kind of like Little Miss Sunshine - all the people + camera equipment - bus + ecological sensitivity
February 17, 2008 7:29 AM   Subscribe

What's the modern, ecological equivalent of a Volkswagon Bus (oh yeah and make it cheap, please).

So I'm a photographer. 20 years ago I think I'd be the type of photographer who would have a VW bus and would take a couple of months a year to roam from town to town. I might have a darkroom in that ol' bus. It would be a pretty cool experience.

Problem is now, gas is $insane. VW campers cost $insane. And my guilt over just driving around aimlessly for my 'art' would make me no fun.

The good news is that with digital, no darkroom. Equipment packs well. Everything runs off a laptop. I can even take some basic video and audio equipment. Sweet.

So what's my solution? I need a place to sleep (motels are way to expensive). A place to cook. I need to carry some gear, which I could probably get most of into 1 big rubbermaid tub, and a camera bag. I need clothes enough to not look like a total hobo.

Oh yeah and I'm poor. I hate to say that "bicycle with BOB trailer on the back' seems to be what I'm pointing at, but are there any other solutions? I'm not so insanely crazy about biking and I'd like to travel at, say, 40-50 mph, without burning a hell of a lot of gas. Moped with trailer? Some crazy car thing I build myself?

I'm moderately handy.
posted by sully75 to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what you mean when you say that VW campers cost $insane. One of my neighbors' kids just bought one for $1500 in running condition. It needed some work (lots of rust repair for one thing), but it wasn't a total disaster. And gas is expensive, yes, but the old VW microbus was fairly thrifty in that regard.

I think the modern equivalent of a VW bus is going to be... a VW bus.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:44 AM on February 17, 2008

I'd suggest the cheapest Ford/GM Minivan you can find that has pull-out seats. You can sleep in the back, they're dirt cheap, and they can be repaired anywhere.

Personally, I'd go for a VW, the single biggest advantage of which is that you can sell it for exactly what you bought it for.
posted by unSane at 7:59 AM on February 17, 2008

Honestly? A used minivan. The VW Bus has the allure of hippy-ness, but it is more image than practicality. A good used minivan will be more environmentally friendly, having better emission controls, than a VW Bus. Also, a VW bus uses your knees as the first defense in a crash. Used minivans have the best cost to features ratio of just about anything. Take out the rear seats and you can store anything you want, and sleep in it.
posted by The Deej at 8:00 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone else re the foibles of the old bus. I owned several of them during the 70s and dearly loved a couple of them but they left a lot to be desired. The fuel economy sucked (15-18 mpg on the road), required lots of maintenance (oil change every 1500 miles and valve adjustments every 3000 miles) and as someone else said, they were horrible in a crash. The bus's primary attribute IMO was it's ability to go just about anywhere.

Although nowhere near as versatile as a Type !!, my 2008 Scion xB is nearly as fun to drive, has a killer stereo, airbags galore, 28mpg and lots of room.
posted by buggzzee23 at 8:21 AM on February 17, 2008

In high school, I drove a 1993 Dodge Caravan--hand-me-down from my folks.

That car, when I was done with it, was as hippy-dippy as you can imagine. I'm talking decorations, places to sleep, and a giant four-hose hooka between the captain's chairs.

And, having taken out the bench in the back, I got damn-near thirty miles per gallon.
posted by Netzapper at 8:26 AM on February 17, 2008

The Honda Element has a quirky shape (box) and comes in some offbeat colors (orange), if you really want the funky vibe. The interior is covered in a rubbery-type material so you could just hose it out to clean. The interior is also surprisingly roomy, so you could probably build your own mini camper-like features (table, fold-down cot?) or storage shelves. With some camping gear like a portable stove and a potty, you could live in it.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:38 AM on February 17, 2008

Dodge Caravan is a *great* car. Total "mommy-wagen" (read with german accent), so not very cool, but I love the way they drive. It's our car of choice for long distance where you have to haul people or stuff.
posted by nax at 8:41 AM on February 17, 2008

Used minivan or a pickup with a cap on the back. Both have enough space to set up a bed and keep all your stuff. Neither has the really nice form factor of the old VW bus, but then again the VWs had plenty of flaws as well. (I'm sure I'm not the only person here to have a childhood memory of having to scramble out of the bus as flames started coming out of the engine compartment.) Minivans will get better gas mileage and have many more safety features (with a few exceptions -- do look up some crash test videos on whatever you consider buying); pickups have better resale and can be bought with 4wd which is nice if you have aspirations of photographing off of the beaten path. Cheapest of all is probably a used tradesman's van, but those get miserable gas mileage and aren't much fun to drive.

Car travel in the stopped being adventurous in about 1956. Why not have more fun, see the world at a slower pace, and take that bicycle, or get a scooter? Here is an incredibly long thread about a Japanese guy going across the US on a Honda Ruckus; there are plenty of others out there if you do a little searching. On two wheels, pedal or motor, you will have to pack more carefully and probably do some camping, but you are more at the level of and speed of the landscape around you, not separated inside a box.

You need to get rid of the windshield and be wearing a Red Baron helmet, goggles, and scarf. Just be sure to bring toothpicks so you can pick the bugs out of your teeth.

Just note that on a lot of newer cars, the windshield (like the doors) is actually structural -- pull too much off and the car will start to handle like a rubber band.
posted by Forktine at 8:48 AM on February 17, 2008

I've been looking for the same thing, for pretty much the same reason (except I don't do digital...heathen) and I decided on the Volvo 240 Wagon. Roomy enough to sleep in, generally OK on gas mileage, and easy/cheap to work on should the need arise.
posted by piedmont at 8:50 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah around here the solution would be a decent Subaru outback wagon. Good mileage, rugged and can go places, big enough to store things. You'd have to have sort of a mess kit for cooking [small cooler and some sort of stove] but you can easily move your Tupperware tubs to the front seat and sleep in the back really comfortably. And you'll get high 20's for mileage, not crappy mid teens like you would with an old vanagon. If you're a handy builder you can make some sort of tent thing that attaches to the hatch which will turn it into a decent tent for campingish stuff. Not perfect for sleeping in rest stops, decent for people's driveways or campsites. Elements are also pretty decent if you can spring on something a little spendier.
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 AM on February 17, 2008

I'll hope that you care less about "quirky shape ... offbeat colors" and suggest a Scion or a Toyota matrix because they actually do get good gas mileage. Please don't get a minivan; everyone just seems to assume they're somehow OK, but please think for yourself (as you seem to be doing).

You could easily sleep in the back of a Matrix, I think - it's huge in there with everything folded down, and you can fold down the front passenger seat and it joins with the surface created by folding down the back seat and the trunk. Have something soft to sleep _on_ though - the surfaces are hard plastic by default (which is easier to clean, which you'll probably appreciate on your travels). It gets great gas mileage, too, for a non-hybrid.
posted by amtho at 9:02 AM on February 17, 2008

Matrixes (Matrices?) can get ~30 MPG. Barring a hybrid or a really tiny car, I think that's the best you're going to do. You might want to look in the Consumer Reports car guides (at any bookstore or library) to see how different models compare.

The Matrix is a Toyota, and I believe it's supposed to be fairly dependable. I almost bought one myself, but had trouble finding "the right one" with a manual transmission. I also wanted a white (or at least very light-colored) car, to cut down on the extreme heat that darker cars can build up from the sun.
posted by amtho at 9:07 AM on February 17, 2008

I don't really see the appeal of a Matrix for this kind of thing. It's roomy for a hatchback but it's got nothing on a minivan.
posted by smackfu at 9:54 AM on February 17, 2008

Any or new or used station wagon style car or mini-van will do. Alternatively a motorcycle with saddlebags may also work. Gas mileage will vary of course, but should be acceptable in just about any modern non-domestic car.

That said, the fact that you don't provide specific questions and statements about your budget (other than "I'm poor") causes me to wonder if this whole project isn't just wishful thinking or a big daydream on your part.

Do you have a budget to work with? How much can you spend on a car? How much have you designated for fuel and supplies? What about car insurance and AAA?

No matter how you slice what you're proposing will cost money - perhaps many thousands of dollars. It's not the type of undertaking one usually associates with someone who self identifies as poor. Maybe you should work for a while and save money?

That you degenerate into asking if a moped with a trailer or something you build yourself would be suitable is probably evidence that you need to think through this more. AskMe isn't suited as a sounding board for fantasies - it works best when you have specific questions such as, "I have $8,000 in savings, what car should I buy for this trip?"
posted by wfrgms at 10:07 AM on February 17, 2008

I love my 71 VW camper. My mechanic loves it too--I am putting his kids through college.

How about a compact pickup truck with a canopy? You could probably find one that was mechanically solid but a bit tattered in appearance for a pittance. Even in small towns you will find plenty of mechanics and spare parts. Thrifty on gas. And when you are done with your travels you can trade it to me for my bus.
posted by LarryC at 10:13 AM on February 17, 2008

I've done extended trips in a Subaru and a minivan (Mazda 4WD) and I vote for the minivan. You can technically live out of a station wagon but it will suck in comparison to a van or truck with camper. You have to be <6>
A minivan or a truck allows you to have permanent sleeping/storage areas so you don't spend 90% of your time re-organixing your gear. It also is more secure for leaving gear unattended as you can put it out of sight. You can rig extra betteries for lights much easier and you can sit or stand upright (huge deal on the 5th day of rain in a row) and the gas mileage will be the same or better.
posted by fshgrl at 10:18 AM on February 17, 2008

You have to be <6>

That should have read- you have to be less than 6 feet tall to sleep in a Subaru and most models require you to slide the front seats all the way forward to fold the back seats flat. You can't fit another person in there if needs be without putting all your gear outside and you can't sit or stand up. Plus the gas mileage is not good expect about 25mpg fully loaded, less at altitude.
posted by fshgrl at 10:20 AM on February 17, 2008

And if you get a diesel van you can run it on biodiesel or veggie oil. A friend of mine just drove x-country in one.
posted by fshgrl at 10:21 AM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you are wanting to meet people with your ride you might want to consider a teardrop trailer. You can pull them with anything (even motorcycles). You can build them yourself. A minimalist is doable for less than $2K easy. You can sleep at practically every WalMart.
posted by Mitheral at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2008

A first generation Toyota Previa.
posted by nitsuj at 12:01 PM on February 17, 2008

Used (Toyota 4-cylinder) pickup with camper shell, van (I prefer the old Econolines), or (really desperate) Subaru wagon. As fshgrl said, the best is the van by far, 2nd by pickup w/ camper shell, wagons are a real bitch to sleep in. The only reason to buy a VW is the nostalgia, there are much better cars for camping out there.
posted by sophist at 12:16 PM on February 17, 2008

If you want something that has the drive feel of a micro bus you want this Toyota Van not the previa. The front seat is over and in front of the front wheels. It also has the same rugged build as the micro cause it essentially a van on a truck frame. They are available in four wheel drive with manually locking hubs too. Just watch out for rotten cooling lines.
posted by flummox at 12:25 PM on February 17, 2008

Safari Condo is pretty much the modern day equivalent of a VW Van, but on GMC Savana. Even has the pop top!
posted by furtive at 12:37 PM on February 17, 2008

I have an Element and I'm a photographer and I love VW buses too. You can't hose out the interior of the Element and it handles like a bus in a sidewind (it's a big box). It has a funky moon roof (or whatever) over the rear passenger seats that is cool when you've folded the seats down to sleep (I've been camping in mine). It has lots of room and is quite comfortable for other activities too. The seats fold up/remove entirely (depending on your needs). Overall, it can have lots and lots of open room.

I got a big plastic storage box for my gear and put it behind the passenger seats but there are other places.

I have done a few photography road trips with mine. I don't worry too much about going off-road (it has high clearance that the Scion does not). It's no Jeep but it's not too bad. Mine is a 2004 w/ 55k miles on it and all I've done is change the oil and brake pads.

On the downside, gas mileage in the city is not so awesome. Like 21/22mpg.

Check out the Element forum. Someone over there made a camping frame for his (space underneath for rubbermaid containers) that supports an air mattress. Looked pretty awesome.

Plus, according to other Vespa/Element owners, one can fit a Vespa entirely inside it. I haven't tried it... I'm planning on getting a rack that attaches to a trailer hitch.

BTW, I have the absolute base model automatic: no AC, no stereo. It was easy to put in a stereo and I've never missed AC (except when living in Texas).
posted by jdfan at 2:20 PM on February 17, 2008

As someone who lived in a Dodge Caravan for a summer, I can say they are perfectly functional vw bus replacements (also during that summer, i got to meet up with some friends who were living in a 70s vw bus, which i got to help them push start on a few occasions).

After the van died, I put my money into a Matrix XR. I specifically checked to see if I could lay down in the back (I'm 6', 230lbs, broad shouldered) and it was more than adequate. I loved the carrying ability of the thing, and easily got over 30mpg in it. The model I had even came with a built in invertor. I drove it cross country with a trailer, from CT to Seattle in about 5 days. I also hit a piece of road debris at 70mph that flattened both left tires and cracked a rim, and the car handled well enough that I was able to get over to the side of the road in heavy traffic without feeling like I was going to loose control.

I actually sold it in Seattle so I could switch to biodiesel jetta (like a good yippy) and because the road noise driving on I5 sucked (which I did every day, for work. I actually paid for my jetta in two years from mileage reimbursements), because the matrix has little if any sound dampening material.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:57 PM on February 17, 2008

I would recommend getting a used Plain White Cargo Van that's been maintained as part of a fleet, taking it to home depot (or hire a carpenter), and set it up with a bed/cupboard/storage system. Not that eco, but halfway decent mileage, very cheap, and tons of room.
posted by sonicbloom at 10:55 PM on February 17, 2008

I'd go with the truck+camper option (this or even this) on a Toyota two wheel drive pickup (good gas mileage), preferably a diesel one, and then do the conversion so it can run off used vegetable oil thing, then bum your gas from McDonalds fry cooks.
not really sure this will work, but it's the idea I'd start with
posted by salvia at 2:51 PM on February 18, 2008

Motorcycle & a tent.

A guy I work for occasionally roadtrips all over the country on his bike. I think I've heard him say he's gotten upward of 60mpg on occasion....
posted by FlyingMonkey at 3:50 PM on February 28, 2008

« Older What are these books I read as a kid?   |   Where can I find no-nonsense, scientific analysis... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.