Finding the Perfect Mini Van for a Camper Conversion

Internet meet Moose, the newest member of our family. Moose meet the internet. I think you guys will get along great. Maybe even become BFFs.

When we adopted Moose (a 2007 All Wheel Drive, Toyota Sienna) she was just a shy, ordinary little mini van. Only in a few short months tho she came out of her shell and got transformed into a bad-ass adventure mobile. Pumpkin to backcountry princess if you will. In the coming posts we’ll show you the process of this incredible mini van makeover, so make sure to check back often. Better yet, subscribe to the blog at the bottom of this page so you never miss a post.

moose-the-adventure-mobile-whistler

In our last post we talked about how and why we decided on a mini van vs. the arguably cooler and definitely more expensive Sprinter van or VW mini bus options.  Now, let us tell you why we felt that the Toyota Sienna would be the best candidate for a camper conversion. The story of a perfect match made in mini van heaven.

Some of the other models we initially considered were the Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona, Chrysler Town and Country and the Honda Odyssey. After doing the research and looking at a few Kias, Dodges and Chryslers we narrowed our search down to the Honda and the Toyota models. Truthfully, any of the other options could have probably worked fine, but the Odyssey and Sienna clearly rose to the top. They simply seemed to be more reliable and better put together overall.

 For starters, we had some basic but pretty specific criteria for our future mini van. Our perfect vehicle had to be: 

  • Pre owned, for the obvious budgetary reasons

  • Around 100,000 miles or less

  • 2005 or newer model year

  • Preferable AWD for snow and mountain driving

  • Under $10,000 including all taxes and titles

To tell you the truth, we had to look long and hard to find a 10+ year old mini van that wasn’t completely gutted after years of toddler abuse. I’m going to geek out a little as we dive into the details so bear with me.

There are many articles that compare the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. They are the leading players of the mini van segment and they usually come out neck to neck.This should not come as a surprise as the two vehicles are near identical. The Odyssey tends to claim “Best Mini Van” title on the newer model years (>2014) while the Sienna has a slight edge for the ones made between 2005 and 2010. Odysseys are said to offer a better ride quality, a slightly more stylish exterior and a more polished interior. After test driving a few each models, I have to agree. However, ride quality and style points did not matter to us as much as the AWD option (Toyota is the only manufacturer that offers it), and overall better reliability of the Siennas.

image courtesy of GT Motors

image courtesy of GT Motors

image courtesy of autoblog

image courtesy of autoblog

image courtesy of cars.usnews

image courtesy of cars.usnews

image courtesy of cars.com

image courtesy of cars.com

The two cars are also extremely similar in the way they are equipped. Both come with a 3.5L V6 engine with the Sienna producing slightly more horsepowers (266 vs. the Odyssey’s 248). That of course comes with a touch better fuel economy for the Odyssey (19/28 m/g vs. the Sienna’s 18/25).

The two main reasons for us finally landing on the Sienna was the reliability of Toyotas and the availability of the AWD. Besides Sienna having fewer issues reported compared to the Odyssey, it’s also worth mentioning that the Toyota features a timing chain vs. timing belt starting with model year 2007. A pretty big consideration for a vehicle with about 100,000 miles on it. Also, with us regularly driving in the mountains of Colorado and with our plans of hitting the ski resorts of the west/pacific northwest AWD was huge selling point. We were ready to sacrifice some comfort for the extra piece of mind while out in the backcountry for days/weeks at a time.

All that said, I think either of these models can be a great option for a cool, camper conversion while keeping in mind the potential issues of either vehicle within specific model years. Such as the “sludge” issue for the Sienna or the shotty transmission of the Odyssey. Both issues seem to be affecting model years prior to 2004, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind while looking at these vans.

So while making up our mind between the 2 models took a while, actually finding an AWD Sienna that fit into our specifications was no easy feat either. Particularly in Colorado, where snow and ice are part of every winter, pre-owned AWD Siennas get snatched up pretty much as soon as they are posted online. With the extremely high demand, comes the slightly higher price compared to Odysseys with similar age/milage.

However, after about 3 weeks of mind-numbing research and time consuming test drives, the stars finally aligned: we found a promising AWD 2007 Toyota Sienna with just over 100,000 miles on it that miraculously wasn’t yet sold. So I speed to the dealership, took it for a test drive and a couple different mechanics to make sure there were no major issues going on. Once all that checked out and after a couple hours of haggling with a used car salesman (he LOVED me) we took Moose home and after about 7 months of ownership we could not be happier.

mini-van-camper-tahoe

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