The right van for one person will be entirely the wrong one for someone else. A van with a small engine may be ideal for running around town, for instance, but will soon show itself to be tiresome and hard work on the motorway. A van with a hatchback-style rear door will suit one person's usage but be ruled out for anyone who loads using a forklift, since a hatched rear door prevents the forklift from getting close enough.
There are many such variables to consider in choosing a van and it is vital that you form a clear picture of how you will use the van before making your final choice. Different vans are designed to do different jobs, but they all fall into a few generic categories. Here, we look at the pros and cons of different types of vans, categorised in the way most commonly used by dealers, leasing firms and specialist magazines. One of these categories will contain the van you need.
The smallest vans around, so they're ideal for tight village streets, traffic-laden city centres and multi-drop deliveries where parking is tight. Payloads are reasonable given the smaller size, too. However, tall people will find them cramped, fuel economy is mediocre and long journeys are tiresome. On motorways, they are noisy, the engine feels stretched and crosswinds demand concentration.
Car-derived vans are also known as 'CDVs' and, sometimes, 'small vans'. They are effectively normal passenger cars with the rear seats removed to create a load area and solid panels in place of the rear side windows. So they are refined to drive, exhibit a bit of style and deliver excellent fuel economy. They are also suited to motorway, town and rural usage. However, they can't carry bulky or heavy loads. Most are based on three-door hatches, but a small number of estate-derived versions exist.
Hi-cubes are also called 'light vans'. They take up a similar amount of road space as a car-derived van but can carry more volume and more weight. The original breed of hi-cubes were, basically, the front half of a three-door hatch with a high, cubic load area behind – hence 'hi-cube'.
Today, new monospace designs are proving very popular because their cabs are more spacious. Hi-cubes are generally light on fuel, easy to manoeuvre and less intimidating to drive than panel vans.
A good all-rounder for carrying small to medium loads in most environments.
Small panel vans
You may hear these referred to as compact panel vans and they bridge the gap between hi-cubes and the large panel vans. Fuel economy is reasonable and the latest generation is respectably refined. Every van is a compromise between load-carrying ability and ease of driving, but small panel vans strike a very good balance for a large number of fleets and small businesses. They are also generally cheaper to acquire and run than large panel vans. If you need larger load areas only occasionally, it can make financial sense to run a small panel van day to day, and hire a large panel van when you need the extra capacity.
Large panel vans
These come in all shapes and sizes and most manufacturers offer a choice of three roof heights – high roof (HR), medium roof (MR) and low roof (LR), also known as standard roof (SR). You can usually choose between three lengths – long wheelbase (LWB), medium wheelbase (MWB) and short wheelbase (SWB), but it's worth noting that an LWB version from one manufacturer may be the same size as an MWB wheelbase version from another, so check the dimensions carefully. If you need a heavy-duty, high-volume workhorse with – as a rule – decent fuel economy, this is the place to look. A wide range of specialist accessories are also available to tailor the van to your precise requirements.
Pick-ups have an open load area (solid covers are usually an option) behind the cab. There are three main styles of cab: two-door with two seats (called single cab); two-door with two front seats plus a two-seater rear bench (called, variously, extra cab, king cab and super cab); and four-door with four seats (double cab). Pick-up drivers tend to fit two basic categories – those who need a large, open load area and those who drive a plushly equipped, double cab pick-up instead of a company car to reduce their tax bill.
Many pick-ups are four-wheel-drive and designed for rugged terrain. As a result, they can feel unrefined on the road, but they are very strong, capable workhorses.
Four-wheel-drive vans offer more refinement but less space than a pick-up and can cope with very rough terrain. They are usually based on 4x4 passenger vehicles, with the enclosed load area created by removing rear seats. Compared to normal car-derived vans, a 4x4 van is usually bigger inside, capable of carrying heavier loads, less rewarding on the road and thirstier for fuel. The majority are three-door models, although a few five-door versions are available.
A chassis cab is so called because it is a cab on a (bare) chassis. Chassis cab versions of hi-cubes are known as platform cabs. The type of body that goes on top of the chassis is up to you – tippers, dropsides, flatbeds and Lutons are common. However, the range of options available from manufacturers, dealers, leasing firms and specialists is vast so if you have a specific job in mind, there will probably be a way of tailoring a chassis cab to do it.
Minibuses are effectively panel vans converted and fitted with up to 17 seats (typically, 17 is the space and weight limit for long-wheelbase panel vans).
Minibuses generally have 12, 13 or 17 seats, but if seven or eight are enough for you, then an MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) is a better bet. MPVs (also called people carriers) are often plusher, more versatile in their seating arrangements and offer a more rewarding drive.
A PCV licence (passenger-carrying vehicle) is required for minibuses with nine or more seats, except in certain circumstances.
Contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for information on PCV licences (0870 240 0009 or www.dvla.gov.uk). Special requirements, such as access for people with restricted mobility, should be discussed with the dealer, manufacturer or leasing firm before you order the vehicle.