Class B van conversions have always been a niche market within the motorhome industry.
Despite their limited appeal, they have consistently attracted an ardent and diverse array of potential users, ranging from seniors looking to downsize from larger coaches to purpose-specific enthusiasts who like to use them for touring, sporting events, tailgating, golfing, cycling, surfing and yes, even camping.
Triple E Recreational Vehicles (aka Leisure Travel Vans) of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, has been involved with van conversions for years, and has worked with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter commercial platform for more than a decade. In its latest undertaking to produce a Class B with more interior space and improved user friendliness, the company created its first-ever Sprinter conversion with a streetside slideout, and distinctively named it the Free Spirit SS.
The Free Spirit SS is simple and straightforward, with an expandable living room zone up front using a driver’s side slideout, mid-coach curbside galley, and a rear bathroom with full stand-up enclosed shower, vanity and porcelain toilet. What is amazing here is how the manufacturer shoehorned abundant amenities often found in larger motorhomes into this compact, completely self-contained layout.
Leisure Travel Vans offers one Free Spirit SS floorplan with a slideout, but more may follow if the concept catches on. Our extensively outfitted test unit came with many standard appointments such as an 11,000-Btu roof air with heat pump, 600-watt inverter and on-demand water heater to name a few. With these and many others, the suggested base retail price for a Free Spirit SS is $119,470.
With options, including a 2.5-kW LP-gas genset ($3,250), removable front pedestal table ($358), spare tire carrier ($520) and factory pre-delivery inspection (PDI) thrown in ($1,500), the retail on the test vehicle, less freight, added up to $125,098.
Engineering and Construction
Leisure Travel Vans teamed with a German aerospace engineer for direction and guidance in its Free Spirit SS alteration process. Because of its robust architecture and a strong powertrain originally developed for a long,Â rugged mercantile life, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 chassis makes an ideal candidate as a multiuse, Class B recreational performer.
Conversions like this usually retain most of a van’s existing cab, powertrain, suspension and outer steel shell. For the slideout, the company developed a 52-inch-wide by 69-inch-high by 34-inch-deep fiberglass room extension that adds additional residential square footage to the forward living area.
The slideout uses an electricallyÂ actuated rack-and-pinion system to move it in and out, and a smooth exterior face designed to blend seamlessly with the motorÂhome’s existing outer shell. It is also equipped with a frameless window with adjustable louvered panes to enhanceÂ interior ventilation and keep out the rain.
For the interior floor deck, 1/2-inch plywood sheeting is laid in, while fiberglass batt insulation is installed throughout to help control temperature and enhance interior comfort. High-quality cabinetry and trim is then installed using 5/8-inch fir plywood cores.
Exterior touches that add to the coach’s angular, aerodynamic appearance and functionality include molded, fiberglass ground effect fairings along the bottom edges of the body. These features also incorporate forward running boards with steps below driver and passenger doors. As for the generous streetside passenger entry, an electrically actuated step has been added for ease of ingress and egress.
Powertrain and Performance
Dual rear wheel, Sprinter-based vans such as this unit are equipped with a scrappy Mercedes-Benz 3.0-liter BlueTEC V-6 diesel engine that offers up 188-horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, with the assistance of a five-speed automatic transmission. As a result, it is capable of excellent off-the-line acceleration, as evidenced by timed speed runs made during our test.
We clocked 0- to 60-mph dashesÂ averaging 19.4 seconds, with 10-second 40- to 60-mph intervals. The latter result implied, and later proved to be, a graphic example of the unit’s midrange acceleration and passing capabilities.
Our test hop up California’s central coast proved enjoyable and informative with the new Free Spirit SS. First off, we appreciated the well-configured though utilitarian front cabin of the Sprinter-based motorhome, with its comfortable high-back, manually adjustable UltraÂleather captain’s seats.
Driving positions are easily tweaked to maximize individual comfort, and views of the dash’s well-placed instrument pod with easily readable gauges kept us duly informed of most things going on under the hood. The coach’s shift lever is uniquely mounted in the dash and to the driver’s right, and is capable of being up orÂ downshifted with the mere tap of a hand.
Driver and passenger are afforded excellent forward and lateral views of the highway and surroundings, thanks to the van’s slant nose and seamless, one-piece windshield. Long hours behind the wheel slipped by imperceptibly thanks to the comfortable seating, adjustable wheel position, a relatively quiet powertrain and an absorbent suspension that impeccably smoothed out most highway wrinkles.
In the center of the dash is an AM/FM radio head with 7-inch navigation screen that also includes CD/DVD/and Bluetooth features. This appliance, though well intended, had controls that were rather small and difficult to operate while driving – even from the passenger’s position.
We found the Free Spirit SS had car-like handling characteristics, which rendered it easily maneuverable under just about any circumstance we encountered. Driving this spirited, sleekly sculpted coach with its attractive, silver full-body paint was actually a lot of fun, with each of us logging and enjoying as much time as we could behind the wheel.
Whether navigating narrow urban streets, supermarket parking lots or tight campgrounds, we were able to carve our way through traffic clutter and obstacles of all types with the greatest of accuracy and confidence. The coach even parks conveniently in the average lot, though a little extra rear aisle overhang was noted.
Mountain roads didn’t slow this rig down much either, as we were able to maintain a maximum of 62 mph up 7 percent grades in third gear at 3,000 rpm with seemingly no effort whatsoever. Traversing the steep and often winding and precipitous state Highway 41 from Morro Bay to Atascadero challenged most aspects of the Sprinter’s capabilities to the max. During this test leg, the unitÂ performed flawlessly, true to its finely tuned German engineering.
About the only capacity this unit lacked was the ability to make tight U-turns. With a rather wide turning diameter of 54.6 feet, it behooved us to plan these maneuvers carefully to keep from coming up short at the end of the turn.
Besides plenty of go power, the Free Spirit SS demonstrated excellent braking ability under a wide range ofÂ circumstances. Added to this, the coach also possesses good engine compression holdback that came in handy whileÂ descending the steep and heavily trafficked Cuesta Grade near San LuisÂ Obispo, Calif. Manually downshifting to fourth gear with a sideways tap on the dash-mounted shifter, we maintained a brake-saving 62 mph at 3,000 rpm.
Driving topography over the course of the test included considerable stretches of freeway, mountain roads and close quarter driving in suburbs and cluttered, touristy towns. Despite this challenging range of highways and byways, we still managed a respectable average fuelÂ consumption of 17.4 mpg.
Usable residential space is at a premium in any Class B, although Leisure Travel Vans has done a remarkable job of converting the Free Spirit’s tight interior footprint into a functional living area. Decor treatments and fabrics used in its transformation are distinctively Euro-modern, and at a level of quality often associated with higher-end Class A’s and C’s.
Solid, curved wood cabinetry is finished in a cool, White Chocolate veneer with walnut accents, while other features include soft-close drawers, and strategically placed brushed stainless pulls and retractable knobs. Above, the ceiling is finished with a padded, marine-grade vinyl headliner studded with dimmable, low-amp LED lighting fixtures.
Countertops in the galley and bathroom are decked with attractive, solid-surface Corian, while easily cleanable, faux hardwood vinyl lines the floor. A convertible sofa in the slideout module is upholstered in supple Ultraleather with memory foam padding, and the few windows available to the outside use metal mini-blinds or soft, cocoa-colored cloth curtains.
Efficiently packing a Class B for a road trip requires forethought and some serious prioritizing in regard to what goes and what stays. In the case of the Free Spirit SS, there was relatively more that went than stayed, thanks to an abundance of interior storage receptacles, and a rear exterior compartment that made ourÂ efforts considerably easier.
A large, mid-coach streetside bank of cupboards and drawers represents ample interior storage potential. This lengthy floor-to-ceiling structure is appointed with a 22-inch-wide by 54-inch-high by 15-inch-deep wardrobe closet, multiple drawers and several smaller cupboards. Overhead cabinets are also sited above the couch, while curbside, the galley is fitted with overhead cabinets, and a cupboard and drawers beneath the Corian counter.
Exterior cargo options are singularly represented by a double-door compartment in the rear of the coach that affords approximately 19 cubic feet of space. This shelved, rather shallow area varies in depth from 7 to 9 inches, but encompasses the entire height and width of the unit.
Although inherently limited, the rear compartment can accept an assortment of smaller and taller items such as toolboxes, folding chairs, golf clubs, electrical cords, hoses, etc. And considering the coach’s wet weight of 9,382 pounds, it can carry a maximum combined load of passengers and cargo up to 1,648 pounds before exceeding its gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) of 11,030 pounds.
We packed light and tight, whichÂ included frozen dinners slid into the modest freezer of the 3.8-cubic-foot, three-way refrigerator. Plenty of canned goods were also stashed away in several cupboards for use on the two-burner gas stove with fold-down, tempered glass cover. Although there is limited counter space in the galley, the lidded stovetop and an insert for the deep, round stainless steel sink allow for a level workspace in excess of 6 square feet.
Once meals were prepared using the stove and microwave/convection oven, we dined on the unit’s 23-by-54-inchÂ portable pedestal table. We ate comfortably, though there wasn’t a whole lot of extra surface space available.
Also included for an extra guest or two is a 16-by-24-inch, cocktail-size pedestal table that is likewise collapsible and stows away with the main table in the rear streetside wardrobe closet. Outfitted with the above appointments and appliances, we cooked and ate remarkably well considering the constraints of the Class B’s interior.
When dinner was finished, we rotated both cockpit captain’s chairs rearward to create a relaxing and comfortable living room layout. This welcoming area made the perfect place to recount our daily progress and relax with a few books we had brought along. We also enjoyed a bit of background music from the coach’s in-dash AM/FM/CD player. Later, we watched a DVD on the 22-inch, LED TV mounted on a swing-out arm above the curbside doorframe.
Sleeping arrangements in this unit are for two people only, and consists of the convertible sofa that folds out to a 54-by-80-inch bed. We unfortunately had a less than enjoyable experience with this fixture that resulted in a very uncomfortable night’s sleep.Â
When folded out, the upper and lower segments of the couch that were supposed to meet evenly in the middle did not. As a result, the sleeping surface was more like a hammock than a bed, with a distinct dip in the middle.
Later, discussing this experience with the manufacturer, we were assured that our situation was an anomaly, and that all other couches in existing units conformed to specifications.
In a Class B of any size, a rear bathroom with standup enclosed shower, toilet with 19 inches of foot space, and a decent-size vanity are surprising and welcome amenities. For the duration of our stay in the unit, this residential feature added considerably to our personal comfort level.
Interior ventilation in the Free Spirit is quite good, thanks mainly to the cross flow of air between its louvered slideout windows and the curbside door opening measuring approximately 45 inches wide by 74 inches high. This generous portal also features a retractable metal screen that can be pulled snugly in place to allow added airflow, and enables increased viewing to the outside.
If Class B’s are to your liking, the new Free Spirit SS from Leisure Travel Vans may just be the ticket. With a turboÂdiesel powered Mercedes-Benz 3500 van chassis, rakishly attractive exterior, Euro-based interior with extra slideout living space, and a full bathroom, there aren’t too many places this coach won’t be appreciated – in form as well as function.
Fuel economy: 17.4 MPG
0-60 MPH: 19.4 sec
40-60 MPH: 10.0 sec
Model: Sprinter 3500
Engine: 3.0-L V-6 turbodieselÂ
SAE HP: 188 hp @ 3,800 rpmÂ
Torque: 325 lb-ft @ 1,400-2,400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Axle ratio: 4.18:1
Brakes, f/r: hydraulic disc with absÂ
suspension, f/r: independent with Â mono-leaf spring and stabilizer/leaf spring with stabilizer bar
Fuel cap: 26.4 gal
Warranty: 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Ext length: 23′ 3″
Ext width: 6′ 9″
Ext height: 9′ 9″
Int width: 5′ 10″
Int height: 6′ 3″
Construction: steel van shell,Â fiberglass batt insulation
Freshwater cap: 36 gal
Black-water cap: 19 gal
Gray-water cap: 42 gal
LP-gas cap: 8.3 gal
Air conditioner: 11,000 btu
Furnace: 16,000 Btu
Refrigerator: 3.8 cu-ft
Inverter: 600 watt
Battery: (3): 1 12-volt chassis, 2 6-volt coach
Generator: 2.5 kw LP-gas
Base MSRP: $119,470
MSRP as tested: $125,098
Warranty: 2 yrs/24,000 milesÂ
(water, fuel, LP-gas tanks full;Â no supplies or passengers)
Front axle: 3,780 lbs
Rear axle: 5,602 lbs
Total: 9,382 lbs
GAWR, F/R: 4,410/7,720Â lbs
GVWR/GCWR: 11,030/15,250 lbs
ROCCC: 1,648 lbs Â (deduct weight of passengers for net cargo capacity)
GAWR: gross axle weight rating
GVWR: gross vehicle weight rating
GCWR: gross combination weight rating
ROCCC: realistic occupant & cargo carrying capacity (full water, no passengers)Â
LEISURE Travel Vans