Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why do I prefer a van over an SUV with a similar powertrain?

When it comes to car bodystyles, the SUV is among the most controversial ones. The acronym stands for sport-utility vehicle, but it's definitely arguable how sporty and utilitarian those pigs rigs are in a direct comparison to a van with a similar powertrain. For example, how could we justify a Toyota Hilux Surf/SW4/4Runner justify as a better option instead of a HiAce? Well, even though 4WD was not available for the HiAce through official importers in most markets, the success of those JDM versions with this feature as second-hand Japan exports in some Latin American and African countries may be a clear indication that I'm not the only one who would rather choose the van bodystyle. Be it for commercial purposes, extended family trips or leisure, there are many reasons leading this to become a more reasonable option.
Sure there are a few compromises, the most notable one being the cockpit and rear passenger door positions that would eventually not be in accordance to the export destination of a Tokyo-takeaway. Right-hand drive vehicles suitable to the left-hand traffic direction in Japan often have to go through a mandatory left-hand drive conversion in order to be allowed registry in countries such as Paraguay and Bolivia for example, even though the rear sliding door that was meant to be used in the curb side in a left-hand traffic such as Japan remains unchanged, thus becoming off-side for right-hand traffic which is prevalent in most of the Americas. At least in the continental mass, the only countries with traffic on the left side of the road are Suriname and the former British Guyana. Apart from those, only some island countries in the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago keep the "English hand" traffic ordinance.
Another matter of concern regards to vehicle dimensions and off-road capability. It's quite predictable that a forward-control van is going to feature a longer front overhang, imposing some limitation to the approach angle, but it also offers some advantages such as a shorter wheelbase which keeps the turning diameter smaller and thus improves the maneuverability in tighter spaces ranging from rural unimproved mountain roads to urban parking spots that are often not so friendly to larger vehicles. Ground clearance and suspension travel might also be matters of concern for those who take off-road capabilities more seriously, even though some degree of components interchangeability makes it not so difficult to apply some upgrades originally meant for an SUV. However, since those Japanese vans that belong to the same class of the Toyota HiAce have an extremely utilitarian design still more focused on city and road operations, their wheel wells may be not so suitable to the oversized wheels and tyres frequently seen on SUVs like a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. Actually, since a smaller tyre is usually more easily affordable, that would not really bother me.
SUVs being fancier than vans usually lead them to have a bigger footprint when we take in account their external lenght and width, but that doesn't reflect accurately in an improvement to interior space as it could be eventually supposed. A full-lenght bonnet/hood already takes too much of the platform lenght that could eventually serve to enhance the cargo and passenger capacity. Since midsize and full-size SUVs still rely more frequently on the traditional body-on-frame layout claimed to enhance the off-road capacities, with higher frame rails that would be supposed to be essential to overcome clearance issues for drivetrain and suspension components by setting the cabin floor to a higher position, internal height also becomes smaller and so goes the interior volume when a given external height limit is applied to both an SUV and a van. Even if we went to look some previous versions of the Toyota Hiace Regius/Grandia/Solemio that featured a semi-bonneted layout with the cockpit set a little further, the shorter cowl still leads to a greater use of space for passengers and to accomodate their luggage or even find some way to carry bulkier items or to fit a few more comfort features.

Another feature mostly neglected by able-bodied people is the usually wider door opening, as can be seen in the classic Volkswagen Kombi. Leading to either an easier loading and unloading of cargo or a more comfortable boarding and unboarding of passengers, it becomes particularly appreciable while dealing with disableds and the elderly. It's one of those features that some people accept to trade-off when they choose either a traditional SUV or a car-based "crossover" in order to not have a vehicle that looks like a cheap workhorse. It seems even crazier when, apart from the crossover SUV trend that led to a dismissal of vans and minivans as the people-mover of choice in many households, we remember all the urban cowboys who spend considerable amounts of money to get a pick-up truck with lots of fake chrome just to show off but would never even haul a sack of oats...


  1. Once in a while I see some Canadians crossing the border with second-hand Japanese vans. Though the passenger door issue is an obvious no-no for me, the lack of crumple zones in a van scares me even more. On the other hand, if anybody else in the world is able to get a forward-control van like those, I wholeheartedly agree that we in América should be granted the same right.

  2. While I served overseas I could see that those Japanese forward-control vans are by far more practical than the stereotypical soccer-mom vans available in America. It's really a shame that we can't get them so easily. The size restriction enforced in Japan doesn't make them less practical than any USDM compact truck, minivan, or even the old-school full-size vans.

  3. 4WD vans deserved to be more widespread. I drove one a couple of times in South Korea, it was made by Kia based upon a Mazda design.

  4. Last time I saw a forward-control Toyota HiAce 4WD it had English plates and was a grey-import from Japan, but the semi-bonnetted ones assembled in Portugal could be ordered as 4WD too.


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