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Mid-size commercial vans: the essentials

The Transit Custom is nice to drive, and it's as practical as a multi-tool.

One of the most competitive segments in Australia’s light commercial vehicle market is for mid-sized vans. With 2500-3500kg GVM ratings, they strike a happy medium between the light-duty small van (under-2500kg GVM) and heavy-duty large van (3501-8000kg GVM) categories, which makes them well suited to a multitude of working roles.

However, with so many makes and models to choose from, potential buyers can easily be overwhelmed when trying to make an informed decision on which van is right for them. So, to provide some clarity to this process, here’s 10 important things (not in order of priority) we think you should consider.

Driver comfort

The HiAce Crew Van comes with a 7.0-inch touchscreen. The HiAce Crew Van comes with a 7.0-inch touchscreen.

Mid-sized vans have made enormous gains in driver comfort in recent years, to the point that hard-working drivers can now enjoy a car-like driving experience. The most significant improvements have come with height-and-reach adjustable leather-wrapped steering wheels, more supportive and adjustable seating including lumbar support and in some cases heating, inboard fold-down arm-rests, sizeable left footrests and infotainment voice commands to name a few.

Arguably the biggest gain, though, has been the use of steel bulkheads. These effectively insulate drivers from cargo bay noise, which can be substantial due to tyre noise emanating from the rear wheel housings being amplified by all the exposed steel surfaces in the cargo bay.

At highway speeds, this can sound like the roar of a jet engine, so being sealed-off from it can greatly reduce driver fatigue. A bulkhead can also improve the efficiency of cabin heating/cooling due to the smaller cabin area it creates. And it doubles as a robust cargo barrier.

So, choosing a van with some or all of these features as standard can optimise driving comfort. And if you regularly need to carry a passenger or two, also consider their comfort because some vans offer seating (particularly centre-seating) which is anything but comfortable!

Cabin storage

Cabin storage in the Trafic includes large-bottle holders and storage bins in each front door. Cabin storage in the Trafic includes large-bottle holders and storage bins in each front door.

A van serving in a commercial role is an office-on-wheels, so the more places a driver and passengers have to store stuff, the more uncluttered and effective it can be as a workstation. Some vans are better than others in achieving this, though, so you need to compare them.

Counting the number of bottle/cup holders and storage bins in the front doors and dashboard is a good start, but also look for handy storage nooks to hold small items like coins, chewy etc, plus dual gloveboxes, phone holders/chargers and overhead storage. 

Some vans with dual-passenger seating also have large storage compartments beneath their passenger seats, which are easily accessed by tilting the base cushions forward. This excellent use of space provides secure storage reassuringly hidden from prying eyes.

Another handy feature to look for is a small work desk, which in some dual-passenger vans can be found on the flip side of the centre seat’s backrest. By folding the backrest forward to a horizontal position, these 'desks' can provide not only a solid work surface but also a strap to hold documents in place, pen holders and extra cup holders.

Payload

The payload rating is what remains after you deduct a van’s kerb weight from its GVM, or Gross Vehicle Mass. The payload rating is what remains after you deduct a van’s kerb weight from its GVM, or Gross Vehicle Mass.

It’s crucial to pay close attention to the loads you carry, because you don’t want to end up with a van that has a payload rating that’s not up to the job. The payload rating is what remains after you deduct a van’s kerb weight from its GVM, or Gross Vehicle Mass, which is the most it can legally weigh when fully loaded. 

Mid-sized vans usually have a payload rating of around one tonne or more, which at first glance looks like plenty. However, payload decreases by the same amount that kerb weight increases. So, for example, if you need to install accessories like a bull-bar, tow-bar, rear step, roof rack with rear ladder, cargo barrier and internal carry-rack system, the combined weight of those accessories increases the kerb weight by the same amount that it decreases the payload rating.

And what remains of that shrinking payload also has to include the driver and, in some cases, up to two passengers plus the tow-ball download if towing a trailer, before you get to the load you would typically strap into the cargo bay. And by then, the payload won’t be anywhere near the one-tonne rating you started with!

So, make sure you know what loads you need to carry to ensure your choice of van is up to the task, because driving an overloaded vehicle is dangerous and illegal.

GCM

Some mid-sized vans offer a practical compromise between maximum braked trailer weight and payload. Some mid-sized vans offer a practical compromise between maximum braked trailer weight and payload.

If you need to tow with your van, another important acronym is GCM or Gross Combination Mass, which is the maximum legal weight allowed for your van and braked-trailer combination. Or, to put it another way, it’s the most that your van can carry and tow at the same time. 

Some mid-sized vans offer a practical compromise between maximum braked trailer weight and payload. Others might offer a much larger braked tow rating, which sounds great until you discover that it also requires such a sizeable drop in payload that's not practical in working terms. So, like payload ratings, pay close attention to GCM ratings if you need to tow things.

Height

With a height of 2023mm with the roof racks retracted, and a length of 5340mm, the Transit Custom is no small fry. With a height of 2023mm with the roof racks retracted, and a length of 5340mm, the Transit Custom is no small fry.

Some vans offer a choice of low-roof and high-roof designs. You might be tempted to go with the high-roof option, given the obvious advantages of a larger load volume, more internal clearance for taller loads and being able to stand in the cargo bay without stooping.

However, the van buyer also needs to take into account where they drive each day and if the raised roof height could stop them from entering multi-storey and underground car parks and loading bays, plus sneak under low-hanging tree branches, steel gantries or other regular obstacles where a van’s roof clearance is critical.

Cargo bay access

If you require regular forklift loadings, twin-swing rear barn-doors with 180-degree opening are preferable to a single-lift tailgate. If you require regular forklift loadings, twin-swing rear barn-doors with 180-degree opening are preferable to a single-lift tailgate.

If your job requires a lot of side-loading, look for sliding doors with the widest opening. This is particularly important if you’re planning to install a wire-mesh type of cargo barrier behind the driver/passenger seats, because the cargo barrier will protrude into this opening and effectively reduce its size.

If you require regular forklift loadings, twin-swing rear barn-doors with 180-degree opening are preferable to a single-lift tailgate, which when in the raised position limits how close a forklift can get to the cargo bay. Although some forklifts with extendable tines are designed to work around this limitation, barn-doors are suitable for loading with any forklift design.

On the other hand, if your van is to work as a mobile canteen or take-away espresso maker, a single tailgate can be a distinct advantage in providing all-weather shelter for the operator.

All-round vision

A van without windows in its side walls or sliding doors has enormous blind-spots. A van without windows in its side walls or sliding doors has enormous blind-spots.

A van without windows in its side walls or sliding doors has enormous blind-spots that can make changing lanes in traffic and reversing onto busy roads extremely hazardous, if not equipped with driver aids to greatly reduce these risks.

Look for large truck-style side mirrors to provide clear views down each side of the van and preferably with wide-angle mirrors in their lower sections, which are effective in expanding the driver’s field of view. Ideally these mirrors should be combined with a blind-spot monitoring driver aid.

A reversing camera which projects its image onto a large infotainment screen in the dash, rather than a tiny image displayed in the rear-view mirror, is also a must for obvious reasons. Ideally this should be combined with driver aids including not only rear parking sensors but also rear cross-traffic alert, which provides an audible warning of a vehicle approaching from either side which otherwise could be hidden from view.

FWD, RWD or AWD

A FWD van is more than capable of tackling a wide range of urban working roles. A FWD van is more than capable of tackling a wide range of urban working roles.

Most mid-sized vans are front-wheel drive (FWD) but some have rear-wheel drive (RWD) and in rare cases all-wheel drive (AWD) capability.

A FWD van is more than capable of tackling a wide range of urban working roles. However, if you often drive on surfaces where traction could be reduced, RWD offers an inherent traction advantage due to dynamic weight transfer from the front wheels to the rears under acceleration.

So, if your work involves hauling and/or towing heavy loads on compromised surfaces, particularly up steep inclines that can become wet or boggy, then the inherent advantage of RWD could be most beneficial. This is particularly so if the rear axle is equipped with a limited-slip differential.

Needless to say, a van equipped with AWD can deliver the ultimate in traction, so again the choice of drivetrain requires careful consideration to make sure you get the design that’s best suited to your job requirements.

Safety

Take time to compare the features that each model offers and you’ll soon determine which brands care as much about your safety as you do. Take time to compare the features that each model offers and you’ll soon determine which brands care as much about your safety as you do.

Like driver comfort, van safety has also come a long way and these days the safest mid-sized vans offer active and passive functions that rival many passenger cars and SUVs. 

The benchmark is now a five-star ANCAP rating, up to seven airbags, AEB with day/night pedestrian and day cyclist detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, road sign assist, vehicle stability control including trailer sway control and hill-start assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, reversing camera with guide lines, front/rear parking sensors and more.

So, take the time to compare the features that each model offers and you’ll soon determine which brands care as much about your safety as you do.

Warranty and Service

The Express is covered by a five years/100,000km warranty. The Express is covered by a five years/100,000km warranty.

Buyer analysis should include not only the duration of new vehicle warranties in terms of years or kilometres, but also what they do and don’t cover. Servicing intervals are equally important, as they can range from as little as six months/10,000km up to 12 months/30,000km whichever occurs first. 

For working vans that clock big distances, the need to service every 10,000km would obviously be less convenient than every 30,000km, particularly if you have a specially-equipped van which can’t be substituted by a dealership courtesy vehicle.  

These service intervals also need to be measured against the average cost per service, which with capped-price offers can also vary greatly when calculated across the entire new vehicle warranty period.