirement plan is a custom Class B and a generic cat, the primary goal being to pick up those last 15 states.