Camper Conversion Donor Vehicle

Which is the best VW T5 or T6 for your campervan?

The VW T5 and T6s come in all shapes and sizes: with long and short wheelbases, as delivery vehicles, limos, eco-mobiles and terrain-tearing machines. Bag the right base van and your conversion shouldn’t present too many problems. Get it wrong and you could be shelling out for equipment that’s only going to be stripped out, using up time and budget and landing yourself a camper that doesn’t suit your lifestyle.

Steering you around that pothole, we’ve compiled a list of all the questions to ask yourself before buying your VW Transporter.

Which version T5, T5.1 or T6

T5 2003 to 2010

The first version of the T5 was a major shift from the T4 with a more refined interior built with the Caravel in mind this was to be more car than van in terms of a drivers experience. With a shortend nose, more squat features, refined suspension and a console gear shift, the T5 has taken the Transporter from campervan to an everyday car and camper. Pull up at any beach carpark and the number of T5’s facing the ocean is a testament to the success of this great van.

T5.1 2010 to 2015

New 2.0 Euro 5 engine, Updated bonnet, grill, lights and wing mirrors, slight facelift to centre console on dash, new aircon controls.

T6 2016 to mid 2019

New 2.0 Euro 6 engine (2017 onward) petrol version available 2017 to 2019, facelift bonnet, lights, bumper and updated tailgate. New dash and door cards with greater storage in cabin.

T6.1 due out mid 2019

Facelift lights, grill and front wings, new dash.

Wheelbase: long or short?

While the wheelbase (n. the measurement from the centre point of the front axle to the centre point of the rear axle) only differs by 40 cm between long and short wheelbase T5/6s, your choice can make a world of difference to carrying capacity and day-to-day drivability:

SWB

Pros

  • Easier to drive and park
  • Well suited to everyday driving
  • Cheaper on the ferry across the channel
  • More widely sold

Cons

  • Slightly less storage
  • 8’ floor length inside, so long boards are off the cards
  • Pricier than LWB

LWB

Pros

  • An extra 40cm for sports gear
  • A long board or kayak will fit under the Cambee R & R bed Link
  • Option of longer bed (up to 7’9”) in place of standard 6’3” in SWB
  • Slightly cheaper pre-owned than SWB

Cons

  • Harder to drive and park (tough to squeeze in a high street space)
  • More expensive on the ferry
  • Heavier, so a lower carrying capacity

Unless you need the extra storage space, the consensus favours the SWB for its far greater manoeuvrability.

Rear doors: Barn doors or Tailgate?

Though most automatically side with the tailgate, there are a few things to consider before you shut the door on this question.

Tailgate

There’s no denying tailgate has earned its place in the people’s hearts, or that it will earn a top price for a converted T5 or T6. It provides rain cover and shade when up, affords better rear visibility (no central pillar blocking the view) and is easier on the eye than barn doors. But those perks come at a price. A tailgate is difficult to open in a tight space, and when parked nose-in you’ll need to be mindful of passers-by

It can carry 4 bikes but it will take 2 to hold the door up when this is loaded. Disfavoured by fleet managers, there finally far fewer vans with tailgates, making them a whole lot pricier second-hand and the pool of vans to choose from a whole lot smaller.

Pros

  • More attractive
  • Provides sun/rain cover
  • Adds to your camper value
  • Can carry 4 bikes without a tow bar

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Difficult to access in a tight space
  • Bikes can make it impossible to open
  • Limited availability

Barn Doors

As a rule, most VW Transporters come with barn doors due to the fact that trade buyers (and therefore most of the vehicles in the pre-owned market) need the option of loading with a forklift (where a raised tailgate obstructs a forklift mast). Though we’re swimming against the tide here, we like them because they’re easier to access (especially in a tight spot).

They make it much easier to load a roof rack and can be opened by one person with a loaded two-bike rack mounted on the nearside (driver-side) door.
Finally, the much bigger reserve of pre-owned barn door vans will increase your options for a good donor at the right price.

Pros

  • Readily available
  • Easily opened
  • Bikes don’t keep the boot from opening

Cons

  • Less attractive
  • Need towbar for more than 2 bikes
  • Less desirable for resale

If you still only have eyes for the tailgate, there’s always the option of retrofitting one. Unless you’re planning on undertaking the work yourself, however, it will likely cost you more than finding a vehicle with a tailgate already in place.

Lisa's tip “get a barn door awning for a sheltered spot to enjoy the view”

Twin sliding doors: are two better than one?

A handful of T6 and T5s come a sliding door on both sides, an adjustment which can completely shake up the dynamic of your interior. Most find double doors a matter of preference, but there are several pros and cons to factor into your decision:

Twin sliding doors

Pros

  • Safe passenger exit from two sides
  • Interior feels bigger
  • Space for awnings either side
  • More kitchen arrangement options
  • More fun

Cons

  • Rules out a 60L 3 Way fridge
  • Usually more expensive
  • Fewer vans to choose from
  • Expect an additional cabinet fitting cost

Roof height: how low should you go?

The factory produces 3 different roof heights for the T5/6 shell:

Low roof:
The standard height and the most common in a conversion. If you’re planning on having an elevating roof, you must choose this type as full length elevating roofs cannot be fitted to high top or mid-height roofs. The low roof model comes in at under 2m, so will fit into the majority of multi-storey and supermarket car parks with barriers.
Mid-roof:
The least common roof type and unlikely to do you many favours as a donor vehicle unless, that is, you’re short enough to stand up in one (under 5’3”). It’s also more expensive to line due to the nature of the internal framing, though can be good value as it’s less desirable.
High-roof:
Increased headroom, without the expense of an elevating roof.
If you’ve set your sights on a high-roof, then it’s worth considering buying one straight from the VW factory. Though this is restrictive (only available as a LWB with barn doors), it’s generally less expensive than buying a SWB and having a high top fitted. It will also provide taller back doors, giving better access to and ventilation in the high top. Though, it’s worth bearing in mind that a factory fitted roof curves inward more than the retrofit type towards the top, so roof bed space is limited.

Body Colour: Style vs Selection

Transporters are available in a spectrum of stock VW colours but for the Startline Candy White, India Blue and Silver are the most common. Highlines tend to be metallic, commonly greys and blues.

Why we like white:

  • There’s a wider choice of vehicles
  • It’s the best colour for reflecting heat
  • You haven’t the need to colour match an elevating or hightop roof
  • The bottom half of a white van can be sprayed in a classic colour for a retro paint job (plus most of the minor knocks and scuffs will be on the bottom half of an older van)
  • You can up the fun factor with flowers or stripes without having to spray

At the end of the day, if you aren’t one to quibble over colour, you’ll have a much wider pool of vehicles to choose from. But other colours (particularly metallic finishes) are more widely sought-after and therefore will hold their value, making them easier to sell in the future. Excluding silver, however, you should expect to pay 10-20% more for a metallic finish van.

Engine: Euro 4 1.9, 2.5 – Euro5 2.0 - Euro6 2.0?

Designed by the motoring magicians at VW, any of the T5 and T6’s tdi engines will go the distance and are expected to travel 300k plus with regular servicing. But when an engine can have a big impact on your driving experience and make a sizeable difference in running cost, it’s worth getting your head around the different types. Many choose to start their search with a decision on engine type.

Current Models

  • The T6 2016 to present
  • 2.0 TDi Diesel Engines
    102ps - 150ps - 204ps
  • 2.0 TSI Petrol Engines
    150ps – 204ps (ceased production April 2019)

New prices are typically from around £24,000 for a van configured for a camper. This will include single seats with spinners and tailgate with wash wipe, so will save up to £1500 on the conversion cost against a second-hand van which will likely need these things adding.

Buying pre-owned

102 T28 Startline

The most basic model on the mass market and therefore the cheapest, though there are few second-hand with upgrades like air-con and satnav, they are a fleet manages favourite so there are lots to choose a good one from. Lower power also means less wear on the gearbox, drive train and breaks so are often in better condition. The 102 bhp engine is essentially the same as the higher output models and can be remapped up to 140bhp for around £350. This will increase bhp and torque but will only affect the fuel economy if driven hard. It is not advisable to remap whilst in VW warranty as it may become invalid. Aircon can also be added at a later date for around £2000 by companies like Alpine air.

Expect to pay: £12,000 - £14,000 for a good 3-year-old mid - mileage trade sale.

102 T28 Highline

The Highline adds lots of favoured extras including, aircon, steering controls for the stereo and phone, reversion sensors, heated windscreen, colour coded bumpers and alloy wheels. They are popular with fleet rental companies who tend to sell them on after a year with 10 to 12k mileage.

Expect to pay: £18,000 - £20,000 for a 1 year old with 10k miles trade sale.

150ps T30 Highline Kombi Tailgate

The kombi is more expensive way of starting with a conversion but often has the 150ps engine which ads the advantage of a 6th gear. Usefull if you will be doing lots of motorway driving and continental touring as it will make the camper quieter. The kombi also come with tailgate with wash wipe, side windows and single front seats. The kombi rear seats will typically also be sold for around £600, so all in saving around £2000 on the conversion cost against a panel van. On the down side a Kombi will still cost around £2000 more than converting a panel van and the factory side sliding windows tend the break and leak after a few years so expect to pay £6-800 to replace them at some point.

Expect to pay: £22,000 - £26,000 for a 2-year-old with 25k miles trade sale.

Notes: Early 2016 T6’s has the T5 Euro 5 engine which might cost more to tax than a 2017 Euro 6 van

Older T5 models

84 -180bhp 2.0tdi

Introduced in 2010 with the T5.1, VW’s latest off the line, the 2.0 offers strong acceleration, relaxed cruising, and generally better performance than its forebears, and its Euro 5 emissions rating will future-proof you for city centre travel (the diesel T4 is already banned in London).

This is the facelift model and will therefore also have a higher resale value; a windfall later if you only intend to keep your camper for a few years. But, being built from 2010 onwards, these aren’t so widely available through private sellers, so you’re likely to have to fork out a dealer’s rate for one.

Expect to pay: dealers’ rates, £10,000‐18,000.

Early T5 2003 – 2010

85bhp 1.9tdi T28/30

Although Euro4 the 1.9Tdi engine is probably one of the toughest and most reliable diesel engines ever made, you will find it in any number of VW’s Skoda’s and Audis still sounding and driving like new after 300000 miles. Our in-house mechanic Monk has seen 600k !!. The T5 1.9tdi has a loyal following for its durability and low fuel consumption (up to 50 mpg for those with a light right foot). On the down side you will may have to pay additional charges when going into city centres I not now ten in the near future, so we would only recommend these older vans for a basic conversion or DIY project.

Expect to pay: £6,000 - £8,000 for a good mid -mileage private sale. If you ‘re quick off the mark and don’t mind a few scuffs, £5,000 for a good van isn’t unheard of (but it will likely be heading over 150k miles).

102-4bhp 1.9tdi T28/30/32

Not a deliberate cost-cutter like the 85bhp, these are more likely to have been built with extras like air-con, electric windows and mirrors.

Expect to pay: £7,000–12,000 for a good, low mileage private sale.

130-174 bhp 2.5tdi T28/30

A 5‐cylinder engine, which is quieter, smoother and quicker revving than a 4-cylinder 1.9tdi but quite a bit thirstier (giving 30-35 mpg). Costs of repairs are typically more expensive for the 2.5, but most appreciate its 6-speed gearbox over the 1.9’s 5. Well-loved extras, like air-con, are again more commonly found on the 2.5.

Expect to pay: £9,000-14,000 for a good low mileage private sale.

A private sale might save 20% on these prices as there wouldn’t be vat to pay. But make sure a private seller is happy to wait for an inspection which might take up to a week to arrange before putting a deposit down.

Dealer may be more expensive but they’ll usually allow you to place a deposit on a vehicle long enough to carry out an independent inspection. They’ll also usually repair anything that the inspection pics up and offer a warranty on your vehicle (but bear in mind that to take advantage of this the dealer must be nearby).

We recommend a maximum of £200 deposit which is plenty for most traders. Never put a deposit down over the phone without being sure the trader or private seller is genuine. If you can’t get to see the van in person, ask for a facetime video of the van if you are unsure. If in doubt always walk away.

Glossary:

tdi: turbocharged direct injection engine, the efficient, low-emission diesel engine developed by VW. Figures in front (1.9, 2.0, 2.5) refer to size in litres.

Bhp / PS: brake horsepower, an engine's total horsepower before the loss in power from alternator, gearbox, water pump and other components.

T28/30/32: Refers to the maximum gross vehicle weight, or “payload”, in tonnes (28 = 2800 kg or 2.8 tonnes). 2800kg, 3000kg or 32000kg, minus the 1800kg of the SWB chassis leaves a capacity of 1000, 1200 or 1400kg less the conversion weight.

Mpg: miles per gallon, the number of miles a full tank will take you. Obviously the higher, the better for your pocket and the environment.

Once you have chosen the “type” next you want to find one in great condition - read our guide

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