Shopping for a 4×4 van? Back in 2014, we spent countless hours scouring the internet for info on the new 4×4 Sprinter. While we did find some really helpful comments in forum threads, a YouTube video or two, and a couple of websites – we really wanted a summary (and comparison) of our available options. We wanted to know if the Sprinter was a better than a Transit, if there were known issues with the MB’s 4×4 system… or how much a simple interior cost. Basically, the info we found helped, but there were so many things left unanswered. We eventually purchased a Sprinter, but made some pretty big mistakes and wish we had a better knowledge base in hindsight.
Today, you can find much more information, but you’ll still need to bounce around from forum to forum, video to video, or site to site. So to help like minded shoppers we decided to take what we’ve learned and put everything we know in one place. In this multi-part guide we’ll attempt to cover every off road van, accessory, interior, and up fitter in North America. Here we go… Part 1: Base 4×4 Van Options.
Why a Van?
Vans, as far as vehicles go, are about as close to a blank canvas as you can buy. Generally speaking, they are a metal shelter, on four wheels, that you can drive. Sure some might offer high end features – like leather seating for 8 or a full RV interior shoehorned into Sprinter conversion. But, many roll off of the assembly line as near-empty boxes – eagerly waiting for you to start your build. From cavernous Sprinter cargo vans to the classic VW Syncro, there’s probably a van and layout that fits your family, hobbies, and lofty overland travel dreams.
Vans cover a wide range of styles, payload capacity, and off road capability. For the empty nesters who take an annual trek to Baja… there’s a number of van options. Or say you’re a family of five that likes to ski, mountain bike, and occasionally camp… we could easily name a handful of vans that meet your needs. Rock climbing couple on a tight budget… get something simple on the cheap, add a bed, and some gear… you’re set.
That is part of the appeal with platforms like the GM Express van, Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter. You can get them brand new… from a dealership with no carpeting, rear windows, or additional seats. They are pretty spartan which means they’re fairly affordable. Plus, they have a warranty and are ready to hit the road, or get some aftermarket love from companies like Quigley, Roam Built, or Scheel-man.
4×4 Vans Are Not for Everyone
Let’s start simple. We know its fun to start planning trips to Moab in your Sportsmobile or budgeting for a trip around Europe in a classic VW Syncro, but that’s not the best starting point. So put the daydreams on the back burner, stop pre planning hashtags and let’s start with the most basic and crucial question. “Do I really need a 4×4 van?”
We get it. The first thing many people assume is “I need four wheel drive.” And, while it’s nice to have, and can get you out of trouble, there are some serious downsides. First and foremost fitting a 4×4 system to a van adds weight, which typically reduces available payload. That transfer case , driveline, and front differential add up to a handful of carbon Mountain bikes. If push comes to shove would you rather have off road capability or capacity for a few friends and their gear?
Next, many 4×4 vans are taller than their 2WD siblings. Sure some retain stock height… but many others do not. If you need a van that can squeeze into a McDonald’s drive thru; a 4×4 Sprinter 170 is not your best bet.
Another consideration is cost. Expect to pay anywhere from $5-15k more for the ability to turn two more wheels. Four wheel drive isn’t fool proof insurance against getting stuck, and it won’t make you stop any better on an icy road. Could the cash you’re budgeting on a 4×4 be more effective elsewhere in your build? Perhaps in your fuel tank?
With all of that taken into consideration… there are a ton of legitimate reasons for a 4×4 van. And, if your answer to the 4×4 question is “yes,” you have a lot less comparing to do. You’re now limited to just a few vans equipped from the factory with 4×4 or an AWD system. Or, option two, you can turn to the aftermarket for a 4×4 conversion. Either way, answering the “do I need a 4×4 van” question first makes things easier in the long run. No lets dig into your semi-limited options…
The Mercedes Sprinter is likely the most popular 4×4 van in North America. Actual figures of vans used for recreation are difficult to extract from total production numbers. But, if you go to any mountain town in the Western US you’ll definitely see more 4×4 Sprinters than Quigley converted E Series or Transit vans.
A fairly recent article points out that waiting lists for a new passenger or cargo Sprinter can be as long as 18 months. The article also references Instagram hashtags like #Sprintervanlive or #Sprintervan as an indicator of the increasing popularity of these vehicles. When the article was published in May of 2018 the two hashtags had a combined count of about 100,000 – about a year later our mediocre math skills provide a count of roughly 240k combined.
Regardless of the methodology used to gauge popularity there’s no denying that a Sprinter should sit near the top of your list when shopping for a new off road worthy van. The aftermarket support alone is staggering in comparison to its competition. If you’ve been to an event like Overland Expo West – Sprinters outnumber Transits by a huge margin – galleries like this one paint a pretty clear picture.
Or take a look at photos on the Adventure Van Expo homepage. In one row of ten vans; we count seven Sprinters. Is a Sprinter van the best 4×4 van for you or your family? Perhaps. But, there are definitely great alternatives out there. We’re just saying don’t gloss over the Sprinter without a good deal of consideration.
Non Factory Sprinter 4×4 Conversions
In the US, factory 4×4 Sprinters went on sale back in 2015. But, finding one at a nearby dealership was incredibly difficult. In fact when we found one in Spokane Wash. then hopped on a plane the next day. Two days later were driving a new Sprinter 170 4×4 back to Oregon. A few years later the waiting list is still pretty substantial and finding that perfect 4×4 van on a lot is still pretty rare. It’s definitely not like buying a new 4Runner or F350. So if buying a 4×4 Sprinter proves too difficult what else can you do?
The good news is that the 4×4 conversion aftermarket that existed before the introduction of a factory option is still pretty stable. In fact the 4×4 system you’ll find in a factory 4×4 is supplied to MB by a 4×4 conversion company – Oberaigner. They’re still converting vans for customers over in Europe and even offer a 6×6 version of the van. But, as you can guess Oberaigner isn’t the only game in town.
If you’ve seen photos from a recent Overland Expo or regional rally… you’ve probably seen the Iglhaut Allrad Sprinter 4×4.
We saw it first at Overland Expo East ’18 (the infamous muddy and freezing cold one), and are beyond impressed. The conversion provides you with room for 37 inch tires propelled by a 50/50 split AWD system. And, while the name might be new to most of us in the States – Iglhaut’s conversion experience dates back to the early 80’s.
These guy know their stuff and build some ultra-capable Sprinter vans. It’s not cheap… currently you can get setup for about $130k (including the van). But there are brake upgrades, offload accessories, and high capacity fuel tanks available. The conversions currently require that your Sprinter spends a bit of time in Europe, but if you’ve always dreamed of an epic Euro road trip – here’s your chance.
Just like Mercedes, Ford took its sweet time to introduce a factory AWD/4×4 Transit to the North American market. But, the 2020 model year brings factory AWD to the “Blue Oval’s” lineup. And, doing so was a smart move with impeccable timing. Not only did they time the release to be part of a facelift… they announced it in the midst of well-known Sprinter production delays. So, for some shoppers the Sprinter’s arch rival couldn’t swoop in at a better time.
Now, it is important to realize that the AWD Transit and the Sprinter’s 4×4 setup is not an apples to apples scenario. The obvious difference it that the Transit employs four wheels all the time… not on a part time basis like the MB.
The Ford’s height is also unchanged from its 2 wheel drive sibling. As we all know that is not the case with the drive thru-phobic Merc. But, before you completely write off the Tansit you need to know that the Mercedes factory 4×4 provides the biggest advantage when it comes to break over angle. The 4×4 Sprinter front diff and hardware hang almost as low as its 2 wheel drive version. Thus the visible “difference” between the Transit and 4×4 Sprinter is a little deceiving.
And, perhaps the biggest surprise of the new Transit… the AWD is available only in petrol fueled Transits. The Ecboost is no slouch but a diesel would be a huge bonus for some shoppers.
If that news is a bit anti-climactic… don’t worry. There’s also a handful of 4×4 options that aren’t included in the dealer provided build sheet.
Non Factory Transit 4×4 Options
For a slightly more off road worthy Transit, or just something with a bit more ground clearance – there are solutions. Just don’t expect too much when it comes to big tires. The transit isn’t the most accommodating vehicle for large tires. But there are some good, robust, and highly beneficial options. And, in a market dominated by the Sprinter 4×4… it’s nice to have choices.
If you’re looking for a conversion company with a long, successful track record – look no further than Quigley. In 1974 their first 4×4 converted van hit the street. Since then they’ve built a stellar reputation by adding significant off road capability to various vans.
More than four decades later they’re still installing incredibly well engineered 4×4 systems into new and used vans. And when Ford released the Transit here in the US Quigley went to work. What they came up with was a system that transforms the standard Transit… to a moderately capable exploration and recreation rig.
The system they install is an IFS (Independent Front Suspension) setup that ultimately raises the vehicle by roughly two inches. Quigley also matches it components and craftsmanship with a warranty that parallels your factory Ford warranty. How much does a Quigley 4×4 Transit conversion cost? Roughly $12-14k on top of the price of a new van. To get accurate and detailed pricing, however, you should contact Quigley sales directly.
What happens when you give a Transit van a bunch of drivetrain parts from a Raptor and Super Duty From truck? Well, for starters you get an easily serviceable adventure Transit that accepts 33 inch tires and a host of other legitimate performance upgrades. ExpoVans adds goodness like Wilwood Six Piston brakes, an Atlas II t-case, Fox or Blistein shocks, optional air lockers, and Warn manual locking hubs. Pretty awesome right?
So if you’re in the market for a diesel 4×4 Transit with a Food Raptor front diff… give ExpoVans a call.
If you’re looking for an extremely capable 4×4 van with a long track record of aftermarket support – the Ford E-Series is probably your best bet. They’re proven by a decades long track record, and both OE and aftermarket parts are easy to find. Beyond that, their body-on-frame architecture is ideal for building a high clearance, and incredibly capable, adventure rig.
When it comes to figures like approach, departure, and break over angle a modified E Series is difficult to surpass. When converted, these vans can accommodate much larger tires than their modern, European pedigreed, counterparts.
The biggest downside – Ford stopped producing this van in 2014. Anything newer than ’15 is available only as a cutaway van – basically just a cab ready for modification into something like a U-Haul box van. Sportsmobile did build a fiberglass van body for the cutaways but as far as we know they’re not currently available. As of late, Sportsmobile is primarily focused on vans like the Sprinter.
Thus, the second hand market is the best, and perhaps only, place to source an E Series Ford. The good news is that when you do track one down there are plenty of aftermarket options for a 4×4 build.
Non Factory Ford E-Series 4×4 Options
Agile Off Road
For some, a true part time 4-wheel drive van is he only option…period. If you feel the same and have an E-Series laying around you need to check out Agile Off-road. Drop off your lame rear wheel drive E-Series and they’ll return it with a capable long travel, Dana 50 Twin Traction beam 4×4 conversion.
We mentioned Quigley above, and the Ford E Series was where they started. Over a few decades Quigley grew from that singe van conversion into one of the most respected names in the industry. That’s why many people think of Quigley first when they think about converting an E-Series. All of Quigley’s upgrades are backed by the vehicle manufacturer’s warranty that includes both labor and parts.
We mentioned ExpoVans above in the Transit section. And they take the same approach and philosophy and apply it to the Ford E Series. They utilize as much OEM and readily-available aftermarket parts as possible. Which creates a van that’s very serviceable and if something does break… repair parts are easy to find.
Thier conversions are a coil sprung no-weld kit that borrows parts from the 2013+ Ford Super Duty. You can option the kit with a manual shift NV217 transfer case or an electronic shift-on-the-fly NV273. The end result is pretty close to what Ford could have, and frankly should have offered. A 4×4 Super Duty van built from the same parts bin as the common and popular truck.
Ujoint Off Road
Ujoint is a well known name in the world of E-Series conversions. It’s a smaller boutique outfit that prefers to work with customers on a van by van basis. Offering a tailored conversion to each owners individual needs.
Want to convert an E-Series Ambulance or RV? Call Ujoint. Dreaming of a E-350 sitting on 41” tires? Ujoint should be on your shortlist. You can’t order one from a dealership. And if you want a full build or a custom kit you’re going to have to actually talk to a human. There’s no add to cart, ship it tomorrow, arrive Thursday option with Ujoint. We definitely respect that approach.
GM Full Size
Unlike Ford, GM still offers a traditional “North American” style van in both cutaway and standard van configurations. Available with a bowtie or “GMC” logo on the grille, the van provides shoppers with a brand new Ford E-Series alternative. Differences are fairly minimal, generally speaking, but after market support definitely favors the Fords.
When shopping for one of these vans, there is one thing GM provides that Ford did not. That thing is a factory AWD option. The ability to spin all four wheels was available on 1500’s from 2004-2014. Which is a huge plus if you can keep the van under its GVWR. There was a 2500 version for one model year, but those are pretty hard to come by so if you need a GM with a lot of payload you’re going to have to find a 4×2 and convert it to a 4×4 HD van.
Non Factory GM Savana and Express 4×4 Options
Once again if you have a two wheel drive van and want to give it the gift of a transfer case – Quigley has the solution. Their GM conversion is similar in price and result to the conversion for the Fords. The main difference that stands out to us is the ride height. The ford 4×4 conversion appears to ride a little higher. But, if that’s an issue for you Quigley offers a 3” lift kit.
Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems
Another great option for converting that GM Express or Savana to four wheel drive is from Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems. This Utah-based company supplies four wheel drive vans to both dealerships and private owners.
Astro and Savana
Among the most budget-friendly pre-owned options you’ll find a GM product. The Astro van. It is a great option for those that want something between a full-size E van or Transit, and the smaller VW Vanagons. General Motors built the Astro van between 1985 and 2005 and some even came with an optional all-wheel drive package.
Known by most as a kid hauler, it has proven to be decent as a moderate off-roader. Off course, like all vans it is a great canvas to customize into an adventure vehicle. However, with the latest model being over ten years old, a newer more modern vehicle might be worth considering.
There are some kits available that convert the AWD Astro vans to true 4×4. And there are options for lifts and suspension upgrades as well. However, as far as we know there is not a company offering an option to transform a standard Astro to a 4×4 van. If there are let us know and we’ll add it to this guide.
If you’re looking for a full size van from a Japanese manufacturer Nissan is probably where you’ll land. Actually… it’s currently your sole option. The Nissan NV hit the market in 2011 as a 2012 model year vehicle. And while it’s based on a platform that offers four wheel drive, the Titan truck, you cannot buy a factory 4×4 Nissan NV. Which is a little disappointing… especially after seeing the NV Cargo-X a lifted 4×4 NV concept vehicle built for Nissan.
Can we expect to see a 4×4 NV rolling off the Canton Mississippi assembly line? Probably not any time soon. But there are options out there to get a NV converted to a pretty epic off road vehicle.
Non-Factory NV 4×4 Options
Here they are again. Quigley also converts the NV to an 4×4 adventure rig. Pricing is a little difficult to find on their website, but a “confidential” PDF from 2016 we found while searching puts the conversion inline with their others. Perhaps just a little cheaper, but we recommend calling them directly to discuss pricing.
One of the coolest things about the Quigley NV conversion, in our opinion, is the 5 year/100,000 mile warranty. It matches the Nissan’s factory warranty… but stands out against other makes and models Quigley currently modifies.
Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems
If you’re looking for a west coast NV conversion company you’ll definitely want to check out Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems. Pricing is similar to the kit offered by Quigley, but there are some variations based on how the NV is spec’d from the factory/dealership. Again, we recommend reaching out directly to get more detailed pricing information.
The VW Vanagon is perhaps the most iconic piece of machinery in the world of overland vans. The 4×4 version is called the Syncro and is perhaps the most sought after, and thus the most expensive. Expect to spend north of $20,000 for a decent example, and if you’re looking for a really nice one or a pop top expect to pay an additional $10k.
With a run in the US from 1985 through 1992 the Syncro is indeed a rare find. However the 2 wheel drive Vanagon ran from 1980 to 1991 and can be more accessible. The platform is tried and true, though can prove to be unreliable without extensive upgrades such as a new power plant. The 2.5 Subaru gas motor and 1.9 turbo diesel are popular upgrades.
The 4×4 Syncro with the Westfalia pop-up top is the holy grail of the Vanagon world. However if you are lucky enough to find and Syncro without the Westfalia top there are companies that will do the conversion for you such as GoWesty located in Los Osos CA. They also can take your VW van and do a full restoration or provide parts and technical advice for the DIY’er.
The original galley and storage design in the Westfalia is still the blueprint for many other van platforms. Take a look at the layout in a Westfalia and you’ll see nods to the design in most van interior conversions.
Why are they cool? They are much smaller and narrower than the more modern E vans and Transit vans. Its compact size is part of what makes this van such a great off-roader. On trails and in tight gaps is where this out performs its full-size cousins. Unfortunately, the VW Syncros are few and far between and will usually need a lot of TLC. But, if you want to pickup followers on Instagram there are few shorter paths than with a huge flat hat, a trip to Alabama Hills, and a 4×4 Westfalia.
When it comes to VW 4×4’s the is not really how cool do you want to look, but are you comfortable taking a fairly unreliable 30+ year old vehicle into the backcountry? A 2 wheel drive version with an engine upgrade is going to be great for those that just want to explore via paved roads. However for those that want a little more out of their Vanagon a 4×4 is going to be the way to go.
Keep in mind that the cost of ownership of these vans is very steep. But there is an option to rent for those that must have the VW van experience without draining the bank. Bend Westy located in Bend OR, will rent a Westfalia camper van complete with all the camping necessities such as dishes, coolers and cookstoves. Of course what VW van rental wouldn’t be complete without adding AAA coverage for the renter.
Non-Factory VW 4×4 Options
North Westy, of Renton Wash., tops our list of places to check out when you want a Syncro – but can’t find one. To date North Westy can take pride in the fact that there are more than 20 Syncro conversions on the road thanks to their expertise. Cost is inline with what you’d pay to convert something else at a place like Quigley or Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems.
And if you want to take that van conversion one step further… North Westy will also install a pop top in your van. For an additional $10-11k you’ll get the van everyone else is searching for in the forums and the VW for sale sites. So you could say this is the easy route to an epic VW van. Oh, and if we’re talking about North Westy we can’t, not mention their Subaru Engine Conversions. They’re pretty impressive conversions.