#26: Surveillance Vehicles for Private Investigators. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Yes there are good, bad and ugly ones, but the focus of this article is to give you perspective on the financial implications of using some surveillance vehicles sharing the advantages and disadvantages. Surveillance vehicles come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  Some combinations work very well in some areas, while they may stand out in other areas.  In my previous article Surveillance vehicles and Things to Consider I discussed things that should be considered when choosing a vehicle for surveillance.  With that being said, I have compiled a list of vehicles and have provided pros and cons for typical vehicles that are used in surveillance.  There are far too many vehicles on the market to discuss, so the vehicles listed can be compared to other vehicles in their respective classes. 

DODGE NEON (Comparable: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus)

Small vehicles as surveillance vehicles

Summary:  The Dodge Neon is a very common vehicle that will fit in nicely with most neighborhood areas.  Orange would not be my color of choice.  I have known other private investigators to be very successful in the Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, and the Honda Civic.

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 7.9  (Good)

Mobility Score: 10 –  Very mobile. Easy to make sharp turns or U-turns.

Common Vehicle: 10 – Yes, a very common vehicle.

Blending Value: 8 – This vehicle should blend into most neighborhoods.

Visibility over vehicles: 6  – This vehicle sits low so it may be difficult to keep a view of  your subject in heavy traffic conditions

Gas Mileage: 9 – (2005 Dodge Neon) City/ 22 MPG  Highway/29-33 MPG.  This mileage would be considered decent for a surveillance vehicle.

Longevity: 7- If taken care of you would get anywhere from 150,000 miles to upwards of 225,000 miles.

Comfortable:  6 – The car was most likely not designed for the driver to sit in the vehicle for extended periods of time. Not a lot of room to stretch out.

Conditions:  7 – Not recommended for off-road or areas with lots of snow.

GMC SAVANA (Full-Size Vans)

 Surveillance vehicles as large vans

Summary: This vehicle is very large and highly visible.  If this vehicle is used, it is recommended that it be for surveillance that is stationary for long durations.  The vehicle is comfortable and roomy.  

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 7.1 (Average)

Mobility: 5 – Large vehicles have less of a turning ratio. Furthermore, vehicles of this size are difficult to maneuver quickly in narrow locations.  Getting out of parking spots quickly and safely could provide problems.

Common Vehicle: 6 – This vehicle or vehicles that could be compared to this vehicle are not seen frequently on the road.

Blending Value: 6  – Blending into an average neighborhood would be difficult due to the size of this vehicle.

Visibility over vehicles: 10 – The height of this vehicle provides a significantly better view to see over vehicles.

Gas Mileage: 5  – (2012)  MPG 13-17. This is horrible gas mileage for a surveillance vehicle.  With gas prices at the rate of $3.60 as this is being written, it would be an extra expense. 

Power: 8 – This vehicle is equipped with a V8 which should provide plenty of power.  

Comfortable: 8 –This vehicle is ideal comfort is set up correctly.  I have known some female private investigators to use this type of van and have used camping toilets with ease in the vehicle.

Conditions:  7 – Not recommended for snow conditions or off-road. 

Longevity: 9 – Forums relating to the longevity indicate as long as the vehicle is taken care of it will last an the excess of 250,000 miles.  Many owners state this vehicle, in particular, was made to last.

Ford Escape (Mid Size SUV’s)

 Surveillance vehicles as mid size suv vehicles

Summary: Vehicles like the Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot would fall into the general categories of this vehicle.  Obliviously gas mileage will vary on these vehicles.  Midsize SUV’s provide many of the ideal characteristics of a good surveillance vehicle.

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 7.6 (Good)

Mobility: 8 – The mobility for mid-size SUV’s is quite good.  The turning is pretty good for instances where quick maneuvering is needed. 

Common Vehicle: 8 – Yes, mid-size SUV’s have become increasingly common.  

Blending Value: 8 – These types of vehicles typically fit into most surveillance situations.  There is nothing about these vehicles that stand out any more than any other vehicle. 

Visibility over vehicles: 8 – From personal experience, I can say that I will most likely never go back to a sedan for a surveillance vehicle. I believe the height of a vehicle can be an advantage during surveillance efforts.

Gas Mileage: 7 – (2012 AWD) The gas mileage for the Ford Escape is listed as 22 MPG for the city and 30 MPG for the highway.  These numbers are listed for the 4 cylinder vehicles.

Power: 8- If a 6 cylinder vehicle is used, it should be more than enough power for your needs during surveillance.   If a 4 cylinder is used you will feel the difference.  From personal experience, I prefer the 6 cylinders over the 4, but with gas prices where they are today, 4 cylinders might be the way to go.

Conditions: 8 –If you choose an all wheel drive vehicle then you should be fine in most conditions.  I have used the mid-size in minor off-road conditions with no problems.  In the snow, I would suggest chains.  I have conducted surveillance many times with a mid-size SUV so these recommendations come from personal experience. 

Comfortable: 8 – This rating is given as a general rating from my personal experience.  Most mid-size SUV’s will not be incredibly comfortable, I have managed to do just fine over the years.  These vehicles have similar legroom as a full-size sedan would have.

Longevity: 7 – In general you will get over 200,000 miles on these types of vehicles with proper maintenance.   This statistic is from personal experience.

Chevrolet Suburban  (Full-size SUV’s) (Ford Expeditions, Nissan Titan, GMC Yukon, etc…)

 Surveillance vehicles as large SUV's

Summary: I have never been a big fan of large SUV’s for surveillance.  These vehicles have many ideal characteristics of a good surveillance vehicle however, I believe it is the size of the vehicle that becomes the disadvantage in many instances.  This vehicle ended up ranking much higher than I thought it would.  The big drawback on this vehicle would be the gas mileage factor.

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 7.9 (Good) 

Mobility: 6 – Does not park easily in all locations and driver may find it difficult to back out of locations in a hurry while being safe.

Common Vehicle: 8 – Very common vehicle in most areas

Blending Value: 7 – This vehicle is very large and may be likely to stand out in some areas more than others.

Visibility over vehicles: 9 – Very good visibility over vehicles. 

Gas Mileage: 6 – (2012) 15-21 MPG.  This is not great for a surveillance vehicle as most of surveillance is conducted in the city.  At the current rate of fuel, 15 miles per gallon will hurt your companies bottom line.

Power: 9 – With 8 Cylinder motors in these SUV’s power is not a problem.

Comfortable: 9- Very comfortable and roomy.  Easy transition to and from the back seat and front seat.

Conditions: 9- Typically good for use in all conditions. 4 wheel drive is a huge plus along with the ground clearance.

Longevity: 8 – Some forums report as many as 300,000 miles.  Many report that parts on the vehicles do break down however the vehicle is easy to fix and the part are relatively inexpensive.

Toyota Sienna (Comparable: Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Chevrolet Uplander, etc…)

Mini Vans make the best surveillance vehicles

Summary: This is probably one of the best picks in the surveillance vehicle realm because it has traits that every investigator could want without standing out.  A vehicle like this is definitely something to consider.

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 8.3 (Very Good)

Mobility: 8 – For being a minivan the Toyota Sienna turn sharper than would be expected.  Backing in and out of locations is slightly difficult than a smaller vehicle, however, the layout of the vehicle provides the driver with a limited amount of blind spots.

Common Vehicle: 9 – The Toyota Sienna is a very common vehicle in nearly all areas.

Blending Value: 9- With the proper amount of tinting this surveillance vehicle will fit into any neighborhood.

Visibility over vehicles: 8- Visibility is better than most surveillance vehicles.

Gas Mileage: 7 – (2012) 17 to 23 MPG is decent for this type of vehicle.  Wish it could be just a bit better. 

Power: 8 – Plenty of pickup and go power with the standard V6 engine.  You will have no problem catching anyone.

Conditions:  8- Good for most conditions.  Not really recommended for snow conditions. 

Comfortable: 9- Very Roomy.  You can easily move throughout the vehicle.  Many vehicles of this type can either remove seats with ease or the seats fold down. 

Longevity: 9 – These vehicles are expected to last well over 250,000 miles with the proper care.    With the typical price tag of over $30,000 it better last that long.


 Good surveillance vehicles for the country

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 6.7 (Average) Good backup vehicle or primary vehicle in rural areas.

Mobility: 6 – Full-size truck, in general, do not turn sharp and do not back.  Not much traction for 2 wheel drive vehicles in wet conditions.  

Common Vehicle: 8 – Very common vehicle in most areas.  Probably more common in rural areas.

Blending Value: 7 – Blending may vary depending on the area and any particular features of the vehicle that might stand out (large tires, rims, truck bed canopy etc..).

Visibility over vehicles: 9 – Very good visibility over vehicles.

Gas Mileage: 5 – (12-21 MPG) depending the cylinders, liters and whether it is a 4 or 6 speed.  This mileage is pretty brutal for a surveillance vehicle.

Power: 9 –  Power is not a problem for these trucks.

Conditions: 9- Good for most conditions.  4 wheel drive is a plus if you’re going to drive these trucks.  

Comfortable: 8-  Good for sitting for long periods of time, however, gets a bit tough if sitting in the extra cab during surveillance.

Longevity: 7 – Mechanically (engine, transmission) forums indicate that this vehicle will last well over 200,000 miles.  There was some indication that other parts of the vehicle like A/C, wipers and alignment will need to be serviced or replaced over time.   The mechanical aspects of the vehicle are extremely important to a private investigator but the A/C and heater and be just as important when sitting in your vehicle.

Full-Size Sedan/Coupe

P.I. Advice Overall Rank: 8.1 (Very Good)

Mobility: 8 – Sedans have better than average turning ratios and can back out easily from most locations.  Parking these vehicles is not much of an issue.

Common Vehicle: 9- Sedans, especially the Toyota Camry are very common vehicles.

Blending Value: 9- With the right color and right tint you will be in good shape.  Fitting into a neighborhood should not be an issue.

Visibility over vehicles: 6- These vehicles do not allow the driver much visibility over other vehicle

Gas Mileage:9 – (2012) The 4 cylinder is 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the Freeway. For the 6 cylinders, it is 21 mpg in the city and 30 on the Freeway.

Comfortable: 8- From my personal experience this vehicle is very comfortable.

Conditions: 7- No recommended for surveillance in off-road or snow conditions.  There is not a significant amount of clearance.

Power: 8 – Good amount of power to follow anyone at least with the 6 cylinders.

Longevity: 9-Toyota is known for making a quality vehicle that will last well over 250,000 if taken care of.

 Hi-End Vehicles (Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, etc..)

More often then not these types of vehicles will not be appropriate for surveillance.  I am sure there are some areas that these vehicles will fit in to but they are far and few between.  You want your vehicle to be forgettable, not memorable.  I won’t bother to rank these vehicles because you shouldn’t be conducting everyday surveillance in them anyways.

Final Thoughts on Surveillance Vehicles

As you can see there is no perfect surveillance vehicle as each vehicle has something of value.  The more you can make you vehicle appear like every other vehicle, while remaining unseen, the better off you will be in your surveillance efforts.   Keep an eye out for future videos on surveillance vehicles and tips when conducting surveillance.

Be sure stop by the P.I Advice Facebook page and say hi.


Sources and Interesting Websites

Checking out specs of vehicles: http://www.motortrend.com/used_cars

Conduct a search on recalls for any given vehicle at: http://www.automobilemag.com/auto_recalls/

Gas mileage provided by the U.S. Department of Energy: http://www.fueleconomy.gov

Chevrolet owners talking about their vehicles: Chevrolet Forum

Autos on MSN: http://autos.msn.com


  1. I have a Hona Accord 2009 4 cylindet and a motorcycle (65 – 85 mpg). Would you classify the Accord into the full sixe coupe? What is your opinion on using a motorcycle for PI work? Would there ever be an idea situation?

    • I would stay away from the motorcycle for surveillance. Stick with the Honda. As for an ideal situation for using a motorcycle, there aren’t many I can think of.

  2. I’ve been doing surv in a ford escape for 4 years, to great effect. One thing about being a younger male in the industry is frustration in having a ‘ugly’ plain vehicle. To compensate for this I owned and rode a motorcycle as my pride and toy. I hve chosen to sell it however and I am now purchasing a jeep grand cherokee overland summit. V8 4×4. Not ideal for surveillance as it has chrome grill and 20″ jeep rims, but hey, lifestyle is important as well. One day I’ll be like the older guys and grab a beat up van and take the back seats out.

    • Hey Tom,

      I am a big believer in the mid-size SUV’s. I am glad it has served you well. I can understand your feelings on wanting a vehicle that doesn’t have to be employment related. Thanks for commenting. Be safe out there.


  3. Looks like I’m way behind on this article but I just came across it and thought it was great. I’m all about the Caravan, that’s what I’ve been using for a while now and It’s ideal for surveillance in my opinion. You can pick one up used for a very reasonable price and depending on which trim you go with you could have a 3.3 l V6 or a 3.8 l both have plenty of power to get the job done. Take out the back seats, put up some quality curtains, use a sun shade in the front and you’re good to go. I’ve got a separate AC unit in the back of the van that’s virtually silent from the outside that helps tremendously in the summer, as well as small cargo boxes from Ikea mounted on the sides in the back to keep everything organized. Most importantly the Caravan/Town & Country blends in anywhere, and I’ve had to take some pretty serious back roads with this van and it handled them with no problem.

    • Thanks for you insight Kenneth. I hope others read this and take this into consideration when purchasing a surveillance vehicle.

    • I think that’s an excellent choice

    • Hi, what type of air condition unit in the back do you have? I’ve been looking into them for a while but was unsure how safe some of them are. I live in Florida and it’s already starting to become unbearable in my vehicle. I have a 2012 Mazda 3.

      • I don’t have anything special in regards to air conditioning in any of my vehicles. Some people have elaborate set ups in their vehicles however I don’t have the time to create anything special in my car. If it is too hot then (depending on situation) I usually find a surveillance position under a tree or far away from the subject’s residence that I can run my vehicle. Sometimes you have to suck it up and sweat when there is activity. Florida is pretty brutal with it’s humidity and heat.

        Personally I would adjust my surveillance position and buy some battery operated fans to make life bearable. I started my surveillance career in California so I am very familiar with the heat on surveillance. If you look around enough online you are likely to find some elaborate creation to stay cool.


  4. I’m naturally a private investigator and hafw decided to go ahead and earn income with that talent of mine. Hey some women great dancers, some great mothers, some great hustlers and then there’s those who know when someone’s hiding a lifestyle after just a couple minutes upon first time meeting them. I’m not being arrogant,

    So does anyone in the so CALIF area need a great assistance PI? If so I’ll check back here weekly . I’m not a kid or a midlife crisis and I’m far from being a senior citizen though I’m just turning old enough to get AARP mail sent to me.

  5. I was surprised that you skipped the small SUV (CRV RAV 4 ,etc). I’ve been doing surveillance for over 15 years now and I have driven two CRV’s and an Element. They work the best for me. Tight turning, nimble and agile. What they lack in performance they !are up for in utility. I have used all three in dirt and light snow/ice and been very pleased. I average about 20 mpg over a tankful and that seems to be a good average based on what you wrote. Just my two cents

    • Hi John,

      Good points on the smaller SUV’s. Definitely good for all conditions. But would lack power. Santa Fe’s, Highlanders, etc.. are probably not far off from similar performance as their smaller versions. My 2 Santa Fe’s got at least 20 mpg. And the newer Santa Fe’s seemed even more agile then the older versions.

      Thank you for the comment John!