Enclosed vans may never displace pickup trucks as the go-to work vehicle for remodeling contractors, but a growing number of “upfit” options plus European-inspired designs are making vans a very attractive alternative—even among die-hard truck fans.

Through the first six months of the year, data gathered by the Autodata Corporation show pickups had sold nearly 1.3 million units, and pickups from Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge held the top three places in the overall U.S. vehicle market. Just 188,000 large vans had moved off dealer lots. But sales of large vans had increased over the previous year at more than double the rate of pickup trucks, 15.5% to 7.1%.

“The amount of investment going into this segment is honestly unheard of, both from a product and a marketing perspective,” says Yaroslav Hetman, brand manager for Ford’s Transit vans. “The last time the Ford Motor Company had a TV advertisement for vans—really any company had a TV advertisement for vans—was 45 years ago.”

Vans Boast Versatility
Vans have one obvious advantage: They keep tools and materials out of the weather and under lock and key. But there are two other factors at work.

Ford's Transit van on the jobsite
Image courtesy of Ford Ford's Transit van on the jobsite

First, high-roof designs, originally inspired by the Mercedes Sprinter, have filtered into the market, with some models offering more than enough headroom in the cargo area for 6-footers to stand up. After-market offerings for van upgrades are plentiful, ranging from ladder racks and workbenches to heavy-duty ramps and shelving.

Upfits allow builders to customize the cargo area for the kind of work they’re typically doing. Do a lot of plumbing or wiring? Shelving with pull-out bins and drawers organize small parts and fasteners so they don’t get mixed up. Power tools can go on deep shelves, and ladders on a rooftop rack. Vans with a lot of headroom in back can become portable offices or shops.

Pickups also are candidates for upfitting, but the choices aren’t as broad, says Dave Sowers, head of commercial marketing for Ram. “It’s hands-down on the van side,” he says. “Once you get past the heavy-duty accessories that pickups can do, like snowplows and things like that, when you’re looking at a contractor or remodeler and what kinds of tools they’d use, vans are way more flexible.”

Ram offers 14 different configurations for vans. For light-duty Ram pickups, there are five. Exhausting all options for engines, vehicle lengths, roof heights, and window orientation gives Ford Transit vans 64 different configurations.

Vans also have some better-than-expected performance features. Ram’s ProMaster cargo van, for example, has a payload of 4,420 pounds, more than twice as much as the Ram 1500 pickup. Ford’s Transit can haul nearly 4,600 pounds of cargo.

Trucks Remain on Top
Trucks, however, are still the big seller. For one thing, base model trucks are typically cheaper than vans. Ford’s Transit, for example, lists at $31,610, according to the company’s website, about $5,000 more than the base F-150 pickup. The Ram ProMaster cargo van is nearly $3,700 more than the Ram 1500 pickup, $29,865 vs. $26,145. GMC’s Savana cargo van lists at $30,595 compared with $27,195 for a Silverado 1500. The price difference is less pronounced when comparing vans to larger trucks.

Ford's F-150 pickup on the jobsite
Image courtesy of Ford Ford's F-150 pickup on the jobsite

The single-minded usefulness of a van is an asset on the job, but it’s tough using the vehicle for anything other than work—a major drawback to even the Euro-inspired vans now on the market. Not many contractors will look forward to a Friday on the town with the spouse and the company van.

“What we see are the multitaskers will tend to be more on the pickup side of the business because they’re trying to do more things with it, particularly when they’re getting started,” Sowers said. “They want a vehicle that serves their personal needs as well, to be able to use it on the weekend.”

Although passenger vans are available, work vans seat just two people. Crew cab trucks can seat a family, and, as North Carolina remodeling contractor Gary Palmer says, a new pickup “presents well” on client calls.

Trucks are more capable of serious off-road excursions, and they’re able to tow much heavier trailers than vans. Both the Ford F-450 and the Ram 3500 will tow more than 31,200 pounds. Even the F-150, Ford’s baseline full-size truck, will tow more than 12,000 pounds.

Overhead racks make it possible to haul ladders, siding, and other long objects—and camper shells will keep tools and materials dry, although less convenient to access. Cargo organizers like those made by EZ Stack, CargoEase, and Decked are a big step up for organizing tools and materials.

Add an Insert
Inserts, or capsules, that slide into the back of a pickup are another option. They offer greater storage and headroom than a conventional truck cap and, according to manufacturers, waste less space than a cargo van. When installed on a half-ton pickup, they also get better gas mileage than a big work van.

BrandFX makes WorkPod inserts to fit Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, and GMC pickups in all bed lengths. Paul Maranda Enterprises also makes a line of fiberglass capsules. A major advantage, BrandFX argues, is that the capsule can be transferred from one vehicle to another. When a truck is ready to be retired, the capsule can simply be slipped into the replacement vehicle, whereas a commercial van has little residual value when its service life is over.

Capsules have exterior doors that allow access to tools and equipment without going inside, and the interiors can be fitted with accessories like shelving, drawers, cabinets, and lighting. The advantages offered by pickup capsules have convinced some companies with big vehicle fleets to make the switch from vans, according to BrandFX, including Verizon Wireless and Qwest Communications.

Who Has the Edge?

Both pickup trucks and commercial vans come in a variety of sizes and configurations. But in general, here’s how a base model pickup compares with a large work van from the same manufacturer, feature for feature. There are exceptions—check the manufacturer’s specs carefully.
Photos courtesy of BrandFX and Ranger Design Both pickup trucks and commercial vans come in a variety of sizes and configurations. But in general, here’s how a base model pickup compares with a large work van from the same manufacturer, feature for feature. There are exceptions—check the manufacturer’s specs carefully.