Vans can be some of the most versatile vehicles out there, but most are two-wheel drive. The addition of a 4WD system can transform a van from a family runabout or package hauler to an all-terrain escape pod. The best 4×4 vans bring a whole other level of capability to the vans already cavernous storage capacity.
For years, 4WD vans have been taking people to some amazing places around the globe. Their ability to double as a home on the road has become extremely popular with the #vanlife crowd. And while the term vanlife may be relatively new and trendy, using 4×4 vans to live out of and adventure isn’t anything new. These vans can take people on extraordinary adventures off the beaten path when outfitted properly. These are our picks for the 10 best 4×4 vans of all time.
10 Best 4×4 Vans of All Time
- Chevrolet Astro AWD
- Toyota 4WD Van
- Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon
- Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear
- Ford Transit AWD
- Quigley Conversions GMC Savannah
- Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
- Sportsmobile Classic 4×4 (Ford Cutaway Chassis)
- Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4
Chevrolet Astro AWD
In 1990, the North American minivan segment was red hot. The first domestic vehicle in the class to offer the ability to drive all four wheels was the boxy 1990 Chevrolet Astro. All-wheel drive was an option on Astros from 1990 all the way up until 2005. While it didn’t have a low-range transfer case, the Astro offered a very high-up seating position and V-6 power, with up to 200 hp from the 4.3-liter engine.
The Astro was facelifted in 1995, making it look more like a full-size van. Nowadays, AWD Astros have a devout following of adventurers taking these Chevys on overland adventures and off-road treks. Interestingly, these vans had a partial unibody construction, with a partial frame up front. There are lift kits out there that often involve spacers. While not hardcore 4WDs, they make a good platform for a compact camper that can “get out there.”
Toyota 4WD Van
From 1987 to 1989 Toyota offered its van in 4WD. Simply called the “Toyota Van,” this forward-control vehicle had the driver sitting atop the wheels with the engine in between the driver and passenger. These minivans were available with a true 4WD system which included a low-range transfer case if you opted for the manual transmission. Power came from a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder making 101 hp and 135 lb.-ft. of torque. You could get the van with an automatic or manual transmission, as well as automatic or manual locking hubs.
Sold globally (and called the Townace/Liteace overseas), the Toyota Van featured car-like unibody construction, a solid rear axle with leaf springs, and independent front suspension with torsion bars. They could be had as a passenger van or as a cargo van without windows. The Toyota Vans are known to run forever. And thanks to some of the Toyota truck‘s underpinnings, it can be more capable off the pavement than you’d think. However, parts can be tricky since they were only offered for three model years. But one thing’s for sure: in the event of a global nuclear event, the only two things that’ll likely survive are cockroaches and Toyota Vans.
It’s very likely you’ve never heard of the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant or UAZ-452 if you don’t live near Russia. But these Russian-made vans have been made for over 50 years. Spartan, tough, and shaped like a loaf of bread, these vans have been transporting people around some of the harshest conditions for over half a century.
Still being made today, modern versions of these vans (with seating for up to 11) have a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine making 112 hp and 146 ft.-lbs. of torque. Power is put down through a 5-speed manual transmission. These 4×4 vans have a traditional two-speed transfer case with 2WD, 4WD high, and 4WD low-range gears. Their top speed is listed at 127 km/h (79 MPH), so don’t plan on getting anywhere too fast.
The tough-as-nails UAZ-452 has solid front and rear axles with leaf spring as well as an available locking rear differential for maximum off-road traction off-road. The steadfast design, no-frills nature, and Soviet-era design make the UAZ-452 a living relic that you can buy brand new in several configurations.
Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon
Like Toyota, Mitsubishi Motors North America had a forward-control unibody van in the late 1980s simply called the van. It was only 2WD though. Other parts of the world got this van with 4WD and it was called the Delica Star Wagon. These overbuilt 4WD vans came with a dizzying array of options, trim packages, roof heights, and engine/transmission choices. They’ve been popular with adventure-seekers since their inception in the mid-’80s, and are still made in some SE Asian markets.
With a two-speed transfer case and a very versatile interior, the Delica Star Wagons are still darlings of the campervan crowd as well as Japanese domestic market (JDM) enthusiasts. Many get built-out for overland travel. And with their stout drivelines, available diesel engines, and solid rear axle with leaf springs, they’re capable off-road despite their high center of gravity. The fancy Crystal Lite roof, outdoor-themed Chamonix and Jasper trim packages, and sci-fi styling make these super-cool 4WD vans globally swanky.
Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear
In 1994, Mitsubishi released the second generation Delica van called the Space Gear. Compared to the previous Star Wagon model, this variant had a much rounder style. It was also available with more powerful engine options and the company’s Super Select 4WD transfer case. This gearbox had a viscous coupler. This allowed the van to operate in 4WD high with an open center differential making it great in snow and slippery conditions. Yet, it could also be shifted into high- or low-range 4WD when the trail got extra tough. Like the Star Wagon, it had unibody construction. It also had a solid rear axle (with coil springs, however), and an independent front suspension with torsion bars. It could also be had in high- or low-roof configurations. Plus, it could be bought in short- and long-wheelbase versions.
The Space Gear was made until 2007. Its combination of power, comfort, an optional long wheelbase, and decent aftermarket support continue to make it a popular global option for campervans enthusiasts, travelers, and off-roaders alike.
Ford Transit AWD
Only recently did Ford’s full-size Transit van get AWD, but it transformed this vehicle. All-wheel-drive turned this delivery runabout to an all-terrain transporter. The Transit doesn’t have a low-range transfer case. But it does provide full-time AWD and an excellent platform for a campervan or all-weather adventuremobile.
The Transit’s size can allow owners to stand fully upright in some versions. This makes it a viable choice for those who want space, but not a big RV. There are three lengths, three roof heights, and two engine choices. This includes the powerful 3.5-liter Ecoboost gasoline engine which has 310 hp. Plus, being a new van, you get all the safety features of a modern vehicle. There are a multitude of outfitters that can transform the Transit into a hard-working utility van, or a globe-trotting camper.
Quigley Conversions GM Vans
Chevrolet and GMC vans don’t come in 4WD, but if you give one to Quigley, they can convert it. Quigley isn’t new to this; they’ve been outfitting vans since the mid-1960s. And while they outfit a number of automakers’ vans, they’re one of only a few building on the GMC Savanah/Chevrolet Express.
There are eight different combinations of wheelbases, engines, and transmissions to choose from. Quigley will use engines ranging from a 4.8-liter gasoline small-block V-8 to a 6.6-liter diesel powerhouse. It uses its own unique torsion bar independent front suspension and pairs it with a solid-rear axle with leaf springs. Quigley also implements a two-speed transfer case. Those wanting more off-road capability can opt for their LIFS option for 3” of ground clearance. The Pennsylvania-based company has a long track record of awesome 4×4 van conversions.
Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
For over 60 years, VW vans have been used as campers and travel rigs. It wasn’t until the Vanagon Syncro debuted that it got AWD capability. Vanagon Syncros were offered in the U.S. from 1986–1991. These German-built vans had a 2.1-liter water-cooled flat “boxer” four-cylinder engine making 92 HP and driving all four wheels. Syncros were equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and had a viscous coupler system for full-time AWD traction. These vans came factory equipped with optional locking rear differential making them exceedingly capable right out of the box. Add a set of traction tires, and Syncros perform very well off-road.
These days, Syncros, especially in good condition, can be extremely pricey for what they are. Models with the prized Westfalia campervan setup are sometimes regarded as the golden fleece of 4WD vans. If there’s an icon on this list, this is the one.
Sportsmobile Classic 4×4 (Ford E-Series Cutaway Chassis)
Sportsmobile, founded in 1961 in Texas, knows a thing or two about how to build a 4×4 van. Arguably, they’re best known for the 4×4 Ford E-Series van conversions. Although the E-Series van is only available as a cutaway these days, Sportsmobile still converts them. Their latest is the ‘Classic 4×4’ on the Ford E-Series cutaway chassis. They tout this for the discerning off-road enthusiast. Buyers get lots of premium off-road goodies. This includes an Atlas II transfer case, Dynatrac Pro-Rock 60 front axle and Dana 60 rear axle, Fox 2.0 shocks, and your choice of open, limited-slip, or locking axles. This is the off-road van buyer’s dream rig.
The Sportsmobile Classic 4×4 is equipped with the 7.3-liter gasoline V-8 engine and Torqueshift five-speed automatic transmission. Most notably, Sportsmobile now molds a steel-reinforced fiberglass shell behind the main cab. The integrated penthouse top drops flush into the shell for a streamlined look. There are unlimited possibilities with these vans and they can take you just about anywhere.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4
This van is arguably the gold standard among new 4WD vans, especially from a campervan perspective. The Sprinter was first available with 4WD in 2015 in North America. It can be optioned with a true 4WD setup featuring high- and low-range drive modes. There are two lengths. One is a 144” wheelbase with standard or high-roof configuration. A 177” wheelbase model with a high roof and extended-high setup is also available. The 4WD models feature the 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 engine. This mill churns up 188 hp and 325 lb.-ft. of torque. There are three models to choose from: cargo, crew, and passenger vans, all with different amounts of windows and seats.
The Sprinter is the darling of the adventure crowd these days. There are countless outfitters willing to build out the van for weekend warriors or global travelers. The Sprinter is also a truly global platform. The setup is sold worldwide. This makes it serviceable in many parts of the world. It is fair to say this is definitely one of the 10 best 4×4 vans of all time.