Mighty, modular and plain memorable camper vans of 2019
The van life trend showed no signs of slowing in 2019. In fact, it was a pivotal year that saw camper vans growing smarter, more practical and more efficient with some impressive technological breakthroughs and design innovations. Starting off strong with the large and tiny vans of CMT, 2019 continued forward through the few but feature-loaded touring vans of the inaugural RVX show, wound its way off the beaten path with the all-terrain adventure vans of Overland Expo West, and pushed through technological boundaries at the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon. Here are the ones that truly raised the bar for travel, mobile living and all-season adventure.
Best multi-personality modular van: Happier Adaptiv
Having a driveway packed with expensive vehicles is no longer the status symbol it once was but more of an unsightly inconvenience. It's no surprise, then, that one of the biggest trends in camper vans this year was the modular, multipurpose camper van designed to work as both holiday getaway and everyday driver. What was a surprise was the number of variations we saw on the theme. In addition to modular designs using tried-and-true tie-down track, we saw oversized pegboard and the Lego-like stacking of the Happier Adaptiv. The Adaptiv's blocky camping modules easily attach and detach from the accompanying floor, providing near-infinite ways to rearrange camping furniture, ahead of the trip or smack dab in the middle of it. Modules also work outdoors, giving travelers more flexibility to live, camp and adventure however they want. And when camping season comes to a close, Happier's kit removes completely, turning camper van back into cargo van. Best of all, while Europe usually gets all the coolest camper vans, this one was designed for the US, with component package pricing planned to start around US$10,000 when the prototype blossoms into a production kit.
Honorable mention: The four-sleeper/eight-seat Pössl Vanster
Best concept van: Hymer VisionVenture
If only one 2019 camper van debut is remembered a decade from now, it'll be the Hymer VisionVenture, without question. This German-designed concept camper van had the RV world buzzing for the entire second half of the year, showing what camper vans could evolve into. From its Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 off-road-ready platform, to its broadened, temperature-regulating body, to its inflatable, solar-topped pop-up roof, to its tiny home-inspired stairs, to its airy tailgate deck, every last feature screams about a future in which camper vans compete with yachts in terms of both exploration capabilities and onboard comforts. Unfortunately, much like so many other thought-provoking concept vehicles, the VisionVenture will never make it to market in its exact show form. Hymer does intend to incorporate some features into production models, however. We're crossing fingers for the drop-down deck with slide-out grill, the kitchen-topping stairs and the transforming bathroom.
Honorable mention: The four-season, board-winching Sunlight Cliff 4x4 Adventure
Best smart camper van: Westfalia James Cook
We may never see Hymer's vision come to fruition, but Westfalia's all-new 233-in (593 cm) James Cook puts the latest technology to use in a camper van available right now. One of the first manufacturers to build off of Mercedes MBAC technology in creating a mobile smart home, Westfallia gives James Cook occupants the ability to control lights, climate, audio and more from the closest of three screens: the dedicated command touchscreen, the driver-area infotainment touchscreen or a connected mobile device. With the design, Mercedes and Westfalia bring camper van convenience in line with the connected smart age. The James Cook's rear expansion module, meanwhile, slides out in under a minute, adding extra living space. Westfalia offers two- and all-wheel drive options and three different roof styles, with prices starting at €74,900 (approx. $83,350).
Honorable mention: The push-button Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo pop-top
Best green camper van: Dethleffs Globevan e.Hybrid
The all-electric vehicle age made some strong strides forward in 2019, but save for the occasional underwhelming, market-specific electric camper with limited range, that progress didn't penetrate the motorhome industry. The Globevan e.Hybrid from Dethleffs looks to be a first big step in a more practical, widespread green camper van movement. Ford's Transit Connect PHEV's 13.6-kWh li-ion battery delivers 31 all-electric miles (50 km) with nary a puff of exhaust before the 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine-generator kicks in to keep it moving another 279 miles (449 km) or so. And when drivers find the bottom of the gas tank, a fast fill at the fuel station will get them back on the road much quicker than a battery recharge. An all-electric camper van would have been splashier, but the Globevan's robust range and easy filling make it much more practical for today's outdoorsy traveler. Inside, the sub-5-m (16.4-ft) pop-top van features a simple four-sleeper layout with side kitchen, folding bench seating and roof bed. Prices start at €74,990 (approx. $83,450).
Honorable mention: The surging, swinging Reimo Weekender E
Best off-road adventure van: Storyteller Overland Mode 4x4
There are legions of off-road adventure camper vans coming out every year, and many look near carbon-copied from the last batch. Storyteller Overland stands out with a Sprinter 4x4 camper it spent serious time thinking through, a US dealership network stretching coast to coast, and a focus on customer service, not always something you can rely on in an overland camper market that sees startup shops pop up in the dead of night and disappear just as quickly. With the 233-in (592-cm) Mode 4x4, Storyteller builds on the Sprinter 4x4's capabilities with stout off-road wheels, BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, and a full-size roof rack with access ladder. Inside, what appears to be a basic floor plan is actually a multifunctional shapeshifter, featuring components like the standing-height shower room that pops out of an overhead storage bin and cooler-size box (that actually works as a cooler when you don't need it as a shower drain) and a folding rear bed frame/work table. The Mode 4x4 ventures off-grid confidently with a lithium battery electrical system and delivers comforts like air conditioning and a microwave oven. It priced in at roughly $150,000 when we looked at it back in May.
Honorable mention: The highland-wandering, electric-cooking Campervan Co D:5 Terrain
Best camper van without the van: PlugVan
We see new modular camper-in-a-box kits virtually every year, but this year's PlugVan took the category to new heights. Rather than a small tailgate box to turn van interior into camper, the PlugVan is essentially an enclosed camper van box that simply slides in through the load doors, stretches to size and turns an empty cargo hauler into a cozy camper van. It's loaded with smart, transformable hardware such as a movable kitchen/dining block, sliding cabinetry and convertible lounge/bed. A comprehensive wireless command system lets campers control all integrated electrical hardware with a mobile device or available Alexa voice control. The PlugVan can easily remove from the van, store away and free up the cargo van, and when it comes a time for buying a new van, the PlugVan makes the move, as it's compatible with a variety of European vans. As of publishing, it's €18,990 (approx. $21,125) for a fully equipped model and €9,990 ($11,125) for a basic version, and the PlugVan folks are hard at work on a new variant to debut in January 2020.
Honorable mention: The £274 ($360) Simple micro-campervan kit
Best light camper van: VW California Beach 6.1
Volkswagen updated its whole mid-size van lineup this year, starting with the T6.1 and carrying through to California 6.1 models including the entry-level Beach. Perhaps the most famous sleeper van in the world, the Beach has traditionally been the light, affordable VW camper van with a bed and pop-up roof but no additional amenities. With this year's update, it grows into a new 'tweener that we can only think to call a sleeper/eater van. It still maintains space for a roomy three-seat rear bench by eliminating the bulky kitchen block, but to ensure campers aren't forced to choke down nothing but trail mix and jerky, it also has a clever pull-out stove that stores away inconspicuously in the door panel. The van also benefits from VW's updated color touchscreen command center and still provides four occupants with comfy night's sleep on its folding downstairs bed and pop-up upstairs bed. Base price as of publishing is listed at €48,796 (approx. $54,300).
Honorable Mention: Ford's bike-hauling multi-use Flexibus
Best camper van for comfortable, Instagram-worthy living: Frankia Yucon 7.0 Lounge
In developing the all-new Yucon 7.0 Lounge, Germany's Frankia started with a 274-in (697-cm) Sprinter and went to work rearranging traditional furniture to create something that feels like a rolling living room. The interior includes a multi-position convertible sofa facing an entertainment center, a pull-out coffee table and integrated mobile device charging. At night, the sofa extends out into a double bed. The rear lounge is joined by a central kitchen area and front wet bathroom with retractable toilet. Whether sipping cocktails on the sofa while enjoying views out the rear doors, preparing meals in the kitchen or loading cargo below the false floor, the Yucon provides a thoughtfully configured cabin that maximizes space and comfort. As of publishing, the Yucon 7.0 Lounge base price lists at €79,900 ($88,900).
Honorable mention: The high-powered Winnebago Boldt
Best (extra) custom van: Boho Golden Egg
There's a lot to love about the Golden Egg from Arizona conversion shop Boho Vans, but to get the proper first impression, you'll need to approach it from the rear. Pop open the Ford Transit load doors and you'll find a very rare piece of camper van equipment: a slide-out foosball table for outdoor campsite entertainment and skill sharpening. Honestly, while a foosball table would be enough to get the Golden Egg's foot in the door for a "best of the year" list, it's really more of a personalized novelty than a trailblazing innovation. What really makes this van one of the best of 2019 is an interior that's among the homiest we've ever seen. Warm red cedar paneling throughout combines with a tiled kitchen to create the feel of a true home that just happens to be in a van. There's even a roaring (or at least murmuring) fireplace, along with an oven, space-optimizing pop-out shower stowed away in the bed steps, toilet hidden below the sofa and plenty of onboard power. We weren't privy to the invoice for this one, but we do know that Boho's full turnkey camper vans cost less than many interior conversions, so not a bad place to start a search for an affordable US camper van.
Honorable mention: The homebuilt $1,000 IKEA van
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Very expensive as within three months I'd spent a fortune on a great Van that fits my electric bike and basically is a rolling man cave... huge fun