1. home
  2. news
  3. Live Your Best Van Life in These Strange, Cool Vans

Live Your Best Van Life in These Strange, Cool Vans

Some of the coolest and most unusual wheeled boxes ever.

The van gets a bad rap as a dorky conveyance that's unattractive and bad to drive. They're practical, goes the conventional wisdom, but also less relevant than ever since they've largely been supplanted by the crossover. But the van genre has an astonishing diversity, from supercharged mid-engined vans to tractorlike all-terrain monsters. Some had neat features, some had horrendous flaws, but all are interesting and some are even cool. Of the oddball vans we've gathered here, maybe a few deserve to be reconsidered and at least one maybe deserves to be forgotten. But any of them should change your mind about the reputation of the van.

UAZ-452

This is a brand-new vehicle. Yes, things are a little different in Russia. Developed during the Soviet era, the UAZ-452 series was developed from a Cold War jeep-like military truck. It's got a Brutalist VW Bus sort of look to it, simple and almost agricultural. And as you can tell by its solid axles front and rear, suspended by leaf springs, it's extremely capable off-road. Its closest American analogue would be the Jeep FC van, which deserves its own entry (and it'll get one!).

But the FC is long, long gone, and the UAZ-452 is still rolling off the lines of the Ulianovsk factory fitted with a large 2.7-liter inline-four. Fun fact: the engine, despite being large for an inline-four, only makes 112 horsepower because it'll run on low-octane fuel found way out in the Eurasian equivalent of the boonies. You can't (legally) import or drive a new UAZ-452 in the States, or the ultra-cool SGR Combi Expedition model already outfitted for overlanding. But they've been building them since 1965, so chances are you could import a vintage one with a little effort.

Mazda MPV

The MPV often gets called out as a bit of a misfit in the van segment, but we think that's a bit unfair. Sure, the styling was homely and a big part of the reason it landed flat in the market. But it actually had a number of very cool features. For one, it was specifically designed from the get-go for the American market as an all-weather, multipurpose van. That means it was better suited to American freeways than the hastily adapted competition from Japan like the Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan vans (the latter of which was so troublesome they were all recalled to be crushed).

The MPV used a version of the late 1980s 929 platform, with its rear-drive layout and an optional smooth V-6 engine. It had a proper four-wheel-drive system that was only engaged when needed. Instead of heavy sliding doors, the MPV used a conventional swinging door on the passenger side. After a facelift in 1995, the driver's side also got a rear door. More to the point, its SUV/minivan hybrid styling and purpose were way ahead of its time.

Renault Espace

Just on the heels of the famous Chrysler minivans, the Renault Espace was just as important to Europe as those people-movers were to America. But while the Chryslers were cheap and functional, the Espace was absolutely wild when given a closer look. For one, the body was made of fiberglass on top of a galvanized steel chassis, a construction technique taken from the Matra sports-car line.

The interior had sliding, folding, and swiveling seats, giving a mind-bending array of configurations. Its space-age shuttlecraft look didn't immediately catch on, but after a few years the Europeans figured out the versatile MPV was a winner.

Nissan Stanza Wagon/Prairie

The Stanza Wagon's infamously dorky appearance hasn't endeared it to many over the years, nor did its mini-minivan form factor really catch on, but it shouldn't be overlooked. The Stanza Wagon (sold as the Prairie in other markets) had one party trick in particular that really set it apart: a lack of a B-pillar. Open the sliding doors and/or the front doors and you're greeted by massive access to the interior—at the expense of any semblance of structural integrity or side-impact safety. Don't expect performance, either. A mild 2.0-liter engine didn't quite wheeze out 100 horsepower, and a torsion-beam rear end meant handling (especially unloaded) was subpar for the time.

That said, the interior is fantastically 1980s, all angles and orange-faced gauges, and the design itself was heavily inspired by the acclaimed Lancia Megagamma by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign. Later, an all-wheel-drive version was available, giving it some added all-weather capability. Overall, it was an innovative, space-efficient, forward-looking vanlet full of wild features—a vehicle worth appreciating if not desiring.

Toyota Previa

The details sound more supercar than errand-running van. The engine is tilted over sideways and placed with the transmission in the middle of the wheelbase. It's supercharged, driving all four wheels. The body surrounding this crazy powertrain has a rakish, ovoid personality and hunkered down stance.

The Toyota Previa is truly one of the craziest minivans ever made, despite the fact that it wasn't much of a performer. Nor was it a great value or particularly space efficient. In reality, it might be more notable for its unusual engineering than its particular success in the marketplace. That said, there aren't many mid-engined, blown, all-wheel-drive vans around, period. That makes the Previa truly unique.

Nissan Vanette

Like all of the major Japanese automakers faced with the game-changing Chrysler minivan, Nissan made some quick-and-dirty alterations to an existing truck-based van and shipped it stateside until they could build something actually suited to American market needs. You know, the ability to haul a ton of stuff at 70 mph through the desert in 120-degree heat. With the A/C on. The Vanette, faced with that outrageous set of requirements, frequently caught fire.

Yup, that's why it's on this list: You'd be crazy to drive one. Blame a hasty retrofit of a larger engine for the American market, one that was actually too large for the engine compartment underneath the front seats. It frequently overheated, leaking oil onto the exhaust manifold—with those potentially fiery results. Several recalls didn't fix the problem, so Nissan took the incredible step of buying back all of the vans. All of them. Well, they tried to, at least. Most people took Nissan up on the offer to buy them for book value, and those examples were crushed. A few survived, not that we're recommending finding one.

Honda Life Step Van

LOOK AT HOW CUTE IT IS. Ugh, we can't stand it. Honda's unbelievably adorable microvan was based on the little Life hatchback, but with unique styling that in some ways predicted the minivan movement a decade or so later. Developed for the kei-car market back home, it had a microscopic inline-two driving the front wheels, and the entire van barely weighed anything.

A useful little cargo-hauler for tightly packed urban areas, the Life Step Van's cheerful style and sensible shape and layout seem prescient today. Look at the Honda E's friendly retro look, pulling cues out of this same era of Honda design.

Chevrolet Astro AWD

The Chevrolet Astro itself is not particularly strange, nor particularly cool—except for, perhaps, its normcore boxiness. Like a lot of things on this list, it was really a fast response to the surprise success of the Chrysler vans. And since no one had a unibody front-drive van platform in development already, automakers just used what they had laying around. For the Astro, it was expedited by dipping heavily into the S-10 parts bin. But by 1990, the Astro got a neat detail that set it apart: an available all-wheel-drive system, fairly advanced for its time, worked up by FF Developments (FFD).

FFD was a descendent of Harry Ferguson's outfit, maker of pioneering all-wheel-drive race cars (and road cars like the Jensen FF—for Ferguson Formula—an AWD touring car). FFD incidentally also built the transmission used in the McLaren F1. So that gives the FFD-designed AWD system that GM put into the Astro some fascinating pedigree. It also gave the Astro a bit of extra weight in return for the added traction. The full-time system used a viscous fluid coupling to shift power from a 35/65 default front-to-rear split to the axle that needed additional traction, making the Astro AWD a useful hauler in poor weather conditions.

Jeep M678 and SV Vans

These are really cool variants of the FC-Series forward-control pickups produced by Willys and later Kaiser as Jeeps, based on the CJ-series of traditional Jeeps. Brook Stevens did the design work, which is both charming and rugged (as was the phenomenal Mighty FC Concept built for the 2012 Jeep Easter Safari). But the van variants, despite their obvious utility as all-terrain people movers, never made it to market as civilian vehicles. That said, the military purchased some in both window van (M678) and windowless ambulance (M677) forms, which were eventually sold as surplus and sometimes appear on the used market. The Swedish government also built some locally for its military. It's possible some coachbuilders or upfitters converted some regular FC trucks into vans that resembled the M678 as well. That said, the powerplants could be unusual, with some featuring a bizarro Cerlist three-cylinder, two-stroke diesel. Swapping in a conventional period gas engine from an FC truck is highly recommended.

Even stranger were the license-built VIASA SV-series forward control trucks and vans built in Spain. They used a Jeep chassis but funky, angular bodywork built locally. Jeep vans—weird, rare, and definitely cool!