A van is not a good first car as it will be:
- Bad Fuel Economy
- Expensive to Maintain
- Not Fun to Drive
- Not That Safe
- Not Particularly Cool
- Limited Design Options
However there are some reasons why a van is a good first car:
- Sitting Very High
- Lots of Space
- Doing Your Own Repairs
- Using it to Make Money
- Van Life
When choosing their first car, most people wouldn’t think of choosing a van. A van is big, expensive, and impractical as a daily driver. What’s worse, you’ll be the weird person with a van.
It’s an unusual choice for a first car, but there are a few reasons it makes sense. Making this choice is a matter of priorities. What’s more important to you: the ability to transport cargo and large objects or to have a cheaper, more forgiving vehicle?
I’ll tell you about the pros and cons of getting a van at the beginning of your driving journey, and then I’ll tell you what you should do instead.
1. Vans Are Expensive
A quick search on sites like Autotrader.com will tell you that vans are in high demand. They must be spacious to transport large amounts of goods or passengers, and they have to have large engines to do so.
They need to be durable and last for decades, and they need to be relatively reliable.
Most people buying vans are not doing so for their everyday driving needs. Instead, professionals buy them to transport tools and equipment, and rental companies are buying them to keep their fleets up to date.
Keeping all of this in mind, vans are usually more expensive than cars of similar age and mileage.
Here’s an example of a van Autotrader.com. It’s 11 years old with 35,000 miles, and the asking price is $23,000. Even though it’s low mileage, you’ll get much more value for money with a 10-year-old car.
Vans will also be more expensive to insure, especially for a young driver. When a friend of mine was 23 years old, he purchased an old cargo van for work. He lives in New York City where auto insurance is very expensive.
All the quotes he received were in the range of $400-$600 per month. Meanwhile, I was paying $150 per month for full coverage insurance for my Honda Civic. Although he was later able to get a better deal, it’s still an important consideration.
If you just got your driver’s license, your insurance will surely be more expensive than if you have experience. If you’re a young driver, it will be even more expensive as you have a higher probability of being in an accident than somebody a bit older with more experience.
Men generally also pay more for auto insurance than women because they are more likely to cause an accident.
2. Bad Fuel Economy
Vans have terrible fuel economy. They’re made for business users who prioritize capability to efficiency.
According to the United States Department of Energy, the average fuel economy of a gasoline light truck or van is 17.5 miles per gallon. Compare this to the average car’s 24.2 miles per gallon, and you see that you’ll spend much more on gas over the life of the van compared to a normal car.
This is just the average. A small car will have even better fuel economy. If your van is old, its fuel economy could be considerably worse than average.
Many vans with large displacement engines, like V8s, could have fuel economy lower than 10 miles per gallon.
Diesel vans are alternative to gasoline powered vehicles. Diesel vans are more efficient than their gasoline equivalents because diesel fuel contains 10-15% more energy than gasoline.
Diesel engines are also more reliable than gasoline engines, so you’ll likely save money on repairs over the long run, especially if the van already has high mileage.
Nevertheless, you’re still spending more money than if you bought a lighter car. For example, a 2012 Toyota Camry with a 4-cylinder engine gets a combined 28 miles per gallon. You won’t find a van as efficient as that.
3. Expensive to Maintain
A typical van will be more expensive to maintain than most cars. Replacement parts for your van will be more expensive than comparable parts for a car, and getting a van fixed will likely cost more, too.
Vans have bigger tires and more powerful brakes. The engines are much larger than those in most cars, and you’ll have to buy larger quantities of oil when doing oil changes.
It’s also possible that your local mechanic who works on normal cars won’t deal with vans, and you’ll have to take the van to a commercial mechanic, where rates will likely be higher.
Depending on where you live, you might have to make appointments with the mechanic well in advance of service, making maintenance more inconvenient.
4. Not Fun to Drive
Even though your first car shouldn’t be too fancy, you’ll want something nimble and fun to drive. Vans definitely aren’t fun to drive and aren’t nimble at all.
Acceleration is slow, and steering isn’t very responsive. Visibility is also much more limited than most cars since cargo vans usually have limited windows in the rear of the vehicle.
The seats in the van also won’t be as comfortable as seats found in most cars. You also won’t have the same number of adjustments available.
5. Vans Aren’t That Safe
Vans also aren’t particularly safe. This is because most vans have long wheelbases and high centers of gravity. According to a risk management company, “wheelbase greater than 135 inches or an overall length greater than 225 inches are among the most dangerous vehicles.” This applies to most vans.
Unfortunately, this is a problem of physics. Gasoline vans simply aren’t going to be able to maintain a low center of gravity. However, the electric vans of the future will likely be much more stable.
SUVs have suffered from this problem for a long time. In recent years, the Tesla Model X became the first SUV to receive a perfect crash test rating. This is primarily due to the heavy battery packs that were installed under the seats.
This adds tremendous weight to the base of the car and distributes it evenly. This makes it extremely difficult to roll the car. Even if the car is rolled, it rights itself immediately.
While this design exists, you’re not going to find a used van that’s equipped with this sort of battery array.
If you aren’t an experienced driver and hesitate while on the road, you could end up swerving and flipping the van. The same situation with a car would not have likely resulted in a rollover collision.
6. Vans Aren’t Particularly Cool
When you pull up to your high school parking lot with your beautiful white van, your friends aren’t likely to be impressed. Instead, they might even be creeped out by it.
Like cargo pants and glasses (which I wear), things designed for utility aren’t usually considered cool. You’re almost certainly going to get a weird reaction once you show your friend that van.
If you’re a free spirit and don’t care what others think about you, this isn’t a problem, but most young people are concerned about what others think of them and don’t want to become subject to harsh judgment (even though most of it doesn’t matter anyway).
7. Limited Design Options
When you’re buying a car, you have an enormous selection of manufacturers and styles.
Do you want two doors or four? Large or small engine? Automatic or manual transmission? With vans, you’re very limited.
Since vans attempt to maximize interior space in all directions while conforming to exterior size regulations, most of them look the same.
Not only do they look the same, when it comes to interior tech, they are definitely behind cars. Your van’s climate control system will be limited compared to a car’s.
I’ve told you all the reasons why I believe you SHOULDN’T buy a van as your first car. However, vans provide so much utility and value that there are a few reasons why you SHOULD get a van as your first set of wheels.
1. You’re Sitting Very High
Perhaps the best part of driving a van is the driving position. Most vans have high ground clearance, and when you’re on the highway, you can see over most cars. This creates a very comfortable feeling of authority on the road.
It’s also true that since you have a large vehicle, many smaller vehicles instinctively move out of your way. You will feel respected on the road.
2. Lots of Space
Need I say more? Vans are spacious! You won’t be able to fit your partner’s old couch in the back of your Toyota Camry, but you’ll most likely be able to fit it in your van.
You’ll become the go-to mover of your friend group. People will seek you out to help move their stuff. This might not be the kind of attention you want, but it will offset the negative attention you’ll likely receive from the van.
If you’re a musician, you’ll be able to transport all of the equipment to gigs. Like to go to thrift stores and junk yards? You’ll be able to haul a bunch of stuff on your way back.
If your van is powerful enough and you choose to get a trailer, that further increases the capabilities. You could tow cars and boats and transport additional goods. In rural areas, there may be demand to transport farm animals or agricultural equipment.
3. Doing Your Own Repairs
Remember how I said that mechanics who work on vans might be more expensive? While true, you could do your own repairs instead. This isn’t unique to vans, you could do your own work on a car, too.
However, vans have the advantage of space. The components of a car are packed close to one another, and you’ll likely have difficulty reaching certain components under the hood as an amateur without special tools.
However, when you open a van’s hood, you’ll see lots of extra space. You’ll have a much easier time reaching the spark plugs, oil filter, air filter and other components that will eventually need to be replaced as you perform normal maintenance on the car or van.
Your van will also lack a lot of the plastic covers found on the engine and components of most modern cars. I used to have a Fiat 500, and I once changed the air filter. I had to remove several plastic panels, adding 30 minutes to the simple job. It felt like I had disassembled half of the car.
4. Using the Van to Make Money
I briefly touched upon this idea above, but vans are extremely useful. If you find yourself short on cash after you purchased your van, you have several ways to make extra money.
You could collect scrap metal from people’s homes or businesses. Many people have broken appliances and other large metal objects that have some value but not enough to fix. You could offer to pick these up for free in your van.
You then drive these items to a metal recycling facility that pays you by weight. Certain metals, like copper, are more valuable than other metals, like aluminum. Presorting the metal might yield you more per pound.
Moving is another option. If it’s a big van, you and your friends could help somebody move. This is usually a business that requires licensing and insurance, so make sure to verify that it’s legal in your area.
People always need stuff moved, and labor is becoming more expensive.
If your van has passenger seats, there are several apps, like Waze, that allow you to make yourself available for carpools. If you commute to the same place every day for school or work, you can collect a small fee for allowing people to ride with you.
This is good for both you and the environment. It might also make commuting more enjoyable.
There are several websites that allow you to advertise services that you can perform with your van. These include Craigslist, Thumbtack, and TaskRabbit. I think Craigslist would be the by site to start with.
5. You Can Do Van Life
Who could forget about van life? In my opinion, this is the best use of the van. Even if you have a permanent home, having the ability to live in the van will allow you to travel all over the US without having to pay for hotels.
It’s like a more comfortable version of camping, and it has become popular in the last several years. And by combining your home and transportation, you’ll end up saving money.
Converting a van doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be done for as little as a few hundred dollars. You’ll need to clean the van, install insulation, add flooring, a bed, and some storage.
Check out my article, which goes into more detail about how to do a cheap van conversion.
So What Should You Do?
Instead of getting a van, buy a small, 10-year-old car with a manual transmission that has as few miles as you can afford. You’ll look a little bit cooler compared to if you bought a van. This way you’ll save a lot of money and learn important driving skills.
A manual transmission is a good idea because it’s a rare skill here in the US. You’ll be able to drive just about any car with a good grasp of a manual transmission.
If you ever go to Europe and drive there, you’ll be able to save money and rent a car with a manual transmission, which is much more common there.
Manuals are also more fun to drive and will improve the experience of owning a cheap, little car.
You should also consider the probability of a serious accident as a beginner driver. While most people don’t have one, it’s important to consider. Therefore, for safety reasons alone, the van isn’t the ideal choice.
Plus, in the event that the car is totaled, it will be a headache negotiating with the insurance company to get paid the true value of the vehicle. This is assuming you have full coverage insurance. If you total your vehicle without it, you could lose the money you spent on the car or van in the first place.
However, please just drive as safely as you can, it’s the best way.
Whether you’re 16 years old and just got your license or you’re a little older and never got around to purchasing a vehicle of your own, please, don’t buy a van. Save the van for later in life once you have more money and experience driving.