With full-sized vans being continually reengineered to drive more like cars, complete with all the comforts of power steering, windows, doors, locks, mirrors, and seats, conversion vans are just getting easier to like.
Conversion vans go directly from the factory to a "converter" who upgrades and adds interior and exterior features to the basic vehicle. The Dodge Ram 1500 van we tested, for example, came courtesy of Elk Automotive Inc., in Elkhart, Ind. (www.elkautomotive.com).
It had everything necessary to make a long (or short) drive more enjoyable, except maybe warp drive for those really long trips. The driver, for example, gets a 5.9-liter Magnum V8 putting out 245 hp at 4,000 rpm and 335 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. While that's plenty of power, the engine has plenty to pull, and can tow up to 7,000 lb more. Although it takes a little bit of time to get up to the speed limit, once there, the engine has the power to climb long, steep hills without bogging down. Mileage is estimated at 12/17 city/hwy, which is just a little low based on my experience. A 35-gallon tank gives the van considerable range.
For passengers, the back of the van holds two captain's chairs, a fold-down couch, and a rec-room full of electronic diversions. This includes a flat-screen TV mounted below the raised roof, DVD player and VCR, and a CD/cassette/AM/FM radio, all with remote controls. There are also wireless headphones so those in the back seat won't disturb the driver and front-seat passenger while they listen to their CD/cassette/AM/FM radio. The headphones are fairly touchy and have to be tuned to just the right frequency to get high-quality sound, so they're not ideal for those under 10.
There's also a portable vacuum cleaner for the ultrathick pile carpet, oversized tinted windows for sightseeing, complete with pull-down shades, and a plethora of cup and juice-box holders. The raised roof adds another 12 in. or so of headroom, which makes the interior much roomier, but it also makes the van almost impossible to park in any parking garage, a minor inconvenience.
Though the van is large, it's hardly unwieldy. Steering is tight and after you learn to use the mirrors, a disappearing art in America, getting it maneuvered around is not that difficult. But the size is large enough to scare off some soccer moms and dads. And conversion vans are usually rear-wheel-drive vehicles, which is not a plus in areas that get snow. These are the only reasons I can imagine as to why conversion vans aren't more popular. Of course, the price, about $42,000, could scare some people off as well.
From my experience, conversion vans like this one from Elk Automotive are one of the best ways for groups of five or six to travel. There's more than enough room for luggage, everyone gets a comfortable seat, and if you get bored watching America go by outside, there are tapes, CDs, and DVDs to keep you occupied.