So you are thinking about buying a Bongo?

Bongo adventures!

The reasons for buying a campervan are many and varied.  Whatever, the reason, if you have ever  seriously considered buying one you will have noticed there is a wide variety of campervans to choose from. In the VW stable you have the achingly cool vintage splitties and bays with their air cooled engines and distinctive bup, bup, bup sounds.  Good examples of these are rare and expensive. VW has a wide range of later models and conversions. The most recent models are amazing featuring fully sprung beds,  table and chair sets hidden away in the tail gate, top loading fridges, every convenience you could conceivably desire in a modern campervan.  If you want to drool check out this you tube video.  If you have 40k to spare I’d get one of these. However,  if your funds are a bit more limited but you still want a convenient modern van, with high specifications the Mazda Bongo Friendee (despite the silly name) has a lot to offer!

The Roof

The Bongo comes with a tintop or an autofree top (AFT) A tintop has a standard flat roof, of the sort you would find in any normal van or MPV.

How it works

The autofree top (AFT) is a factory fitted automatic rising roof.

  • It is controlled by a button on the ceiling  to the left of the driver.
  • You can either control it from the front seats or from the cabin.
  • When lifting the roof all that is required is to have the engine running and hold the button down.
  • When dropping the roof, you will need to first push the safety button actually up in the roof which sets off a beeping noise, you then go down and hold down the cabin control button.  It’s a bit easier if there are two people but it is perfectly possible to do it by yourself.
  • The roof will descend half way then stop, this is an opportunity to be sure there isn’t anything left up there (or anybody!) and that the roof is folding unimpeded.  Just a safety thing really.  Just let go of the button then hold it down again to get it to carry on closing. Bingo.
  • As the roof is factory fitted it is very sturdy and reliable.

The layout

The original layout for the roof includes a hatch for accessing the roof area.  Once you are up, you close the hatch and lie on it.  This is just about ok for adults but a total pain for children as it is hard to get to them if you need to during the night.  It is highly recommended to get a roof conversion. A roof conversion costs around £250 by Clearcut Conversions, have  a look here to see how it works.  When youngish kids are up there you can leave one end open, making it very easy to get to them in the night.  If an adult is up there, you can close the full length of the roof, it is still perfectly possible to open the roof from inside.

What’s it like up there?

In the roof there is a roof light.  If you get a quiet moment to go for a chill out in the roof, it is lovely to stare up through the roof light at the passing clouds.  At night there is a shutter that cuts out any early morning light very effectively. Or try a spot of star gazing. The roof bed is a lovely cosy place to be, but if you want some fresh air the zips can be opened and the insulating, waterproof lining can be rolled up to reveal the netting.  Approx two-thirds of the roof sides is then netting while the bottom third retains its thermal layer.  It is truly lovely to sit up in the roof with sides rolled up, especially if you are among trees or somewhere with a great view!  The netting and the thicker bottom part of the roof sides mean that you feel perfectly safe. When you wake up in the morning and things have got a little stuffy, you can unzip some smaller vents to let a little gentle breeze in. If the weather is foul you will feel safe and secure in the roof.  It has kept us dry through hours of battering rain on Bodmin Moor, nights of downpours and gusting winds. It will sometimes rock a little, don’t be alarmed, just think of it like a boat.

Mazda Bongo at night


Thermal layer rolled up so you can see the netting on the top half.

The Extras

Automatic blinds – They are controlled by rocker switches, one for each blind.  They are pretty cool if a little 80’s in style, and provide decent light blocking, though not black out. They can be controlled by switches on the drivers control panel or in the back of the van.  NB: If you have run the leisure battery down (by listening to the cricket on the car radio for too long, for instance), you will have to turn the engine on to operate the blinds. Also:

  • Dual air-conditioning,
  • Twin airbags (later models),
  • Electric windows
  • Electric wing mirrors,
  • Reversing sensors
  • ABS.
  • Privacy glass

Not all models feature all these extras check the model you are looking at carefully

The Models

There are 3 basic models of Bongo. 1995 – 1997 – The earliest version.  recognisable by the hands grips on the rear, the roof does not raise quite as high as the  later model, the rear seats split and fold up to create more ‘transporting space’.  They do not slide (see below). 1997 – The ‘facelift’ model.  This features some updated body work and sliding rear seats. You will need this version for some of the conversions, particularly a mid conversion. 1999-2005 -The new shape model. The main difference is that the rear seats are on rails which allows them to slide back and forth, great for creating more room in the cabin when you are camping. The body work is also revamped and has a generally more modern feel to it 2004 – there was another slight facelift which can be identified by dark panels at the front of the elevating roof. The rear spoiler is integrated into the elevating roof making adding a bike rack much easier.

Ours is the ‘new shape’ model.


You can get a 2 litre petrol, a 2.5 litre v6 petrol and 2.5 litre diesel.  2 (model SGL3) or 4 (model SGL5) wheel drive. There are some manual gearboxes but most are automatic. However, as all Bongo’s are secondhand and imported you may not be able to get exactly what you want, even if you import one yourself.  They stopped being made in 2005 so good examples are getting harder to find – depending on your budget. 2 litre petrol – economical but underpowered. 2.5 liter v6 – thirsty but has lots of power. 2.5 turbo diesel – economical and powerful, the one to go for if you can. LPG conversions on petrol engines. This will set you back around £1200 but the views vary on the long term performance and reliability. Also, don’t forget, if you have the LPG you wont be allowed through the channel tunnel. Finally. A Ford Freda is also a Mazda Bongo with a different badge.  It’s the same!

Driving the Bongo

  • The Bongo is very easy to drive and use as a day to day vehicle.
  • It handles and drives like a car rather than a van, very smooth and parking is a cinch with the handy mirror on the back and the parking sensors.  It is no bigger than an average estate car and no wider!
  • It will fit easily into normal parking bays and down narrow country lanes.
  • The only thing to watch out for is the height.  The height of a Bongo with an AFT is 2.1m, too tall for some car park barriers!

20 thoughts on “So you are thinking about buying a Bongo?

  1. Emma says:

    That looks like such good fun. My husband is still renovating our campervan – it’s still not roadworthy so not sure if we are ever going to actually get to go anywhere in it!

  2. terry says:

    Hi. I’ve had my Bongo for 6 years now, have had no real trouble with it. Its a 2.5 TD and had 53,000 miles on the clock when I bought it. It now has only 84,000 miles. How long could my beloved van live for?

    • Hazel says:

      84,000 miles is not a lot. The engines should keep going as long as they don’t overheat. If they do the alloy block will sustain damage very quickly. We added a low coolant alarm to minimise the risk of this happening.

      As long as you you have had it waxoyled and undersealed, regularly check and repair the underseal, and touch up any stone chips to stop surface rust, your Bongo should keep going for a while yet.

  3. Clarey says:

    Hi, great article, slightly confused about the models where you say:

    1997 – The ‘facelift’ model. This features … sliding rear seats.

    1999-2005 -The new shape model. The main difference is that the rear seats are on rails which allows them to slide back and forth, great for creating more room in the cabin when you are camping.

    What is the difference between the sliding rear seats on the 1997 model and the rear seats on rails on the 1999-2005 model?


    • Hazel says:

      Yes, I see what you mean that is a bit confusing. The sliding seats are the same on both those models, but it is only the ‘facelift’ version of the older models that has them. Does that make sense?

  4. Carla says:

    Really informative helpful article thank you for sharing. We’re considering all the camper van options at the moment, and I’ve found your blog really useful.

  5. Sarah says:

    Wow you know your stuff! Thanks for all the deets… You’ll be happy to hear we’re back on the camping road after our disaster over heat. Thankfully we managed to squeeze in a few trips before the weather broke and the kids went back to school…. So now I’m a very happy camper.


    • Hazel says:

      That is good news! I’m still hoping to fit a couple of September trips in. Can’t bear to think it is all over for the year just yet. Hope you get lots more great Bongo adventures out of your van now she is fixed! Get that coolant alarm fitted!!

  6. Steve says:

    HI Hazel,
    Thank you for replying to me on Mumsnet.
    Could I ask you for some more advice. The dealer I was going to buy a Bongo from is pushing us towards a Toyota Alphard.
    We have three kids (3,5 and 9) and looking to buy a camper van with a leisure battery and top bedroom conversion Do you think we can all fit in a Bongo?

    Thank you again.

  7. tromsharry says:

    Buying this Classic car is pretty good idea your money would not gonna be west.. this one is perfect for outings or for long travels its powerful engine helps to run on hills area driving without engine blowing issues. while being a old car peoples love this amazing “Mazda Bongo Friendee”

  8. LT says:

    Hi Hazel, we are looking to get a bongo with aft and have been trying hard to get one, the new models are v rare to get these days. I wondered if you have had any trouble with the factory roof though, I called up one bongo dealer who only sells tin tops now and says that he gets calls from lots of people who are having issues with factory roofs breaking and not being able to get parts, and it’s harder with the newer model. I’m wary of buying something that’s not sustainable. Any advice you can provide? This blog is v useful by the way!

    • Hazel says:

      Hi, sorry it’s taken me a little while to reply. We have had no trouble with the factory fitted roof. I may be being cynical but I think it’s easier for dealers to buy tin tops and convert them, as you have already found its getting harder to find good examples of the original. When we were looking we would not have considered an after market roof. I think factory fit of pretty much anything relating to vehicles is better quality, and offers better structural integrity, than after market. Out of curiosity was it JAL imports who said this to you? They seem to import a lot of tin tops, add their roofs and get a high turn over of vehicles that way. Having said that, I have never used an aftermarket roof so they may be fine. Definitely not our preference though. Good luck with your search!

  9. Chris says:

    Hazel, just discovered your excellent site, and yes, we are indeed thinking of getting a Bongo, but I am hesitating as we have a few reservations… I’m a bit of a nervous car buyer, and when it’s say 15 years old and has come half way round the planet… eek! Also I hear that it drives more like a car than a van and that I take to mean that acceleration is good, at least in the V6 version. Would you agree with that? Any idea of the 0-60 time? I know that’s not important in itself but does give a bit of an indication of how much g-force you feel when you boot down on the loud pedal! 😉 Chris

    • Hazel says:

      Gosh I’m sorry I don’t know what the 0-60 time is. The v6 has decent acceleration to overtake and more importantly the power to get you up steep hills without slowing almost to a halt. However, each time you put your foot down you are burning that petrol pretty rapidly. It is a fuel guzzler make no mistake! I think the thing is when driving the bongo you take a pootling approach! Keeps things relaxed! The car like aspect of the bongo relates more to its manoeuvrability, it has a good turning circle and because it is no longer or wider than the average family estate it’s easy to drive around narrow lanes and park. (Although the Auto Free top is too tall for most restricted height car parks!). I find it very easy to drive, the driving position also gives great visibility. I hope that helps a bit. The decision to import is a bit daunting I know, but take heart in the fact that if you should change your mind about it it will retain its value. After 5 years of good use ours has only depreciated a small amount. Happy bongoing!

  10. Chris says:

    Thanks Hazel. To be honest I think I had unrealistic expectations but I will def need to drive another one or few to make my mind up. I read that LPG conversion is essential with the V6 in terms of running expense, and also it is a less polluting fuel, better than petrol which of course (in terms of emissions) is better than diesel.

    I’m enjoying your website. Lots to read 😎

  11. M.briggs says:

    Seem some cracking bongos on the market and was swaying towards getting one as opposed to a transit conversion .i know they are a bit of a fuel guzzler but on average what mpg are the 2.5 diesels doing…..

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