There’s so much more to vans than a box on wheels but all too often we think of them as just large loadspaces with lumpy diesel engines.

I’m partly guilty of this misapprehension myself, as all too often when speaking about vans, I gloss over the fact that they come in many multiples and instead often revert to thinking of them purely in terms of panel vans. Of course, the majority of light commercial vehicles registered in the UK are sold as panel vans but the breadth of the range available beyond your standard van body can often mean  there are two or three times as many alternatives, offering much more than the humble panel van. 

The B segment, or mid-sized vans, is the most competitive and diverse of all the classes of light commercial vehicle with sales reaching 138,592 in 2021, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. It has in recent years also seen a massive influx of passenger car technology from chassis and safety equipment through to infotainment and driver assistance systems. 

The effect of this cross pollination is particularly apparent with the Stellantis vans of Citroën Dispatch, Peugeot Expert and Vauxhall Vivaro. They are a good example of a car platform being used to improve the performance of a commercial vehicle as it uses the EMP2 platform for the front half of the vehicle. This mid-sized Efficient Modular Platform is the basis for a number of front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive passenger cars including the Citroën C5 Aircross and Vauxhall Grandland. For the vans it added improved safety, not just from a crash test performance perspective, but also in the shape of new driver assistance systems, including automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning. The improved ride comfort and significant advance in refinement is all down to the platform, which catapulted what was previously an exceptionally average van into being among the best in class. 

Other examples can be found in both small and large vans: Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment system became the show-stopping centrepiece to the new Sprinter before being rolled out across the car range, and in the Volkswagen Caddy 5, which is not far off a commercial vehicle version of the Volkswagen Golf 8 with a very similar interior and, like the Stellantis vans, a shared modular platform – the Volkswagen Group’s MQB.

Of course, it’s not just the vans that are taking from passenger cars, they also give back in the shape of a multitude of variants that fall more into line with the world of passenger cars than the commercial vehicles. 

To illustrate the point, and to scratch a little deeper into the enormous breadth and depth of the van segment let’s take a look at three examples of some fairly familiar looking vehicles that are technically termed passenger cars.

Firstly, the UK’s best-selling van is also a formidable seller in other variants. More than 53,000 Ford Transit Custom vans were sold in 2021 but 9% of the total number of these mid-sized Fords were minibus people mover versions or campers. Throw in the double cab-in-van models – where there’s a second row of seats and a half loadspace – and another 13% of sales are accounted for. 

With the Transit Custom being Ford’s most popular CV model there’s a great deal more to the range than just a panel van and some body variants. Ford bravely hung its hat on launching the Transit Custom on a plug-in hybrid model when the segment wasn’t even looking towards electric. Ford has also increased its appeal with the recent Active and Trail variants bringing upmarket luxury and off-roading ruggedness to a range that already included the high specification Sport and highly customised Transit Custom MS-RT.

The Tourneo Custom, the passenger model based on the Transit Custom, is for all intents and purposes a van with seats but in Titanium trim it becomes an upmarket people mover. Like the Custom van, power comes from a 2.0L EcoBlue diesel engine, producing 185hp in this instance – more than enough power to comfortably move up to seven people. 

Discounting the very obvious van-like appearance of the Tourneo Custom, if blindfolded you’d be hard pressed to say you were in a commercial vehicle, such is the level of refinement. Britain’s best-selling van is a comfortable and convincing people mover even with a diesel engine.


Powertrains are something that have long been an obvious differentiator between commercial vehicles and passenger cars, with the most obvious discrepancy being the lack of petrol engines in vans. Despite diesel still reigning supreme in vans, battery electric vehicles (3.6%) and other powertrains (1.4%) were a small fraction of 337,318 sales of all vans in 2021 but their 5% share was up from the 3% they achieved in 2020. 

Nevertheless, they continue to grow in importance in both the commercial vehicle sector and the passenger car world. In the case of the Mercedes-Benz eVito, its electric driveline has also been transported directly into the car range where not only has the Vito’s body been utilised but its battery and motors as well. 

Courtesy of LSH Auto, I recently drove a Mercedes-Benz EQV, which might fall into the car portfolio as a private van rather than a commercial-use model but is, like the Ford Tourneo Custom, almost a direct copy of its nearest van relative the Mercedes-Benz eVito Tourer. While the EQV is nicely differentiated with high quality leather seats, upmarket dash materials and the MBUX infotainment system previously mentioned, the heart and soul of this model, which is popular in the private taxi sector as well as an executive chauffer vehicle, is a van. 

The electric driveline of the eVito is a perfect match for the demands of a chauffeur-driven passenger vehicle where smoothness and refinement are paramount. Like the eVito, the EQV has multiple levels of regenerative braking that can be used to comfortably slow the vehicle without the need to touch the brakes. With ample amounts of space in the rear and plenty of sound deadening to ensure comfort, peace and quiet, it’s little wonder that these van-based people movers are becoming ever more prevalent and usurping
the likes of the E-Class and S-Class in executive travel fleets.  

Vans have also become increasingly important as recreational vehicles with camper vans growing in popularity. Volkswagen’s Transporter-based California camper vans have become iconic and underline the importance of the van with many rivals like the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo and Ford Transit Custom Nugget attempting to compete with VW. 

Ford and Volkswagen’s commercial vehicle collaboration has, however, divided the role vans will play in the future of such vehicles for the German manufacturer. With future Transporter vans set to be based on the Transit Custom chassis it has left Volkswagen’s passenger car division looking to support its van-shaped product with its own car-based products. The Volkswagen Multivan, the successor to the Volkswagen Caravelle, is the first such example of this with its distinctively van-looking appearance disguising a car that is entirely built upon the versatile MQB car platform. 

The Multivan not only brings our look at vans being cars full circle by technically being a car looking like a van, it also demonstrates both the harmony and discord found between passenger and commercial vehicles. 

With Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles still without an in-house alternative powertrain for its mid-sized vans (the eTransporter is made by third-party converters ABT) the Multivan is available with a luxurious hybrid powertrain that suits its opulent car-like interior.

The Multivan eHybrid PHEV is a perfect accompaniment in a fast-changing landscape of vans and cars where models like the Volkswagen ID Buzz and ID Buzz Cargo exist alongside a traditional Volkswagen Transporter. The Multivan’s combination of quiet 1.4L petrol with battery electric power to give up to 31 miles of electric-only driving is the halfway house to EV ownership that, were it not for price, the van world is arguably still looking for.

Vans and passenger cars have, increasingly, been converging as the cost of developing technology, safety and powertrains makes it necessary. While it is often reported that vans
are becoming ever more “car-like”, it’s important to remember that vans also play their part in a large number of car models. In fact, van-based car models account for at least 10% of total sales in all three of these manufacturers mid-sized van segment sales, a reminder to never underestimate a humble van.

Continental shape shifters

I’m fortunate that I get to wear many hats while doing this job, but when it comes to the important matter of attributing my votes for the International Van of the Year Award I always come back to a few guiding principles. 

Firstly, is the van that’s getting my votes moving the game on sufficiently either in terms of generation to generation, in its segment or the wider van market? Secondly, what does its impact have on the users, and thirdly, where does it fit in or contribute to the market? 

While I tend to take a UK-specific view on these points I also like to speak with my colleagues to learn how these new or changing models will be received in their own countries. The inclusion of a four-wheel drive option might not be a big positive for UK buys (typically they represent only a small percentage of sales – below 1% for most models here) but for the Scandinavians it’s essential. 

Equally, my colleague in Turkey will tell me how even no bench seat option in a panel van will hinder sales in his country where kombi vans get the lion share of sales. 

I find these nuances fascinating and they help paint the broad picture of just how versatile and varied the life of a van is. 

With hybrid, electric and now hydrogen drivetrains coming onto the market I can’t wait to
learn what new influences dictate what people buy and how they use their vans.

George Barrow is the UK judge for the International Van of the Year, the prestigious prize awarded by leading European LCV journalists.

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