Searching for a Large Passenger Van
One of the things that has occupied a lot of time and energy the last two months was our search for a family vehicle. Three years ago, we sold our 1999 Chevy Express because we felt like it was mostly taking up space in our driveway. It was older and more beat up than our other two vehicles and we rarely had to take the whole family places around town, so for the most part, we were able to make do with my 8 passenger Sienna and my husband's 7 passenger Highlander. We took the van on trips but otherwise ignored it, poor thing. We figured we'd save on gas, insurance, and the yearly battery replacements caused by having it sit unused for months at a time and just see how it went. And mostly, it wasn't bad. With our kids being older, we almost always have someone old enough to babysit at home, so running kids to activities is no big deal. The one annoyance was having to take two cars on all our family trips, and we figured the inconvenience was worth the money savings.
|The inside of our old van, 2009.|
|And the outside|
At first, we figured our oldest would be off to college in a year, then her flight would be followed by many of the others in just a few more years. Perhaps we should just continue the status quo and continue to save the money. But then we also thought about how much nicer it would be to take just one van on vacations and to various family adventures, and how it would save some wear and tear on our 12-year-old cars.
The clincher for us was when we did the math and realized that even if Benji is our last baby, it will be six years before we all fit back into my Sienna. Then we added up how much would be lost in probable depreciation and other costs of an additional van over those years, divided it by the years of service and decided it was worth it.
Since I had a hard time coming across reviews for these kinds of vehicles that answered the questions I was most interested in, I figured I should write one about our experience and our new Ford Transit.
Nissan NV versus Ford Transit
Our old van was serviceable, but the safety features were lacking. We hated the bench seats with no headrests and no side airbags. Some models have improved since then, but as we did our research, we quickly narrowed the list down to either the Nissan NV 12 passenger van or the Ford Transit 15 passenger. The Nissans have been out since 2013 and all of my large family friends who own one love them. But they are very hard to find used and the new price is higher than the new Transits. The Transits have only been out since 2015, but because they are widely in use as shuttle vehicles, there are a lot more used ones available for purchase.
The interesting thing is that both vehicles are about the same length and seem to handle turns and getting around similarly. As you can see in the photos above, the Nissan has a truck front which takes up more space while the Transit only sticks out just a bit in front. Both have very little visibility out the back, but both also have very good side mirrors and come with back up cameras.
According to the various reviews, the Transit gets better gas mileage but the Nissan has more power for towing. The Transit can tow up to 5,000 pounds but the Nissan can tow up to twice that. We assume the Nissan will last a bit longer as it is foreign made, but the Ford sells so many more that the parts will be more readily available and mechanics ought to understand how to fix it. The Nissan has a better warranty, at 5 year, 100,000 miles for everything, while the Transit's warranty is 3 years, 36,000 miles or 5 year 60,000 for the powertrain. The costs of a new NV are $8-10,000 more than the Transits, but they may maintain their value better, though it's hard to know at this point.
There were two main features that made us choose the Transit instead of the NV. The first is the additional of that fourth row of seats. We can turn it into a 12 or 13 passenger van and then have all that additional space for cargo room, or we can keep all 15 seats inside it on occasions where we might want to bring along a few extra people. The seats are heavy, but the two middle ones, which are attached to each other, came out with very little effort in less than a minute.
|The fourth row of seats. The two handles that you see in the middle two seats are quick-release ones that you pull to remove the seats. You can also see that there is very little cargo space with all 15 seats in place.|
|And the van with the seats removed.|
My absolute favorite feature of the van, however, is the aisle! Instead of placing it on the right side of the van by the door and the row of windows, it is moved over, as you can see above. Coming from back to front, it seats 4, then 2 and 1, 2 and 1, and then 3 just behind the driver and front passenger. No other passenger van is set up that way, and I absolutely love it. First, this gives us the option of having up to 7 window seats in the back. Second, we can spread out more with both stuff and people. On our most recent trip, our oldest was able to put her huge school bag in the aisle and do homework while we were also able to separate the kids more prone to cause problems and let them sit all by themselves! They loved it and so did we.
In contrast, the Nissan NV would only have 4 window seats in the back.
Another feature we saw on a lot of the Transits is that each seat, except for the back row, reclines! Not much more than an airplane seat, but still a great feature. Unfortunately, that feature was not included in the model we ended up buying.
We ended up buying a new 2016 Ford Transit XL model three weeks ago. This is a little bit more stripped down than the more common XLT model, but ours came with a tow hitch, a tow package upgrade and a sliding door and was significantly less expensive, and only slightly more than one of the used models we almost bought. We got a great deal and even though we drove all the way to Mountain Home, Idaho for it, it was worth it. As far as I can tell, the differences between the XL and the XLT models are mainly in the reclining seats and a few more upgrades, such as more electrical plugs. There are a lot of different options for the vans, including three roof heights. We chose the low roof so we could fit it inside our garage as well as any parking garage we might encounter.
|It actually fits really well in the garage, though the mirrors on the side make it a tight fit for whatever we park next to it.|
We decided to call the van Moby after the great white whale, but Cami insisted, "I don't like Moby! It needs to be Mr. Moby." So there you go.
We put our van to the test this past weekend by driving up and around Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. I've also taken it up a steep road to a nearby overlook and in and around town the last few weeks.
|The twelve of us at Yellowstone|
Here's what we have discovered:
Best Features of the Ford Transit
The van comes with a 3.5L twin turbo engine. They call the twin turbo option the "Ecoboost" engine. I'm not a real car geek, so I can't explain the exact magic voodoo involved under the hood, but I can tell you that this van can move! We passed dozens of super slow vehicles in Yellowstone inching along oblivious to the many slow vehicle turnouts (I swear, every other time, it was one of those "Cruise America" vehicles) and never felt like we were driving a big whale. We could also feel that extra boost kick in whenever we got on the freeway to merge with traffic. This van is gutsy.
Not all models have the Ecoboost option, especially in the 2015 models, so keep that in mind if you are looking to buy one.
Good Driving Experience
Honestly, I really enjoy driving this thing! The cruise control is nice, the digital display is awesome, and getting in and around in parking lots is only slightly inconvenient. Our van came with a back-up camera installed in the rear-view mirror and I am already in love with that feature. The side mirrors are huge and include a lower convex mirror for checking your blind spot that was super handy.
That Awesome Aisleway & Comfortable Seats
This is still my favorite feature. Almost everyone had a window seat. The seats were comfortable, the kids could get some separation from each other and there was very little of the usual bickering that can go on with lots of kids cramped into a tiny space. We had seats for 13, but we had to use one of the back seats to help fit all of our luggage on the way there. However, once we unloaded, we were able to use that seat for several days, which meant even more ability to spread out.
Safety features on this van include headrests (I don't know why all big vans don't include these!), individual 3-point harness seatbelts, and front and side curtain airbags.
Decent Gas Mileage
Obviously, this is a huge vehicle so it's not going to get the gas mileage of a little car, but we've been pleasantly surprised. On our trip to Yellowstone, which included driving through wind and rain, climbing and descending several thousand feet, and a lot of starting, stopping and pulling around the super slow vehicles, we got 16.8 miles per gallon.
The front seats have a different system than the back. The back is controlled by the driver up front and each row is serviced by two overhead adjustable vents. There are also vents in the floor. No one ever complained of being too hot or too cold, though the weather wasn't extreme either way so we haven't fully put this feature to the test. The controls allow you to use the upper vents alone or in combination with the floor vents, so if you needed to store things under the seats, you can block the vents without worry.
Decent Cargo Space (with Seats Removed)
As mentioned, there isn't a whole lot of space with all 15 seats inside. But with two of them removed and using the space on the left seat (which could also be removed if desired), we fit everything we wanted to for our trip, and still made the last seat on the right accessible for one of the kids. We fit in a huge cooler, a huge box of food, pack-n-play, baby hiking backpack, stroller, 3-4 suitcases, 9 duffel bags, and 2 hang-up clothes bags. One thing we didn't see was a dedicated hook of some sort for the hang-up clothes, but we were able to hook it onto the headrest of the back seat just fine.
Another nice feature is that the van doors lock in place at either 90 degrees (as seen in some of the photos above) or can open all the way out. There is a magnet on the side of the van that automatically holds them in place while you load the vehicle. So there are no worries about doors swinging around and hitting kids and there is plenty of space to load up bulky items or just to have better access in the back.
Cupholders, Storage, and Misc. Features
Honestly, in the back, I wish there were a few more of these. Each seat row on each side had one, except for the one seat on the right closest to the sliding door. That means for potentially 13 people in the back, there are only six cupholders. That's pretty skimpy to me. Most of our booster seats have cupholders that pop out, however, so we really didn't miss them terribly for this trip. And, perhaps to make up for the skimpiness in the back, the front row has SEVEN: One in each door, two on each side of the dash by the window (one of these is larger and lower down that can hold an extra-large one), and one in the middle. We used every one of them and it was nice to keep extra iced water up front to send back to the kids who ran out of water.
|Two of the cupholders. Two just like this are on the driver's side as well.|
The back seats have space under them for various storage, though there are floor vents you may not want to block. The seats in front have a small storage space under them that can fit large maps, atlases and are probably 3 or 4 inches deep. I put in a couple of adult coloring books and colored pencils under mine to hand out to bored kids. The doors up front contain some nice storage. I put the book I was reading and my kindle in mine for easy access. The compartment on the bottom is a little hard to access while you are in the vehicle, but it would be a great place to store snacks and things you don't need to access all the time.
We also have this handy little space in the middle of the dash in ours. Many models use this spot for the back-up camera, but since our back up camera was in the mirror, we were able to put the GPS here as well as our guidebook, the kindle we were using to listen to audiobooks from, and whatever else.
The power outlets were fairly sparse. Some of the other models we saw had actual two-prong outlets in the front and the back, but we only had the cigarette lighter kind. There are two up front, which meant one for charging our phones and one for our GPS. There is also one power outlet in the back that the kids used to charge their kindles.
The audio system seemed fine. We have just the basic model, so no bluetooth or anything, but there is an audio jack that connects just fine to our phones or kindles and that allowed the whole family to enjoy this hilarious farce that is well worth a listen.
Easy Clean Out
One feature our XL model did not have that the XLTs do is carpet. But I actually prefer the hard floors it came with. It will be easy to wipe up any spills and it was super easy to clean out all the fallen cheerios and other items. I actually got my electric leaf blower out, opened up the doors, and blew all the crud out. Super quick and it looks pretty nice again. I think a broom would also work.
I love our new van. It is fun to drive, flexible enough to fit our large family and its gear, safe, comfortable, and has that awesome aisleway. As we drove home from Yellowstone, it was fun to think about all the roadtrips that this van make so much more accessible. Should you need a van larger than the 8 passenger Sienna or Oddysey, I would definitely check this one out.
As more and more shuttle vehicles are rotated, there should be quite a few more used ones that come available and the price should drop over the next few years, making it even more affordable for a large family on a budget. (And should you need to drive two vehicles around to fit your family in the meantime, I can assure you, it wasn't THAT bad. We still managed to go on family trips several times a year and get to Church every week.).