Search for a Family Camper: Is it Van Time?

The search for a new family-sized camping vehicle has lead us to the logical choices. There is no point discussing any more of the more interesting options (Delica, Pinzgauer, etc.) because this family camper will also have to double as the grocery-getter, sports transport, and dog mobile. The more exotic options are still enticing but will be harder to live with. That brings us to the Mercedes Sprinter and the Ford Transit.

The Sprinter Passenger MSRP is $41,095 and the Transit Passenger MSRP is $37,135.


Both vehicles are available in 4×4/all-wheel-drive (2020 Ford Transit) and rear-wheel-drive configurations. Both vans are available with a diesel engine. The 3.0L turbo V6 in the Sprinter makes 188 hp/325 lb-ft. The 3.2L inline five-cylinder in the Transit makes 185 hp/350 lb-ft. The comparison gets lopsided when you compare the gasoline engine options. The Transit’s best gas engine is the 3.5L twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 making 310 hp/400 lb-ft. The Sprinter’s gas engine is a 2.0L four-cylinder engine making 190 hp/258 lb-ft. The most common Transit engine is the 3.7L V6 that makes 275 hp/260 lb-ft.

The Sprinter comes with a 7-speed automatic transmission and the Transit has a 6-speed automatic.

Seating Configuration

Both vans were driven in the 12 passenger configuration. The Sprinter has the age-old two rows of three and one row of four in the back. The Transit has a more modern take with a row of three, then a row with a single seat near the door then two more seats across an aisle followed by the final row of four. We did not spend enough time to properly evaluate how the different row configurations would be used over time. All of the Sprinter’s rear seats have the ability to recline which is new for 2019. The Transit’s seats also recline but have in previous model years.

Ford Transit 15-passenger layout
Ford Transit 15-passenger layout

Sprinter Passenger 12-seat layout

Sprinter 12-passenger layout

Both vans have the LATCH system for multiple car seats. In the Sprinter, the first two rows have the LATCH system in two of the three seats and the fourth row had some as well. The Transit has the LATCH system in the bookend seats in the first row and the middle seat in the second row. The fourth row had the anchor points on the rear, but not the two pieces to connect on the front of the seats.

The question of cupholders came up. The Transit has standard cupholders in the rear, while in the Sprinter they are available as an option The Sprinter did have 4 USB charging points throughout the rows of seats. The Transit only had USB ports in the front. The 2020 Transit does offer FordPass Connect (4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot) with AT&T that allows up to 10 devices to connect and USB in the rear.

Driving Impressions

I have driven full-size vans before. Numerous mission trips in Ford Econolines, family vacations in Chevy Express rentals, and one summer spent driving through Denver rush hour in a 15-passenger extended Dodge full of summer camp kids. I was looking forward to driving the Transit and the Sprinter. Overall, I was leaning towards the Transit. There are more of them available and maintenance/repairs will be cheaper as items break in the future.

Mercedes Benz Sprinter
2019 Mercedes Sprinter Rear
Kid 3.0 helping with photos

The 2019 Sprinter 2500 144WB was my first experience in a Sprinter. I always enjoy a steering column that telescopes as well as tilts. This helped me achieve a comfortable driving position in the Sprinter. The driver’s seat was manual but had powered lumbar support. There was also a manual thigh extension. The driver’s position does not feel high, but it is. Seated in the Sprinter at a stoplight, I was able to look down into a Suburban. The driver of the Suburban was texting. I could almost read the texts. Even though you are seated high, the driving dynamics don’t feel top-heavy.

The Mercedes gear shifter is unique. Located on the right stock of the steering column, where most vehicles have the wiper controls. It was straight forward and easy to use, but required that I focused on what I was doing. It would be easy enough to adjust to owning a Sprinter.

The sound of the 3.0L V6 turbo diesel is there, but it is muted. There is almost no vibration to alert the driver that the engine is on. You’ll have to trust your gauges. I was frustrated when I turned on our 2013 Highlander after the test drive and immediately felt/heard our engine. The Sprinter’s powertrain was smooth and eager. The V6 diesel was ready to go. It felt fast compared to my 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser daily driver.

The Sprinter has some safety systems that account for its size: crosswind assist, blind-spot monitor, and lane departure warning. It was a windy day in Kansas on our test drive and the crosswind assist did activate. The system felt like it braked one wheel, which effectively caused the van to “lean into” the stiff breeze. The braking happened for a fraction of a second and normal driving returned. It is an interesting piece of tech. Kind of annoying, but if the alternative is being blown over, I would be able to put up with it. The blind spot monitor was helpful in changing lanes and I will always turn off the lane departure warning.

Ford Transit


The 2018 Transit 350 XLT Medium Roof came equipped with the 3.5L EcoBoost V6. The first impression was how much lower the Transit seating position felt. The Transit has been described as being “car-like” to drive and it was exactly that. The driver’s seat could be raised and it still felt like a car. The Transit’s pedal box was smaller than the Sprinter. My left foot went to its natural position for me and was resting on the wheel well. The footrest next to it was located next to the brake pedal. I found the pedal box cramped and then my legs were cramped with my right knee resting against the gear selector. I’m tall (6’4”, 200 lbs) and had to adjust a couple of times to find the most comfortable seating position. I’m not sold on the Transit long haul comfort, but I definitely would like to find out.

The V6 twin-turbo engine was great in the Transit. It was more than eager. It was actually fast. You can watch Jeff’s review of this hot rod van engine on the Hooniverse YouTube channel. I can confirm that I had the same experience with that engine.

Decision Time

I was leaning towards the Transit heading into the two test drives. I’ve even toured the assembly plant. It’s almost in my backyard. My main takeaways were how smooth, solid, and refined the Sprinter felt. The Transit’s EcoBoost is fantastic, but the car-like seating position was not my favorite.

If money wasn’t a factor, I’d buy a Sprinter. Probably a 2017 or 2018 low roof, 4×4 version, and swap in some 2019 rear seats that someone wanted to get rid of (so they recline).

But money is still a factor and 2020 Transits are coming with an optional all-wheel-drive system. I definitely want to experience that before I would buy either one.

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17 responses to “Search for a Family Camper: Is it Van Time?”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    The super powerful gas engines are not available here, and I have only driven earlier versions of these. But given the choice, I’d choose the Transit in most configurations on merits alone, and then it’s cheaper, too. My impression is also that Sprinters struggle more with rust – not sure how bad that might be in Kansas?

    1. Christopher Tracy Avatar
      Christopher Tracy

      We do salt our roads, so it would be a concern. They’ve started using a brine to combat ice instead of just the rock salt, which means that all vehicles will rust here. It’s impossible to get all of the brine sprayed off after a storm.

      1. Kiefmo Avatar

        Has anyone found an underbody coating that can be applied pre-winter to stave some of that rust off?

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          Great to see you back again! There are so many options, from a homemade diesel/oil blend, to sheep fat, to proper coatings. There is no perfect, lazy choice, everything requires solid work, followups and good cleaning between applications.

        2. Sjalabais Avatar

          Great to see you back again! There are so many options, from a homemade diesel/oil blend, to sheep fat, to proper coatings. There is no perfect, lazy choice, everything requires solid work, followups and good cleaning between applications.

        3. GTXcellent Avatar

          I tried this last year on the new Wrangler
          Worked beyond my expectations (now, it may help that I live on a gravel road, so I had a good layer of road dust on top of the Corrosion Stop). I’m spraying the Jeep again this winter.

          1. Zentropy Avatar

            Do they even salt where you live, GTX? I seem to recall your winter-related comments starting early and finishing late, suggesting your temperatures might be too low for road salting to be effective.

            I’ve had good luck with other Blaster products, so I might try this– thanks! It might be 30 years too late for the E28, but couldn’t hurt. They brine the roads heavily here. The hitch receiver on my van is particularly corroded.

          2. GTXcellent Avatar

            Ugh, they love love LOVE to salt the roads here. I’m quite certain that the state DOT and the county highway dept use their salt supplies very judiciously, just so they can ensure they get the same funding every year. Unfortunately, like most government spending, it’s set up as a use it or lose it scenario.

            My pickup is rusting very badly on the rockers and has now rusted through in the cab corners. I don’t want the same fate to befall the Jeep.

        4. wunno sev Avatar
          wunno sev

          I’ve heard good things about Fluid Film, a lanolin oil spray. used it on my MR2 once, then moved out of the salt belt, so I have no idea if it actually works.

        5. salguod Avatar

          Based on the condition of my old RSX Type S after 260K miles in Ohio, I’d endorse Zeibart. My cousin bought that car new and most of its life was in Cleveland, never garaged. The doors and hood were rusty, but the unit body was quite solid. He had the initial treatment done and never had it renewed.

    2. Maymar Avatar

      It’s hard to say conclusively (since rust is an aging problem), but the 2nd gen Sprinters seem to be holding up better than the 1rst gens, rustwise (although I’ve started seeing a few streaky ones).

      Interested to see how the Transit holds up, since they’re built here for North America consumption (the Econolines they replaced were fine, but the rockers would eventually go).

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        My dad has driven several Econolines into the ground over the years– they seemed to last him forever. His ’95(?) extended E350 still looks great. I too will be interested to see if the Transits age as well.

  2. 0A5599 Avatar

    If there isn’t much foot room on the driver’s side, I don’t expect passenger side to be any better, but it could be a lot worse. Be sure to evaluate from the shotgun seat before signing the papers.

    How many people will be going on the camping trips, and how many seats will be removed to make room for gear? The Ford configuration’s solo seat will be handy with teenagers who don’t entirely get along and need their own space on a long ride. Especially when coming home from a week without a shower.

  3. Scoutdude Avatar

    Having maintained a fleet of the earlier Sprinters and the prices for their parts, I’d go with the Transit hands down, though I honestly have no experience with the current generation. 4wd certainly would be nice so yeah I’d certainly wait and try one of those before signing on the dotted line.

  4. Zentropy Avatar

    Aesthetically, I prefer the Sprinter, but I would personally lean towards the pug-ugly Transit simply to avoid the steep price of M-B parts.

    However, I’m on the fence about the reliability of Ford’s TTV6. I would take its suspicious lack of availability in the Transit chassis cab as a suggestion to avoid it. I know it powers countless F150s (and other Ford vehicles) these days, but my own empirical observations have made me wary of it: my sister’s Ecoboost Flex has spent far more time in the shop than my father’s, which has the naturally-aspirated V6. I do enjoy the power delivery of the EB, but I think in the case of a family-hauling apartment on wheels, I’d strongly consider the well-sorted diesel.

  5. Manic_King Avatar

    I know a surfer guy who paid to some co. to build him a perfect surfer van. Longest non-dualy version of Sprinter, with that highest power diesel and automatic. 2 removable captain’s chairs, small table and 2×2 meter bed in the back, motorized side door. Some windsurf stuff goes under the bed, some up inside mid-rise roof, boards are tied to roof rack outside. It has leather covered dash and epic sound system. Perfect. He bought small chem. toilet for the GF and beer tap sytem for himself, cheap bulk beer. There’s also a bag-shower but it’s rarely used as surfers are not big in washing.

  6. salguod Avatar

    When we were camping, I found having a trailer a big benefit vs. a stand alone camper. We did the typical stay in a campground and go sightseeing vacations and not having to pack up the “house” to drive somewhere was nice.

    Of course, if you are driving off into the wilderness to camp and aren’t leaving the site much, that’s a different kind of thing. An all in one rig is a good idea for that.

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