By on August 5, 2010

Ron writes:

I am an old VW microbus fan. Not that I had a lot, mind you, compared to some; but I did own two ’71s, a prototype vanagon, and an ’84 vanagon.

I realize they were, oh, not so safe, what with using the driver and front passenger as a sort of buffer to protect the car, and maybe having a handling issue or two. But I did come to love a few things: ease of maintenance/repair (which you had to do more than my civics); simplicity; huge greenhouse; and, finally, the big roomy open from cockpit. No big damn console between the seats, and no feeling of being cocooned in the car. I could, while driving, stretch my legs out to one side.

I did not like the Eurovan, so, once push came to shove, I ended up with an Astro for 13 years, which got 21 MPG in all driving, and had far more room and flexibility than, say, and Element; had no intrusive center console (that came in later models); and had a lot of what I liked in the microbus (but not all of it; no manual). The astro did beat all the vw’s in not having the engine hump in back. 2 minutes and all seats were out and lots of 4×8 sheets of drywall could go in. Very versatile with a tiny turning radius; nice car.

I miss that microbus roominess. I’m not that tall at 6’3″, and I see people who are 6’7″ or larger extolling the roominess of the Element; how do they do it? My legs hit the steering wheel, and I can’t see the speedometer.The Ford Transit is almost “it”, save for the auto — and, in spite of what you guys say, I can always beat the auto on MPG if I have a manual. I get 10MPG more on my Fit on average than my friends get with their Fits with an auto. Plus, I get the extra control, which I like in messy weather. But once I drive the Fit for two or more hours, my bad knees really start to gripe at me. Unfolding from the Fit is a painful experience.

So, what can I get? Is there a “modern microbus”, with a manual, small engine, very roomy open front, simplicity, that I can get in the US? From what I can see, the answer is “no”. I’ll give room on the engine, but what about the manual?

Steve Lang Answers:

Great. Not another old former hippie who wants to SUV his way into spaciousness and comfort. You’re asking more or less for a box. May I suggest a Lincoln Town Car hearse that was formerly owned by a good friend of mine from New Jersey? Oh wait, that’s right. You’re looking for a big box with a little engine and no suspicious fingerprints. Can’t help you with that.

Lucky for you, I’m channeling the world famous Paul Niedermeyer through my fingerstrokes at this very moment. Let’s see what he has to say:

“I was busy taking pictures of a 1981 Chrysler Imperial in Eugene just the other day. You know. The one with a trombone red interior and a rear fatter than Tip O’Neill’s ass. When I realized I had left some Kodachrome in my Scion Xb. I opened the passenger door and looked all over. Opened the cavernous glovebox that holds all my Twizzlers. Under the seats. Even inside my all-aluminum 1959 Sears Craftsman toolbox that I have always used to repair all 17 houses that I own. Anyhow, it turns out that the missing roll was inside my Mighty Mac jacket. Did I ever tell you Ken Kesey once flipped me the bird?”

And there you have it. You need to buy a 1st generation Scion Xb. Either that or a 1992 Dodge Grand Caravan SE. Wait. I would never recommend something like that. Either Niedermeyer is still controlling my thoughts… or I’ve got this insatiable hunger for Twizzlers and Nikon cameras. Gotta go…

Sajeev Mehta Answers:

Dude, you’re screwed: move to a less oil-privileged country and buy damn near any hippie Van with a stick (and a Diesel!) you want.  Just kidding, America rules: go directly to the nearest Mazda dealer and order a Mazda5 with a stick.  Because there’s no way in hell you’ll ever find one sans slushbox in a dealer’s inventory.

Older Mazda5’s had a few worrying problems via Internet chatter, one that was previously discussed on Piston Slap. But it’s nothing compared to dealing with old VW vans. But I suspect the Mazda 5 is too bourgeois for you, so all you got left is another American Minivan.

While better than your VW vans, the Chevy Astro is a gigantic flaming deathtrap that I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in. And it’s FWD cousin was similarly shitty. But since you like simple and crude machines, I’d recommend a Ford Freestar (not Windstar) above all: safe, huge, reliable, dirt cheap and it comes with a pushrod, Windsor V8 derived, six banger motor so agricultural that farm tractors shiver at the mere sight of its blue oval topped grille. Put some full moon wheel covers for maximum fuel economy and enjoy life in America’s best option for your needs.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to [email protected], and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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34 Comments on “New Or Used?: Mad About A Modern Microbus...”


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Steve Lang: Excellent channeling; the etheric wires are working well today indeed! Who needs to write for TTAC when I can get others to do it for me?
    Yes, the gen1 xB is perfect for tall folks who hate cranial and pedial (sp?) constriction.  Of course it’s not as roomy as a Vanagon or Astro. But maybe you don’t really need that anymore, or you could get a little utility trailer (like me) if the need arises to haul 4×8 sheets. I have roof bars to carry the long pieces of lumber, trim, pipes, etc.
    And yes, the ’92 Caravan it replaced was madly convenient, but the xB is a million times more fun to drive: a sixties vintage sports car in a box (and dead reliable to boot). 32 mpg average too. And you can find sticks. Good luck!
    BTW, while Steve was channeling me, I was bringing home a gem of a Lawn Boy mower I found for $10 at BRING Recycling; a model 7268: super light alloy deck, needle bearing 2-stroke motor. Have been hankering for a LB since I used the neighbor’s back in the mid sixties. Summer time! Now I just need to find the time to mess with it.

    • 0 avatar

      I want a mower with an alloy deck. The stamped metal/plastic junk of my Scott’s mower (don’t ask) makes me extremely jealous.

      Then again, I should paint it Trombone Red. I love this series.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      Ahhh-yes. The Lawn Boy that provided the blue-haze camoflage for the operator thanks to the 16:1 fuel/oil ratio. Is it a tan one? I wish I still had mine.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Man, you guys keep acting like you can’t get a modern light-weight push mower. http://www.deere.com/en_US/govsales/purchaseguide/PDFs/140_141.pdf

    • 0 avatar
      whynotaztec

      My old Honda Harmony had the best deck, it was “Xenoy” I think (i.e., plastic) and it was great, never faded, chipped, rusted, the grass never stuck to it. Then I got a Toro, the paint came off under the deck right from the start, alwasy scraping grass off it.
      Hey wait, this isn’t the truthaboutlawnmowers?

      I’m with Ron, the intrusive consoles and cocoon like feeling in cars now is maddenning. Especially if you have another person with you and you have any stuff to bring along at all.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      Honda mowers have both the Xenoy and aluminum deck options (I have the latter). And I love how (relatively) quiet the Honda engines are.

    • 0 avatar
      Slow_Joe_Crow

      If you want a mower with an alloy deck try finding an old (late 60s/early 70s) Toro. The one my parents bought with their first house in 69 was going strong on the second house’s yard when they went condo in 87. Plus it was 4 stroke so no faffing with premix, and they were cheaper than lawn boys.

    • 0 avatar
      northview

      My Sears mower had a magnesium deck, but the rear quarter cracked and fell off.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    “But since you like simple and crude machines, I’d recommend a Ford Freestar (not Windstar) above all: safe, huge, reliable, dirt cheap and it comes with a pushrod, Windsor V8 derived, six banger motor so agricultural that farm tractors shiver at the mere sight of its blue oval topped grille.”

    As the son of a John Deere salesman and someone with extensive experience driving agricultural equipment, I demand you recind that insult to farm tractors. ;)

    I understand the recomendation of the Mazda5 and damn Ford for not offering a stick shift in the Transit Connect. The last year a Caravan/Voyager was available with a stick is 1995 according to what I can find online. Search for the most low milage example you can find.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    If you want a new machine, you’re looking at the Kia Rondo (no stick) or Nissan Cube (ditto). If you find the Element cramped, you’ll hate the Mazda5 even more; it suffers for leg room (and it sounds like your long of inseam; I’m 36″ and I can deal with the Element but not the 5).

    Another option, though it’ll cost you, is the short-wheelbase Sprinter. You might find an off-lease fleet example. Auto-only, but it’s got more guts and possibly more fuel efficient than the Transit Connect.

    Left-field choices: If you want older, how about the Toyota Previa or (god help you) the Van LE? You could get it with a stick (rare, but you can) it’s quite roomy up front. Pretty reliable, too.

    Avoid the Astro/Safari, E-Series and Savannah/Express. Unless you need what they can do, they are deeply unpleasant and not a little unsafe to drive.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      +1 for the Sprinter. This may become the new microbus once the older ones get cheap enough for the deadheads. Serious headroom, great greenhouse in front (and all around if you get rear windows), terrific visibility, and lots of room inside. Did I mention the quiet little Mercedes diesel for fuel economy? The short wheelbase version is fairly easy to handle, while the long wheelbase has tons of room.

    • 0 avatar
      eggsalad

      Cubes have sticks. I saw ONE on the lot last Sunday, amongst the 48 automatics.

  • avatar
    DougD

    The ideal Astro owner is someone without a left foot, since the wheel well intrusion leaves you no place to put it.

    For a cheap and volumous box I’ve had great luck with my 96 Windstar 3.0 the critical difference being that unlike the 3.8 it does not consume head gaskets and transmissions. It’s also bog slow, which adds to the microbus-like experience.

  • avatar

    I wish VW would have made the New Microbus concept. with a stick. Instead of rebadging that fricken xler van.

    Ron,

    You’re probably all leg and not so much torso. I’m only 5’10 1/2,but I hit my head on a lot of roofs because my torso is long.

    I might be able to help you with your bad knees. Email me offlist at [email protected] if interested. (I dealt effectively with my own years ago.)

    Lang, thanks for giving me my best laugh of the day, maybe the week, so far.

    And re Ken Kesey, I lived on the street where he first dropped acid a year before he lived there. Perry Lane, Menlo Park. He waxes eloquent on it in the Electric Cool aid acid test. Alas, it’s a stone’s throw from Sand Hill Road, AKA Venture Capitol Blvd, and I’m sure Perry Lane has lost all it’s charm. The little house I lived in the summer I turned 4 was torn down in ’02 for a mansion, according to Zillow.com.

    • 0 avatar
      carve

      That microbus concept was neat looking, but compromised for the sake of style. Since the driver sat behind the wheels, in order to get the right microbus look, they basically had to stick the windshield on the front of the hood, and rename the hood “dashboard”. The vented D-pillars, instead of cooling the engine, only made for a big blind spot.

      it definitely would’ve made the minivan cool though.

  • avatar
    areaman

    Vancouver is crawling with early-90’s JDM Mitsubishi Delicas (Delicai?).

    Example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:L300_Nearside.jpg

    They’re 4wd, jacked up high and look kinda tippy, but they’re turbo diesels and apparently all the seats become a bed. Don’t know what your import situation is like in the US, but if they’re legal there, one may just be worth considering for the uniqueness factor alone (especially if you’re willing to drive a Sprinter, jebus)…

  • avatar
    vvk

    Eurovan, Caravan, Mazda MPV and Mazda5 are the only stick mini/micro-vans available of recent vintage. Mazda5 seems good on paper but I just can’t get comfortable in one — the seats are by far the least comfortable I have ever tried.

  • avatar
    JGB12

    What about an older 4cyl Saturn Vue? Manual, FWD, good fuel economy..not a bad ride and loads of interior space. They can also be picked up in lots of places on the cheap.

  • avatar
    ttacfan

    Ford Freestar/Mercury Monterrey are much less hip but indeed very useful vehicles. 4.2L in my wife’s van is quite capable of pushing driver into the seat back when merging or passing on highway. Due to the huge wheelbase at highway speeds it feels like a large sedan rather than a tin box on wheels. With second row captain seats it can swallow two large kayaks with all gear and still fit 2 people in great comfort.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I still shudder when I recall driving a mid-1960s VW microbus from Chicago to Washington DC. It had the famous 32 hp air-cooled flat four, and a flat out level ground top speed of 62 mph. And that was an era when the speed limit on all interstates was 70 mph. That meant you were stuck in the right lane while semis going 20 mph faster than you blew by. And I do mean blew. The van had the aerodynamic properties of a small sail boat, and the semis would make it jump about 3 feet to the right. Death trap? There was absolutely nothing to absorb the blow if you hit it front first. And it was no trick to make it roll over and play dead.

    If you liked the microbus, the astro van is a much better vehicle.

  • avatar

    “I was busy taking pictures of a 1981 Chrysler Imperial in Eugene just the other day. You know. The one with a trombone red interior and a rear fatter than Tip O’Neill’s ass.”

    I saw one of these on Tuesday and I stopped for some photos.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4858081570/
    This particular car is a Frank Sinatra edition 1982 Imperial.

  • avatar
    Revver

    I remember pulling up to home centers to load up 4X8s in the back of my Volvo 740 wagon while Jeep Cherokee owners were left wondering that meant they must be simply going about it wrong. . .

    5spd, gobs of leg room. Think outside the box, get a brick.

  • avatar

    Go with the Transit Connect. I like manuals too, but it seems to check all of the other boxes you’ve listed aside from that one. Very roomy, nearly unlimited headroom, great on gas, small engine, etc.

  • avatar

    One consideration with the Transit Connect is that it is strictly a cargo van. The wagon model does have fold down rear jump seats and windows in the back doors, however, the rear seats are thinly padded and there are no side air bags or side impact protection beams in the back. This is not a vehicle you would want for use a family car.

    The next generation Ford C-Max passenger van will be sold in North America. I don’t know if it will have a manual transmission, but it is comparable to the Mazda 5 and will be a better choice for a daily driver than the Transit Connect.

  • avatar
    gsnfan

    Mazda 5 seems to fit almost all your criteria.

  • avatar
    gogogodzilla

    I’d say that the Ford Transit Connect is the way to go for your criteria.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    How about a Brazillian Kombi?

    Might cost a bit to import….I’ve never imported a car, but isn’t it exactly what you are looking for?

    http://www.volkswagen.com/br/pt/carros/kombi.html

  • avatar
    topgun

    Hyundai Elantra Touring anyone? Its spacious enough and an alternative to the Mazda5 and you can get one with a stick!

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    My 1993 Dodge Caravan 5-speed was my favorite car in 40 years of driving. Tons of room in a body svelte by today’s overweight standard. The long stroke, undersquare 2.5 liter has plenty of power, with the torque characteristics of a diesel. I averaged 29.5 mpg long term in frost-belt Minnesota. It had the best winter driving traction of any 2-wheel drive I’ve ever owned.

    I’ve also had a 2000 Plymouth Voyager with the 2.4 liter and 3-speed automatic. That one averaged 28 mpg, but I wish it had had a 5-speed manual. That would have been a huge improvement.

    For all around utility and low cost of ownership and operation, you can’t beat a Mopar minivan with the 3.3 liter. I’ve taken four of them past 260,000 miles, driving on frost-heaved roads in a severe climate and never had any problems (just the usual replacing of tires, shocks, struts and brakes). They averaged 23 mpg.

    In my youth, I had a 1966 VW microbus. It had no power, averaged 20 mpg, weaved all over the road in a cross wind and would jump two feet to the side when passed by a semi. The seats were killers to your back. Driving in a North Dakota winter was misery. Once my wife and I were stopped at a light in Fargo next to another microbus. All of us were bundled in parkas with the fur lined hoods up and both cars had plastic behind the front seats. We looked over at them and we all started laughing, meanwhile blipping our throttles to keep the engines from dying in the cold.

    Just give me a minivan. Used ones are cheap, go and go without needing repairs, and there’s nothing else that has as much utility. It’s the best idea Detroit ever had, and if the auto press doesn’t like them, that’s fine, because we cheapskates can then buy them for a song.

  • avatar
    A is A

    “I realize they were, oh, not so safe, what with using the driver and front passenger as a sort of buffer to protect the car”

    Please take a look at this and reconsider:

    http://www.google.es/#hl=es&source=hp&q=volvo+740+crash+vw+vanagon&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=&fp=9afcbcf3d37dfdf8

    Some vans were safer than the safer car on sale in the 1980s (he Volvo 700 series).

  • avatar
    V572625694

    After five years with a 2005 Scion xB I must agree it’s as perfect a transportation appliance as you could want. And it actually is fun to drive, in part because you can park it anywhere, see out in all directions, enter and exit comfortably, carry tall people in top hats in the back seat, and enjoy Toyota reliability.

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