No matter which way the economy swings, the one certainty that remains is the enjoyment of
the RVing lifestyle. Luckily, for those who are shopping for new wheels, there are more
choices in the smaller motorhome arena than ever before, and Winnebago has joined the fray in Class B offerings with the ERA. Built on the popular Dodge Sprinter chassis that uses the Mercedes-Benz, 3.0-l turbo-diesel,
the ERA offers a full list of features in a very pleasing, compact form.
Two Touring and
two Limited versions are available, all built on the single rear wheel (SRW), 170-inch
wheelbase using Winnebago‘s well-conceived floor-plan. Our test unit arrived fully
equipped in the striking Charcoal Limited Package, leaving no doubt that this is much more
than just a simple van conversion.
Under the Hood
The heart of the
Sprinter is the Mercedes CDI turbo-diesel pumping out 154 smooth ponies through a
paddle-shift-assisted five-speed transmission. The engine bay is open and neatly organized,
making fluid checks a breeze, and owners will appreciate the clever nonskid step integrated
into the lower grille valance. Mercedes also adds an interesting twist in that it does not
include a transmission dipstick on the diesel-powered Sprinter. Instead, it requires the
motorhome be driven to a Dodge or Chrysler dealership for free transmission fluid checks
that – according to our local Chrysler dealer – require the use of a special dealership
tool. This is not especially convenient or reassuring after ingrained fluid check routines
that are more easily conducted during refueling stops. Hopefully, future iterations will
restore this basic maintenance necessity.
Under-hood features include the passenger-side
fresh air intake for the cabin. Air enters the vehicle through the driver-side hood grille
intake, crossing the full width of the hood’s core and under the matching passenger-side
dummy hood grille, wringing out any moisture along the way and entering a large filter box
that uses the hood as the lid. An easy-to-change 9 x 14-inch pleated filter is visible
anytime the hood is opened and ensures only fresh, filtered air enters the cabin’s blower
motor housing for dash-selected distribution. At first glance, the battery seems to be
missing, but it’s actually secured in a well under the driver’s feet. Dodge has wisely provided additional space for an optional driver-side
second battery and tray combo under the hood while the house battery resides in a vented
battery box in the rear cabinetry.
A short step up into the
driver’s seat provides uncompromised forward visibility maintained by large 23-inch wipers
and the sharply sloping hood that immediately identifies this newest player in the utility
van offering. A pair of round, no-nonsense analog gauges clearly display speed and engine
rpm. Numerous color-warning icons logically arranged above and between the gauges inform
the driver of a laundry list of maladies – from low tire pressure to burned-out signal
bulbs, plus a host of engine, brake and traction/stability system malfunctions. A small,
centered digital information screen displays distance functions and fuel status along with
Within the center dash pillar is Winnebago‘s RV Radio, which includes an AM/FM stereo/CD player and a
connection point for MP3 and iPod input. Ours also included the optional ($280) Sirius
satellite radio feature. Immediately below, two bands of controls include three large
intuitive knobs and adjacent switches to control air and A/C distribution. Rounding out the
dash is the ergo-located paddle shifter, cup holders and a 12-volt DC power point.
adjustable, comfortable captain’s chairs sport a single ratcheting armrest and are equipped
with a manually adjustable lumbar support. The chairs easily swivel to face matching
companion seats around the movable pole-mounted table that can also be positioned in front
of the sofa bed.
Dodge and Winnebago have complemented each other’s efforts by creating a window
array for the Sprinter/ERA that provides panoramic views from every seating location. The
standard tinted awning-style windows allow useful and needed ventilation, moving or camped,
and the room-darkening roller shades help keep out the heat. It’s often the case that
dark-color paint schemes, while stunning, can become uncomfortably warm on sunny days
without using auxiliary ventilation or cooling. A lighter exterior paint choice would be
welcomed not only for longer van washing intervals but better heat reflection as well.
Loading the ERA for a weekend getaway was no problem thanks to the storage area under the
removable rear 60 Â¥ 80-inch sofa bed, which was equipped with the optional ($294) electric
fold-down mechanism that really is a necessity for owning this motorhome. Leaving the sofa
in the bed position will increase usable storage space but also limits aisle access. Still,
not a bad trade-off since the sofa doesn’t have seat-belted positions.
Additional storage is
available above the sofa bed in an overhead cabinet, thanks to the Dodge “High Roof” that creates the 6-foot, 3-inch interior height. More
storage abounds in the 9-foot length of upper Euro-style Light Maple cabinetry that runs
unbroken nearly the length of the driver’s side cabin area.
A removable clothes bar is
provided across the length of the bath for drip drying wet clothing or towels and can act
as a temporary hanging space for long items. Permanent hanging shirt-length wardrobe
cabinets can be substituted for one or both of the companion captain chairs if storage is
preferred over seating and six drawers of various sizes are provided in the galley module
to stow cooking utensils and dishware.
The ERA does not
have unlimited Occupant and Cargo Carrying Capacity (occc). Given that the well-appointed,
two-sleeper ERA is best suited as a suite-for-two weekender, we could make the best use of
its available payload by traveling with reduced freshwater volume to increase the occc and
connecting to the campground water supply when needed. We determined from the ERA’s factory
weight certification label and our scale measurements that freshwater capacity has the
greatest variable effect on the occc, so traveling with a half-tank of water and using only
two of the four seat-belted positions during travel created an occc of 329 pounds. Owners
will have to monitor their cargo selections in earnest to make every pound count, but the
ERA should accommodate the necessities for a weekend trip. Eliminating one of the companion
seats for the available storage cabinet might also help improve payload totals.
Undeterred, and mindful of the weight limitations, we set off for our
overnight destination at the beautiful and secluded Canyon RV Park, just off Highway 91 in
Anaheim, California. Located in the heart of the Southland, it’s a perfect destination for
quick weekend getaways like this.
En route, the ERA provided smooth ramp-to-freeway speeds
without hesitation or transmission complaints – easing in and out of traffic without effort
– often making us feel we were driving something much shorter than its true 24 feet.
Cruising at 65 mph, the Mercedes diesel turned 2,400 rpm, giving us a range of 17-20 mpg
for its efforts – once the commuter traffic was behind us and the cruise control was set.
When we took the speed down to 55 mph, mileage increased to an impressive 20-22 mpg. The
power rack-and-pinion steering was very responsive, with excellent feedback, requiring
minimal input as the independent front suspension smoothed out road surface irregularities.
Kudos to the soundproofing crew at Dodge and Winnebago whose talents and skill allowed the ERA to score big points
for a quiet, rattle-free ride. Measuring only 70-72 decibels at freeway speed on
average-condition road surfaces, the refreshing quiet allowed clear hands-free cell phone
Setting up camp is as simple as backing into the site and
plugging in … or not. It’s your choice. Our ERA came equipped with the optional ($2,793)
2.5 kW Onan LP-gas-powered AC generator that is tucked up behind the rear axle, but also
subtracted 113 pounds of valuable occc. Sliding open the side door reveals the companion
seats, making entry an easy step up on the over-sized but low running board design. You’ll
have to be careful parallel parking as the low running boards could easily be damaged.
Galley duties are a breeze on the dual-burner stove-top. Dometic’s new three-way single-door
fridge stows perishable supplies as well as other tasty treats slated to be finished in the
small built-in microwave.
With dishes washed in the hinged lid single-basin sink and
stowed, a rejuvenating shower is possible courtesy of the 6-gallon water heater. The wet
bath is similar in design to those found in truck campers and though tight for some, it’s
still nice to have a hot shower anytime you want.
We discovered an additional benefit of
that electric sofa bed: leaving the seat-back partially raised for perfect movie viewing on
the HD-capable LCD TV. Unique pleated horizontal blinds are fitted to the windshield and
doors, eliminating the need for traditional wraparound curtains. Pull-down shades handle
With a comfortable night behind us, we headed for apple festival activities in
nearby Oak Glen, in the foothills of San Bernardino County. The ERA handled some 5-percent
grades without a stutter and the transmission never exhibited any hunting or gear confusion
due in large part to the torquey turbo-diesel. Heading downhill in third gear kept our speed
at 42 mph in complete control without need for the 4-wheel discs with another slap of the
shifter ringing up second gear, bringing the speed down to 25 mph on the same grade.
Despite its tall silhouette, the ERA never once gave any indication of top-heaviness or any
sickly roll during our spirited foothill driving. The computer-aided stability control
system, which senses speed and steering angle to ensure proper direction control based on
payload, was reassuring to have. The system seamlessly monitored the off-camber turns and
sudden braking, and for the most part, we were unable to feel any system-generated braking
correction in any particular maneuver.
After sampling “everything-apple” in this quaint
little mountain hamlet and losing light fast, we headed home with another great single-tank
getaway in the logbook and equally great marks for the 2009 ERA in almost every category.