The more we see #vanlife thread its way into the fabric of everday Americana, from advertising to newspaper articles, the more we wonder if it jumped the shark a few years back. But people still seem to love building, buying, renting, traveling in and living out of vans. And if this year's crop of inventive new van campers is an indicator, #vanlife is as healthy as ever. The market churned out attractive new options for everyone from cash-strapped post-grads avoiding "real life" to families waging war on the weekend.
Volkswagen Grand California
We went into 2018 expecting a production VW California XXL to be among the possible camper van highlights of the year. The concept was an absolute show stealer at the 2017 Düsseldorf Caravan Salon, and with the Transporter-based California celebrating its 30th anniversary, the timing seemed perfect for a bigger, badder Crafter-based California.
Volkswagen didn't disappoint, launching two different flavors of Grand California, the long, sleek 680 and the high-rising 600. As is quite common with automotive concept-to-production transitions, some of the more jaw-dropping features of the California XXL concept, like the slide-expansion bathroom and retractable stove burners, vaporized prior to the finalized design. Still, the Grand California is a head-turner, sleeping a couple or family of four in modernized comfort. Highlights of the skylight-brightened interior include a rear bed that folds away to make room for large cargo, an optional slide-away alcove bed for the kids in the high roof of the 600 model, yacht deck-style flooring and Bluetooth-controlled speakers in the living area.
The Grand California will launch early next year, and Volkswagen announced a €55,000 (approx. US$62,600) base price at its debut. Sadly, like the smaller California, the Grand will not actually be available in California, or the US at all.
Just for fun, we're going to scale things right down from "grand" to tiny. The smallest camper van to make this list, and a member of the mini-campervan trend that seems to be growing in the US and Europe, the Cascade Camper is a compact, affordable camper van built inside the Ram Promaster City. The smaller brother of the full-size Promaster more common in American conversions, the Promaster City measures 187-in (475 cm) bumper to bumper.
Cascade makes its Promaster City camper happen with a futon-style sofa-bed on the driver side and a kitchen block on the passenger side. At night, the sofa drops down into a snug but sleep-ready double bed that cozies up to the kitchen block. The kitchen includes everything you need without space-absorbing excess — a single-burner butane stove, sink plumbed to a 19-L jerry can and Dometic fridge. Also included is an electrical system with 75-Ah AGM battery and 100-watt solar panel.
Cascade's 450-lb (204-kg) package is brilliant both for its efficient simplicity and for its bottom line, costing $7,000 with installation. Buyers source and deliver their own vans, and factoring in the $24,000 Promaster City base price, you're looking at as little as $31,000 for a brand-new camper van.
Adria Twin Supreme 640 SGX
An impressive camper van from front to back, the new Adria Twin Supreme 640 SGX is an excellent choice for active, adventurous couples. The latest addition to the Twin lineup, the 640 SGX does away with the simple foldaway rear beds of other Twins, cranking things up with a rugged rear garage below a power-lift bed, a solution developed in cooperation with Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM.
During the ride, lift the bed clean to the ceiling, roll your bikes, surfboards and other gear onto the diamond-plate garage floor, secure it all down using the built in tie-downs and get driving. At camp, you can either roll your gear out and drop the bed all the way down or keep the gear locked and secured while sleeping up higher — the bed can adjust to any height between the ceiling and the side cabinet tops.
The 640 SGX also impresses up front, where a multi-window Sky-lounge brings loads of light and height to the driver cab and living/dining area. Between the two innovative ends, the van packs a kitchen block and "duplex" bathroom with swiveling partition between toilet and shower.
Adria UK still lists the base price of the Twin Supreme 640 SGX at £48,835 (approx. $61,800).
RP Rebel Sporthome
Thanks to a debut back in February, the 3rd-generation Mercedes Sprinter was the media darling of the European camper van world this year. The new Sprinter brings with it some marked upgrades, including MBUX infotainment with touch and voice control and available driver-assistance technologies like active brake assist, Distronic active distance assist and active lane keeping.
We knew we'd have a Sprinter camper van or two on this list, the question was merely, which? Looking over the pack, we came away most impressed with the 233-in (593-cm) RP Motorhomes Rebel, a British two-sleeper with some innovative standard and available solutions. The big ticket item is the Sporthome package, which slides a gear garage below a lifted rear bed. Accessed via a special lift-gate that replaces the rear load doors, the gear garage is sealed off from the main cabin, keeping bikes, boards and other gear safely stored. Add in the available Mercedes 4x4, and you have a rugged camper van ready to get you off the beaten path in pursuit of your favorite adventure sports.
The other innovative part of the Rebel package is the available slide-out bathroom, which pops out from the exterior sidewall, adding more interior living space and allowing the driver seat to swivel around and face backward. The nicely equipped kitchen across from that pop-outhouse includes a triple-burner stove, oven, broiler and 90-L fridge.
The Rebel is still listed at a base price of £54,995 ($69,600), before options like the Sporthome garage, slide-out bathroom or 4x4.
Our favorite little, multipurpose workhorse of the year is the Renault Trafic-based Kompanja camper van. This feature-packed pop-top starts out as a multifunctional, floor rail-based conversion that allows owners to remove and rearrange seats and camping furniture, switching quickly between six-seat family van, empty cargo van and four-sleeper camper van.
That type of multifunctional design is always a plus, but that's not even what attracted us to Kompanja. The German company caught our eye at the Caravan Salon with its optional "Bus Kino" projector system flashing an indoor/outdoor video onto the front wall of the pop-up roof and the "Bivouac Bed" stretching straight out of the tailgate. The projector is self-explanatory, but the purpose of the optional indoor/outdoor bed is to allow campers to sleep without having to fold the seats and convert the living area to night mode. They can sleep out in the open air or attach a tent to the tailgate to put some walls around the end of the bed.
Campsite movies and in/out bedding aren't for everyone, but they are pretty cool options you definitely don't see on every camper van. The Bus Kino options adds €1,450 ($1,650) to the Kompanja van's €41,950 ($47,750) base price, and the Bivouac Bed tacks on another €535 ($610), according to the pricing information we looked at in August.
Starting with the 136-in (345-cm)-wheelbase Ram Promaster, Glampervan creates a warm space for mobile living and remote working. The multipurpose conversion includes a pedestal table/desk between the swivel cab seats, a central kitchen, a flip-away transverse rear bed, and a potent electrical system with 300-Ah battery bank and available 175-W solar panel. Glampervan's real pièce de résistance, though, is the roof rack-mounted deck that lets campers climb up high for more sweeping views of the landscape, sunset, sunrise and star-filled sky. So many people enjoy a deck at home; why wouldn't they want one for their home-away-from-home?
Glampervan's Winter 18/19 online pricing sheet lists package pricing between $25,500 and $58,350 (van not included), an increase over the prices from earlier this year.
Mercedes Sprinter Connected Home
Mercedes debuted a trio of motorhome concepts at the 2018 Düsseldorf Caravan Salon, showing how technology might reshape the industry with advancements like hydrogen fuel-cell drive systems and voice control personal assistants. The nearest to production-ready of those three, the Sprinter Connected Home takes us inside a more connected camper van future that begins next year.
Mercedes designed the all-new Sprinter with motorhome conversions in mind, and the most impressive part of that work is the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Control module. The MBAC creates a streamlined digital control environment comparable to a smart home, tying together the MBUX infotainment touchscreen in the driver cab, a separate touchscreen in the camper cabin and a connected smart device. Campers will be able to use any of those three screens to control features like the lighting, stereo, climate control system and power awning.
The Connected Home is essentially an MBAC demo unit, and we got a chance to play around with the system a little bit and came away quite impressed. Other existing camper digital control interfaces offer some of functionality, but this really grows it out and streamlines it into something that could rightfully be called a smart home-on-wheels. Motorhome manufacturers should start integrating MBAC into production models next year, building out their own features and experiences with the technology. Hopefully some of the first models will roll out in time for next summer's Caravan Salon.
MAN TGE 3.180 "Max Hunt"
Finding our favorite off-road 4x4 camper van of 2018 was a little more difficult than in past years. We did see a few new 4x4 van options and off-road packages, but the year seemed to lack the really rugged, high-profile production 4x4 camper van debuts we've seen in the past. Overland Expo West was filled more with older and custom off-road adventure vans. We'll go the custom route, but not from Arizona, instead zooming across the Atlantic to the MAN TGE "Max Hunt" van we spotted at Abenteuer & Allrad.
The adventurous Swedish family behind the "Max Hunt" 4x4 camper van beat even MAN to the punch in converting the all-new TGE van into an all-track adventure machine. They were well into the works on it in Summer 2017 and were roaming across Iceland before MAN even got around to showing the TGE's camper potential earlier this year. The Max Hunt van builds on the strong looks of the MAN-badged VW Crafter, chiseling it further with an off-road bumper, snorkel, hardshell roof-top tent, plenty of off-road lighting, and a spare tire and traction aids hanging off the back. MAN's own 2018 4x4 camper van concept was cool, but we think the company might have been better off just showing the Max Hunt at CMT 2018.
The van conversions from Missouri-based VanDoIt aren't the warmest, prettiest camper vans you'll ever see, but they are among the most versatile. VanDoIt takes the strategy of floor rail mounting to the next level by installing rails not only on the floor but also on the walls, ceiling and furniture frames.
VanDoIt's extra mounting track lays the groundwork for a modular, multipurpose van kit that lets you build the van up into anything from a simple gear-hauling sleeper van to a feature-loaded, climate-controlled luxury van with entertainment system, Xbox, solar-backed electrical, removable toilet and more. Better still, you can remove the camper modules after your camping trip is over, using the base Ford Transit as an everyday driver with up to 11 seats. VanDoIt's camper equipment collection is equally versatile, comprising things like an indoor/outdoor kitchen, rear slide-out bike/gear tray and hydraulic lift bed.
Since we first covered VanDoIt, it's developed its conversions out into two lines, the Go and the Do. It now lists price range between $38,800 and $88,800 for a complete van.
A super-impressive camper van from the mind of German designer Michael Hilgers, the Vanjoy is a multi-use space meant to serve as three vehicles in one: a cargo van, a compact commuter capable of parking in any space, and a live-in camper van. Rather than just getting a van and starting a build, Hilgers went through a number of 3D drawings and prototypes before landing on the perfect design. And not only is it perfect for him, it looks pretty perfect for a lot of drivers looking to live part- or full-time on the road.
Hilgers uses birch plywood to create an independent living space completely removed from the van cockpit. Furniture includes a full-height storage unit on the driver-side wall that houses a Murphy bed/bench system and narrow kitchen. The convertible seating area at the rear works as a general lounge, dining area and work station during the day, then completes the double bed at night. The flush wall unit, Murphy bed and removable dining table ensure that there's still plenty of through-load space for hauling cargo, and the cabinetry units are designed to remove completely in minutes.
The Vanjoy is still but one designer's creation for now, but when we spoke to Hilgers earlier in the year, he was looking to find a commercial partner to bring it to market, with hopes of pricing it around €40,000 ($45,550).
Camper vans are only as good as the details, and you can see more details of all the vans on this list in the photo gallery, from the layout, to specific equipment, to additional exterior angles.
And if you're still convinced #vanlife has jumped the shark, you could always shrink down your life even more and head for the horizon with one of the year's awesome camping trailers. #caravanlife
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