14 April 2021
14 April 2021, Comments Comments Off on Compact vans with pop-up roofs
Compact vans with pop-up roofs

The rebirth of the compact campervan

New scenarios are appearing on the horizon in Europe at a time when people are thinking about the post-Covid phase: the campervan segment, which is experiencing unprecedented interest, could see the growth of more compact models with a pop-up roof

Words Renato Antonini

A new champion is appearing on the European RV market: the compact campervan, with a height of around two metres and a pop-up roof. After the great increase in demand for motorhomes with high roofs, especially on a Fiat Ducato base, is it possible to envisage a growth in motorhomes with pop-up roofs?
The answer is, yes, judging by the commitment of manufacturers in this particular type of RV, which has always existed and used to have much greater market share than those of high-roof campervans, but has never made a decisive leap forward.
This is because very few manufacturers have believed in industrialization and large-scale production. The reason is clear: in Europe, there has been a progressive decrease of the caravan and the growth of the motorhome, and manufacturers preferred to invest in the creation of comfortable and spacious vehicles, rather than focusing on the old myth of the “living car”.
Light commercial vehicles are used as bases, such as: the Volkswagen Transporter, Ford Custom, Citroën Spacetourer, Mercedes V-class/Vito and the Renault Trafic, just to name the most common.
There are two basic layouts of these vehicles: those without a washroom, which are by far the most popular, and the versions equipped with a minimal toilet compartment area in the rear. Generally, this also determines a difference in length: in the first case, they are around five meters, and in the second they are slightly longer at around 540 cm.
As for the ‘living room’, most often this consists of a sofa (which converts into a bed) plus the swivel seats in the cab. The kitchen is another variable of the small interior: it can be placed on the side wall or be a smaller block (normally removable on the outside) placed next to the side door, but there are also compact campervans that do not have a kitchen or have of a minimal kitchen unit placed in the rear load compartment.

Growing market?
After the strong growth of the classic high-roof campervan (with or without a pop-up roof), it seems that the market for compact campervans with a low and pop-up roof is developing.
“We expect further growth in the compact camper van segment,” says Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp), and he’s not alone in thinking so. “For many years” says Felix Holona (Reimo) “there has already been a market for campervans with pop-up roofs in Germany and in the UK, which has extended to more countries during the last years.”
Until recently, in Europe, there were very few big manufacturers interested in the industrial production of compact campervans, but now new players are entering the scene, but this does not mean that smaller, artisan companies have withdrawn from the market.

“We see many bigger manufacturers now looking at this sector,” says David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure). “For example, many new models have been launched using the Ford Transit Custom as a base and this is a clear indicator for the way the market is growing. In the UK, there are many established campervan converters who can offer a much more personal service to the customer which the big manufacturers won’t be able to offer, and it will be interesting to see which customers prefer. Even before Covid, we had seen a big rise in campervan demand and sales. We build all vehicles to order for the customer, and normally have four to five months of bookings, but at the moment we have 10 months, and that’s with an increase in production.”
Unfortunately, it is difficult to get precise market data for the last few years to highlight the trend over time, but there has certainly been an evolution, as Felix Holona of Reimo (a company that supplies components to many compact campervan manufacturers) confirms: “There is very limited data on these roofs as the roof is not a criteria shown in official statistics, and also because many of the smaller campervans are registered as a passenger car and are not included in the traditional statistics of RV registrations. However, the number of producers, the number of roofs produced and the registration numbers of campervans build on the Volkswagen chassis indicate that the numbers have multiplied in Europe. According to CIVD data, in 2008, there were 653 motorhomes based on a Volkswagen chassis registered in Germany, and in 2020, it was 6,815 motorhomes on a Volkswagen chassis.”

Why are companies interested in compact campervans with a lifting roof? If the big groups have entered the market with large investments, it means that there must be trends that underlie this renewed interest.
“The steadily increasing urbanization intensifies the longing for adventures and experiences in nature. This is where compact campervans show their advantages: suitable for everyday use, usable in narrow cities and parking garages, but always ready for the next spontaneous excursion into nature. The megatrends of individualism and connectivity are further drivers for the segment,” said Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp).
Felix Holona (Reimo) says: “The Vanlife feeling of customers, more active lifestyles, the interest in using the family van for camping instead of having a 2nd or 3rd vehicle, and having a classic RV in the family has lead to the increased numbers of campervans with pop-up roofs.”

Surely the growth of this segment depends on various changes taking place in society? David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure) said: “People’s lifestyles change. Modern life means changes in how people have ‘downtime’, with shorter weekend breaks rather than the traditional two week holiday. Also, base vehicles have become more car-like, so they can replace their normal car with a campervan and it has all the same features and no longer feels like a van to drive. Also the demographics have started to change, especially in the UK, with an increase in younger people now taking up camping; and the least reason is with covid, people will want to maybe stay in their own country more and holiday at home.”
The issue of the environment and related regulations are also of great importance: “In view of increasingly stringent environmental regulations, CO2 standards and WLTP regulations,” says Robert Hein (Pössl), “both the car industry and campervan builders are urged to build ever more emission-friendly models. In combination with the higher taxation of larger motorhomes and camper vans in many European countries, and the associated everyday suitability and family-friendliness of the compact camping buses, this class is definitely on the advance!”

Compact campervans vs traditional campervans?
Will the growth of compact campervans take the market away from traditional vans? Or is an expansion of the market possible as well as desirable? It is difficult to make particular forecasts, but the people we spoke to in the industry are optimistic: “I believe that all campervan segments will see a further growth,” says Mike Reuer (Westfalia); “but the growth rate of the compact campervans will be stronger.”
For a certain range of customers, the compact campervan can be the entry into the RV world, as has happened in the past: “Compact campervans were never a real threat to the traditional RV,” says Felix Holona (Reimo), “but they are often used by couples or families with smaller children. When the children grow up, the family needs more space and often changes to a larger RV. We see, and believe, that the compact campervans help to bring new customers into the industry who do not feel attracted by large RVs in the beginning.”
But, for many operators in the sector, the compact campervan is a “transitional” vehicle, to which the biggest variety of users turn: “I think we get new customers from all sides,” says David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure); “new, younger customers who have never had a leisure vehicle, but we also already get customers coming from bigger motorhomes and caravan owners who want to downsize to just one vehicle.”

Who buys a compact campervan?
“The target group is quite diverse,” said Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp); “from the young family to singles and couples, camping beginners and campers who want to benefit from the everyday use of their vehicle.”
Mike Reuer (Westfalia) says: “We see many younger families in the mid-30´s up to older couples who just want to have one car and this must suit also their recreational purposes.”
Felix Holona (Reimo) is of this opinion: “Couples, families with smaller children and often more active people who emphasize travelling and mobility over ‘stationary camping’ on the campground.”

Couples and young families, with one or two small children, certainly constitute a good slice of users, but there are also particular users, who also use the campervan for work, as Klaus Rehkugler (Mercedes-Benz Vans) explains: “Some customers, such as architects or photographers, even use our campervan Marco Polo as a mobile office.”
It is also interesting to understand the relationship between users and types of holiday, thinking that maybe something will change in the future. David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure) is convinced that the type of users will change in consideration of the fact that, “people will have more shorter holidays travelling less distances, so the type of customers will change; we have more younger customers that are still working, whereas 10 years ago many of the customers were retired.”
Robert Hein’s (Pössl) conclusion is also interesting: “These compact camper vans are for everyone of all types and age groups who love individual freedom. Recreational sport is on the rise, more and more e-bikers, stand-up paddle boarders and hikers are using this class of vehicle. Likewise, families who prefer a van, but also business people, for whom their car does not provide the necessary added value. And we at the Pössl Group have not even started with the subject of leas-ing. This potential is still ahead of us.”

Habitable car
But can the compact campervan with a pop-up roof really be an alternative to a car?
“It is definitely an alternative, if not better than the car,” says Robert Hein (Pössl), “as it combines everyday life, weekend, leisure and vacation in one vehicle. And that with mostly lower maintenance costs. One could go further here and even talk about rationalizing the budget by buying a campervan or camping bus.”
The cost problem remains, but part of the costs are absorbed by the double use of the vehicle.
“Thanks to their compact external dimensions,” says Klaus Rehkugler (Mercedes-Benz Vans), “compact campervans are frequently replacing a passenger car. For years, we have been increasingly observing this in regards to our Marco Polo models. A stylish design, comfort and a high degree of driving pleasure – as typical Mercedes car attributes – were therefore mandatory for us when developing the current Marco Polo generation.”

Not only the small size, therefore, but also the performance and on-board equipment bring compact campervans closer to normal cars. Furthermore, in some cases these vehicles can go beyond the classic four travel seats: thanks to additional seats they can also carry seven people.
“The campervan can fully substitute a car,” says Felix Holona (Reimo), “and offers daily transport for two to seven people while being a leisure vehicle and sports equipment transporter on the weekends, a van for transporting of large items for gardening or house renovations, and being a campervan for vacation.”
Of the same opinion is Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp): “I would not call it an alternative, but go a step further and call it an everyday car. Depending on the model, the everyday use is sometimes higher, sometimes somewhat restricted, but the Crosscamp Lite, for example, offers up to seven seats, sliding doors on both sides and storage space. Less than 5 m in length and 2 m in height, fully suitable for everyday use and underground parking, the compact campervan still offers two beds and a fixed stove for spontaneous adventures, even with all seven seats installed. All in all, a car for camping.”

Easy or luxury?
Compact campervans with pop-up roofs can be basic and economical, or luxurious and expensive. Is there room for both product philosophies?
“In our experience,” explains Klaus Rehkugler (Mercedes-Benz Vans), “customer wishes in the compact campervan segment are quite diverse. Accordingly, we offer three model types of our Marco Polo. These include the lower-priced, entry-level variant Marco Polo Activity, the Marco Polo Horizon and at the top of the range we offer the Marco Polo. Another highlight of our Marco Polo is that it comes as standard with the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Control interface module (or MBAC for short). With the MBAC, our camper turns into a smart home on wheels. More ‘feel good luxury’ is hardly possible.”
Felix Holona (Reimo) is also convinced that there are interesting possibilities for campervans of different prices, including outfitting used vans: “From DIY customers who convert a 20 year old van on their weekends into a lovely cozy campervan, to customers who order a bespoke premium van with 4-wheel drive, electric pop-up roof, V3000 sliding seat-bench and premium hi-fi system, the variety and possibilities of the campervan concepts can meet the taste and demand of a wide variety of customers.”
David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure) has the same opinion: “We make them all, for example we can build a new conversion on a used Japanese car for under £20,000 or we can supply a Toyota Proace will all extras of a luxury car, 180ps engine with 8-speed Auto for under £50,000.”
Robert Hein (Pössl) is also convinced that there is room for various price ranges: “Let’s take our two chassis classes in the camping bus sector: on the one hand, the more than successful Citroen Spacetourer or Peugeot Traveler – an inexpensive and technically well-engineered variant – which is the home for Campers and ‘Vansters’, or on the other hand, there’s the Vito Tourer Pro and the V-Class – which cannot be surpassed in terms of luxury and comfort – that provide a home for the Campstar and the Vanstar.”

Length of five meters?
There are different opinions on the ideal length.
“In my opinion,” says Mike Reuer (Westfalia), “the ideal length is around 5 m. That leaves you some suitable space and functionality inside and still fits comfortably in a parking place.”
Of the same opinion is Klaus Rehkugler (Mercedes-Benz Vans): “Our Marco Polo models have a length of around 5 meters. The same applies to our V-Class and Vito. From our point of view, this length is ideal for providing customers with a companion for travel as well as for everyday life. A companion, which, if wished for, can also replace the standard passenger car, as mentioned earlier. With a length of around 5 meters, the campervan fits into all common parking spaces, whether at the supermarket, school or office. And with a height of less than 2 meters, it can even park in standard underground garages.”
This is the opinion of Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp): “Staying under 5 m is ideal. Of course, longer variants have a certain charm due to the larger interior space, but anything over 5 m becomes impractical in urban use.”
If the compact campervan is also to be used as an everyday car, the short length is rewarding, as David Elliot (Wellhouse Leisure) explains: “80 percent of what we sell is under 5 m long. However it must feel like a car to drive, which most modern base vehicles do.”


Bathroom: yes or no?
Should a compact campervan have a bathroom? Yes or no?
“No, not necessarily,” says Mike Reuer (Westfalia), “but it is an advantage to have a toilet on board.”
In addition to the small size of the living cabin, it is the absence of a bathroom that differentiates compact campervans from the rest of the RVs: there are a few models that have a bathroom, but these are almost all vehicles over 5 meters in length.
“In our opinion,” says Klaus Rehkugler (Mercedes-Benz Vans), “when dealing with a compact campervan, a built-in bathroom comes at the expense of a spacious living space. It would affect the feel-good atmosphere. Therefore, we offer an outdoor shower as an accessory for our Marco Polo.”
But the bathroom can be useful in some situations, so some converters supply emergency solutions, if not real toilet compartments in a reduced size.
“All our cars have a ‘porta potti’ toilet as standard. We do make a model on a LWB (long wheelbase) Ford which is 5.4m long and has a full cassette toilet and bathroom as standard. We have seen an increase in interest in this type of campervan because people want to be more self-contained due to Covid,” says David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure).
Let’s not forget that to use a toilet compartment, it is necessary to have an adequate height of the compartment itself, and it is not possible if the roof raises at the front.
Robert Hein (Pössl) made this comment: “From my point of view, too much attention is paid here when buying, because, let’s be honest: how much time do you spend in the bathroom of your camper every day (e.g. compared to the time you spend in bed)? If you use it at all – there are showers and toilets available at the campsite.”

Building a compact campervan
Is it easy or complex to build a compact van? What are the major technical problems?
Mike Reuer (Westfalia) said: “It is easier to build a compact camper van compared to a panel van on Ducato, or similar base. It has no bathroom, smaller tanks and piping solutions, and smaller galleys, lockers and less furniture.”
According to Andreas Kauth (Crosscamp): “The difference between campervan and compact campervan is marginal. In contrast to empty vans, the first step in the case of car base vehicles is to remove the seats and interior trim and then to adapt them to the conversions later. Otherwise the processes are similar.”
But there are complex elements to be inserted in the small cabin, not to mention that the creation of the lifting roof requires skill and experience, as confirmed by Felix Holona (Reimo): “The major issues are the correct and safe installation of a homologated rear seat-bench. Also the installation of a pop-up roof, which comes with a large cut-out on a small campervan, can be difficult for installers who are unfamiliar with the compact campervans. Because of this, Reimo provides seat-benches and pop-up roofs only to Reimo-trained installers and requires each company to send their workshop crew to internal Reimo trainings, while offering on-site training to larger companies. However, the reduced size also leaves less requirement for internal trimming and means much more compact gas and water systems, making it, in some ways, also easier than a large campervan.”

But not everyone is of the opinion that it is easier to build a small campervan rather than a traditional model on a Ducato.
“We have built bigger Ducato-sized campervans over the years,” explains David Elliott (Wellhouse Leisure), “but the smaller, compact cars are much more complex to build as you don’t have the space to get everything in. When we design a new model, it’s all done by hand and when we have used CAD it’s not the same. You have to be in the car designing it so you can get the proportions right and the correct feel for it.”
Finally, Robert Hein’s (Pössl) opinion: “The type of furniture construction does not differ significantly apart from the size. Most of the time, the bathroom and toilet are not available in the camper van class, and you don’t have to worry as much about insulation as you usually work with a chassis that have already been removed by the manufacturer.”

Robert Hein - Director for Sales, Marketing and Cooperate Communication of Pössl

It is the urge for freedom and society’s rethinking of environmental protection today that makes this vehicle class so attractive. We have noticed this in the last four years since the presentation of our Citroen and Peugeot-based campers at the Caravan Salon Düsseldorf in 2016. The success speaks for itself. The ‘light’ version, the Vanster, has meanwhile established its place in the camping bus world, and in order to drive further growth in this segment, we will put these two models on a new footing this year, so to speak, namely those from Mercedes Benz in the form of the V-Class and Vitos. With the Campstar and the Vanstar we round off our Pössl Vanline range. The Citroen Spacetourer was introduced into the German market (and some of Europe) as a Campster, before the basic vehicle was sold in the automobile trade. This was created in close cooperation and collaboration with the PSA Group. The advantages for us at the beginning were clearly the exclusivity as a builder and the launch of a completely new van that quickly found its place. With Mercedes, we can now fall back on a long-established and proven chassis that leaves nothing to be desired in terms of technology, design and functionality.

Andreas Kauth - Marketing Manager of Crosscamp

The camping holiday format is experiencing strong growth, which is also reflected in this segment. The dual use of vehicles is playing an important role. Compact campervans, or urban campers, can be used in everyday life without any disadvantages and still offer fully-fledged camping equipment at a mostly moderate surcharge on the basic model. In this segment, the right vehicle can be found for every requirement and preference. The exciting things about this segment are the different usage variants and requirements. Whether its athletes with kite equipment or mountain bikes, young families, or the management consultant who is looking for relaxation in nature after work, this segment offers the right concept for everyone. The choice of normal cars, in our case Toyota Proace Verso and Opel Zafira Life, as the base vehicle is an advantage. A high level of driving comfort, the standard high-quality equipment and safety standards of the vehicles are a major advantage over vehicles based on transporters.

Felix Holona - Managing Director of Reimo

Reimo provides fully approved and homologated products for a large range of base vehicles. Reimo mainly offers the products for compact vans, like VW Transporter, Mercedes Vito, Renault Trafic, Citroen Spacetourer or Peugeot Expert/Traveller, VW Caddy, etc. For all these vehicles we believe that the Reimo products provide our customers with a solution to providing more flexible use and more quality solutions for their leisure activities – making your holidays the time to enjoy, be active, spend time for your loved ones and relax.

Mike Reuer - CEO of Westfalia

We see strong tendencies towards smaller and more compact vehicles that are useable as a family van as well as being a camper for recreational purposes. Westfalia has chosen a wide range of base vehicles, starting from Volkswagen T6, Mercedes V-class / Vito and Ford Transit Custom. There is always room for inexpensive, as well as for more expensive and luxurious campervans. Budgets of different walks of life are different, while the desire for the outdoors is the same for all.

David Elliot - Founder and CEO of Wellhouse Leisure

We have been building/selling campervans for 18 years, but in the last 18 months we have seen a lot more owners who have never owned a leisure vehicle before. Wellhouse Leisure have already started to look at the next generation of base vehicles. We have converted the Ford Custom MHEV and we are working on the Vauxhall/Opel Vivaro E and the LEVC PHEV which is in build now. These vehicles pose new challengers, for example, no diesel or petrol to fuel the heating. We also think that how people use camping cars will change because in an all-electric vehicle you will no longer be able to drive across Europe in 12 hours, so again people will look at more local trips and weekends away.

Klaus Rehkugler - Head of Sales & Marketing Mercedes-Benz Vans

We see a promising growth potential for compact campervans, from which we are highly confident to be able to generate additional sales. Vanlife is trendy, the market is generally booming, and that is worldwide. However, compact campervans are especially popular right now. In our experience, new customers, in particular, value compact campervans. They are easier to drive and manoeuver than some motorhomes. In addition, thanks to their compact external dimensions, they are as suitable for travelling as they are for everyday use. Thus, they often have the potential to replace the passenger car. With our 300 d variant, we are even setting standards in the segment with a view to speed and acceleration. Despite being more dynamic, the Marco Polo models are also highly efficient thanks to the latest generation of engines. By the way, we also attach great importance to fulfilling these attributes with our base vehicles, which as an OEM, we offer to motorhome manufacturers!