Size matters - a guide to compact motorhomes and campervans
If you’re thinking of combining the roles of leisure vehicle and daily driver as your only vehicle, then you won’t be shopping for a giant A-class. Even if your campervan is a second car, you’ll want its dimensions to be modest enough for parking at your local supermarket or the local leisure centre - perhaps outside the school gates, too.
The obvious contender in this class is a VW Transporter, currently in T6 guise but, by the time you read this, the latest T6.1 facelift versions will be appearing. In short-wheelbase form, the Transporter is a modest 4.9m long – that’s just a fraction shorter than a BMW 5-Series.
Choose one with a suitably slim pop-top roof and overall height can be 2m or less, so some car parks with height limitations are no longer out of bounds. The VW drives as well as many SUVs and MPVs and there’s no shortage of tech in the T6.1 – nor any lack of performance from the 150 or 199PS engine options.
The VW California and Ford Transit Custom
Of course, the Volkswagen no longer has this sector all to itself, although VW’s own in-house camper, the California, is the market leader by a country mile. The Ford Transit Custom is, perhaps, the leading opponent – a little taller and a degree roomier, it’s a touch more affordable, too.
Then, there are vans of this size from Fiat (Talento) and Renault (Trafic) which are effectively the same vehicle, as well as Peugeot (Expert), Citroën (Dispatch), Toyota (Proace) and Vauxhall (Vivaro) – again, all rebadged derivatives of the same design.
But what if the largest vehicle you’ve ever driven is a Fiesta or Corsa, or your motorhome or campervan must go into your domestic garage?
The recently discontinued Nissan NV200 has been the obvious alternative for those seeking something smaller (and cheaper) than the VW, with a variety of campervan companies offering conversions. Then there are more car-like vans, with a longer bonnet and lower driving position – the VW Caddy (converters include CMC Reimo and Volksleisure) and Ford Transit Connect (see Wellhouse’s Evie camper), but it’s worth noting that these are actually close to the VW Transporter in overall length.
Another alternative is a micro-motorhome – a coachbuilt in miniature – from the only specialist in this area, Nu Venture, or, if your budget directs you to the secondhand market, a Romahome.
If you really want something car-sized, rather than just car-like, a number of specialists – firms such as Chapel Motorhomes, Compact Campers, Middlesex Motorcaravans and Mini Campers North East – will convert small vans (or their car derivatives) such as Citroën Berlingo, Peugeot Partner or Fiat Doblo. Or you could buy a slot-in unit from Amdro or Ququq to make your car into a simple camper.
The smallest of them all, though, must surely be the remarkable Vikenze II from long-established Essex firm, Wheelhome, which applies all of its renowned ingenuity to converting the Fiat Qubo into a camper. It’s just 3.86m long, and it's pictured below.
The VW campervan market
The VW campervan market seems to have exploded in the last few years, with new names popping up almost weekly. That, in turn, means that buyers need to be extra careful in checking the quality and safety of the conversion they are buying – as well as being sure that the converter has sufficient pedigree to ensure a decent resale value. Only a minority of brands in this sector can claim European Whole Vehicle Type Approval – or the approval of VW itself – for their campervans.
The sector is especially confusing, perhaps, as most campers in this class have a similar side kitchen layout. This will make you reasonably dependent on campsite facilities as the toilet (if there is one) will just be a Porta Potti type stored in a kitchen cupboard or under the back seat.
However, there are models that have a built-in cassette toilet in the rear, although a shower in this size of campervan is a near impossibility – take a look at the WildAx Triton (based on the long-wheelbase Ford Transit Custom) if you really must have such a facility.
A better solution if you want to be independent of site facilities – for festivals, rallies or wild camping – is usually to go up a size, to larger van conversions (still sometimes referred to as campervans). The Fiat Ducato (and its Peugeot Boxer and Citroën Relay/Jumper siblings) dominate in this market as they are well-priced and their square, box-like dimensions allow a transverse bed inside.
The Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter
That said, the Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter are alternatives that feel more modern to drive and the VW Crafter is increasingly being seen as the class leader if cost is not a top priority.
The Fiat/Peugeot vans come in a variety of lengths, with the 6m (long) and 6.36m (extra-long) variants being the most popular for conversion, although the 5.4m (medium-wheelbase) model is worth seeking out if you want a camper that fits (almost) into a standard parking bay.
Layouts in these larger panel vans tend to fall into two camps – rear lounges (usually from UK firms, including major manufacturers such as Auto-Sleepers, Auto-Trail and Swift) or fixed beds (from leading European brands like Adria, Hobby, Hymer and Rapido). Most are two-berth vehicles, although there are many that offer four travel seats.
Compact models with a pop-top roof
A relatively new phenomenon is a pop-top roof on these larger – and taller – vans. Here, it is purely to provide an additional double bed, rather than standing room (as in VWs, etc). If you need a van conversion of this size with beds for four, another alternative is a bunk bed layout (from the likes of Dreamer or WildAx), while drop-down bed models (Dreamer again, Knaus, Vantage) are, perhaps, the best solution for family motorhoming, van-style.
Whatever type of van conversion you choose, you’ll find these vehicles to be more manoeuvrable than a coachbuilt motorhome of the same length, usually with better all-round visibility for the driver. Crucially, they are narrower than coachbuilt motorhomes, which can be important if you fancy exploring places like Wales and the West Country where the roads are not known for their motorway-like breadth.
Coachbuilt motorhomes in slimline version
If you’re wedded to the idea of a coachbuilt motorhome (its square sides will make it feel roomier and it may also offer superior winterisation), then it might be worth considering a slimline model to reach out-of-the-way destinations in a stress-free fashion. In Britain, Elddis has achieved a good following for its van-sized Accordo models, pictured below, (although it has more recently added van conversions to its line-up, too).
If you’re seeking a continental-style fixed bed design in a narrower body, then it’s the German makes that dominate – Bürstner, Carado, Dethleffs, Hobby, Hymer, Knaus and Sunlight all offer low-profiles that are usefully slimmer than the typical motorhome width of 2.35m. Adria, too, competes in this arena with its aptly named Compact, a model that has shot to the top of this class in its newly redesigned 2020-season form.
Meanwhile, even A-classes can be found in this slim-bodied class – Dethleffs’ Globebus, Hymer’s Exsis-i and Knaus’ Van I are all around 2.20m wide.
For some, though, length will be more important than width. Easier parking and reduced cost on some ferries can be crucial factors in keeping length below six metres, while drop-down bed layouts have allowed designers to offer almost all the facilities of a larger motorhome in a really compact campervan. Models such as the Adria Matrix Axess 520 ST, Chausson 520 and Roller Team T-Line 590 are popular examples.
British compact coachbuilt motorhomes
A more traditionally British compact coachbuilt is the Auto-Sleeper Nuevo, which continues to be one of the company’s top sellers. Or, if you’re on a tighter budget, the smallest model in Swift’s new entry-level Edge range is another sub-six-metre, rear kitchen, two-berth that’s sure to be feature well on the sales charts.
Of course, not every layout can be squeezed into such a short overall length. The island bed and fixed single bed layouts that dominate today’s motorhome ranges are typically around 7.5m long, but clever design has allowed some manufacturers to reduce lengths to as little as 6.49m; Pilote’s are among the best of these shorter designs.
Increasingly, 7m models are becoming popular – as an alternative to 7.5m – and it’s surprising how much more manoeuvrable these can sometimes seem; just be sure that beds, kitchens and lounges have not been compromised too much as a result of the reduced bodywork.
Finally, remember that bigger campervans weigh more. That larger motorhome might have more storage but, ironically, less payload to actually load it up. As an example, a six-and-a-half-metre Pilote P650C has 755kg payload, while the equivalent 7.45m model (also with an island bed) offers 150kg less carrying capacity. Sometimes, smaller really is more beautiful…