Mileage Maximizers: 2009 RV Models

Imagine, if you would, a stroll through an RV show two or three years from now. There’s an
abundance of motorhomes built on chassis with familiar names – Freightliner, Roadmaster,
Spartan, DynoMax, Workhorse, Dodge, Ford and Chevy. But there are also a few that you’re
seeing for the first time.

winnebago_journey.jpgAlthough there are some traditional 45-footers decked out with
granite floors, five slideouts and triple rooftop air conditioners, most have a smaller
footprint and, in some cases, a different look and style. And almost every one that you
walk by offers better fuel mileage than you were used to seeing in the past.

That scenario
is not as far-fetched as it might seem as the 2009 model year heralds the beginning of what
some in the RV industry see as a major shift – triggered by elevated fuel prices – toward
smaller, lighter motorhomes that provide better fuel mileage.

“I call it a tectonic plate
shift,” said Luc van Herle, marketing director for Fleetwood Enterprises’ motorhome
division. “The RV industry is in the midst of changing and I think it’s forever. Inevitably
the U.S. market will become more like Europe, South Africa and Japan, where they’ve been
dealing with high fuel prices for many years.”

That doesn’t mean that Fleetwood’s 45-foot,
quad-slide luxury American Coach diesel-pusher is going to be miniaturized anytime soon.

But major manufacturers that include Fleetwood, Winnebago Industries, Monaco Coach and
Coachmen RV have all introduced Class B and/or Class C motorhomes on the high-mileage
Dodge/Freightliner Sprinter chassis, powered by a 154-hp, turbocharged Mercedes-Benz diesel
engine that Dodge estimates gets between 16 mpg to 19 mpg of fuel.

They join Airstream and
Canadian B-van manufacturers such as Pleasure-Way, Leisure Vans and Roadtrek Motorhomes,
who have been building on the Sprinter chassis for several years.

four_winds_siesta sprinterAnd in the big picture,
that just might be only the beginning as others – including Monaco, Gulf Stream and Damon
Motor Coach – have announced they are working with alternative C- and A-body chassis trying
to achieve the same goal: higher fuel mileage.

Available in the United States as a Class B
since the early part of the decade, the Sprinter-chassis has just this past year become
widely available following a 2007 chassis upgrade.

Although it’s just an example of the
kinds of new products the RV sector might include in the years ahead, the Sprinter is the
type of motorhome that manufacturers are rushing to incorporate right now into their brand
lineups.

Fleetwood, for its part, introduced the 2008 Icon and Pulse – 25-foot Class C’s
retailing from $93,044 on 11,030-pound Sprinter chassis sporting highly stylized front caps
to increase the unit’s aerodynamics. “The motorhome is not going away, but the vehicles
will look different in the future,” van Herle noted. “They will be smaller, shorter,
lighter.”

Highly visible at a recent Winnebago dealer meeting was the new 2009 24-foot ERA
Class B motorhome built on the lighter Sprinter chassis with an 8,550-pound gross vehicle
weight rating (gvwr), 170-inch wheelbase and an msrp of about $95,000.

Winnebago was the
first U.S. company to build a Class C on the Sprinter chassis, and the Winnebago View and
Itasca Navion became the company’s best-selling Class C motorhomes in 2007.

Moving in a
similar direction, Winnebago also introduced a shorter 34-foot floorplan to the 2009
Winnebago Journey/Itasca Meridian diesel-pusher brands to appeal to fuel-conscious buyers.
Built on the Freightliner 29,410-pound gvwr XC chassis with 350-hp Cummins ISB engines,
Journey/Meridian features a $212,275 base msrp. “Historically, (shorter diesel-pushers)
haven’t been super successful,” said Winnebago Chairman, President and CEO Bob Olson. “We
are willing to take a gamble. With fuel prices the way they are, people are going to be
looking more toward coaches like that.”

All things considered, not everyone believes that
the changes that are occurring in the motorhome market are permanent.

“If gas prices come
down, people are going to want the larger coaches,” predicted Tom Walworth, president of
Statistical Surveys Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan, a company that tracks retail RV sales.
“They’ve done it time after time in the 30 years that I’ve been doing this. Right now,
manufacturers are shifting to smaller products, which is what they should be doing. But the
market will adapt to fuel prices, whatever they are. If consumers demand a lighter, more
fuel-efficient RV, the RV industry will do it. If customers want larger RVs, they’ll do
that, too.”

That, however, hasn’t been the case in Europe, where fuel prices have been
higher than in the United States for a long time and where consumers adapted to small,
fuel-efficient Class A motorhomes that often weigh less than some traditional Class C’s in
America.

But European RVers usually don’t tow dinghy vehicles, and coaches there typically
aren’t equipped with air conditioning, generators or slideout rooms, all of which add
weight to a motorhome, thus reducing fuel mileage.

With few companies building
diesel-pushers, Class A coach lengths in Europe often don’t range beyond 30 feet and aren’t
as wide as U.S.-built motorhomes due to European road restrictions. While compact in size,
highly engineered European motorhomes are packed with small features that make optimum use
of the interior space with lots of storage here and there. And because European coaches are
built without rooftop air conditioning, skylights abound along the lengths of some units.

In June, Monaco introduced the ’09 Monaco Covina and Holiday Rambler Traveler Class C
motorhomes on the imported Sprinter chassis, and announced that a new “C-plus” motorhome
would debut by the end of the year. Monaco Chairman Kay Toolson also reported that a
lighter-weight Class A is on the horizon for the 2010 model year. “This unit will be the
most fuel-efficient Class A motorhome in the marketplace,” Toolson said. “It will
revolutionize the industry.”

monaco_covinaMonaco Covina/Holiday Rambler Traveler are built on the
Sprinter cab chassis with a 11,030-pound gvwr starting from $107,000 and $97,000,
respectively. With regard to weight, the two 24-foot, single-slideout floorplans in both
brands feature lightweight CTEC fiberglass side walls from Owens Corning Fabwel.

“We have a
strong focus on fuel efficiency,” said Patrick F. Carroll, Monaco vice president of product
development. “We now are looking at anything we can do to make coaches more aerodynamic and
we are looking at weight.”

For 2009 Thor Industries subsidiary Four Winds International
this spring also introduced two 25-foot Sprinter Class C floorplans in the Dutchmen/Four
Winds/Chateau companion lines retailing from $95,130. “There is a paradigm shift,” said
Scott Jacobson, Four Winds national sales manager. “It’s becoming more evident. Even if gas
prices go back down, people are going to want to make smarter choices when it comes to
their discretionary income.”

Damon Motor Coach attacked the fuel issue by introducing the
31-foot, front-engine diesel Avanti mounted on a new W-16D Workhorse chassis, with a
16,000-pound gvwr, projected to average 131?2-15 mpg with an msrp starting at $125,000.

“The RV landscape is changing,” said Damon President Bill Fenech. “Right now it’s
transitional. We are making good first steps.”

Added Damon Vice President Matt Thompson:
“I’m so close to believing the consumer is looking for a well-appointed, smaller motorhome.
But we’ve only taken baby steps. Our American mentality is to make it as big as you can get
it.”

The desire to slim down, though, has struck even luxury motorhome manufacturers.
Tiffin Motor Homes, based in Red Bay, Alabama, introduced a 36-foot version of its upscale
Allegro diesel-pusher that previously had only been available in 40-foot-plus layouts.
Built on Tiffin’s PowerGlide chassis, with a 34,600-pound gvwr and equipped with a 425-hp
Cummins ISL diesel engine, the downsized Allegro retails from $272,300.

And the dieting
urge struck even some makers of muscular “Super C” motorhomes, such as Germany-based UNICAT
GmBH, which this year began marketing the 26-foot UNICAT Amerigo MXT, a more
consumer-friendly version of its go-anywhere Class C motorhome that looks more like a
military vehicle than a motorcoach. Built on an International MXT cutaway chassis with a
23,500-pound gvwr and 300-hp International VT365 V-8 engine, the new UNICAT is said to
drive more like a pickup truck with a much gentler ride than its predecessor. “This is by
far the smallest version that we manufacture for the American market,” said Avi Meyers,
president of distributor UNICATAmericas. “We are adapting to the North American market,
which wants something that consumes a little less fuel and is easier to drive. That is the
direction that American coaches are going.”

Fuel efficiency was the unofficial theme when
Gulf Stream unveiled its 2009 lineup with a new “Super C” diesel chassis on a Sterling
cutaway truck chassis that the company says will get 14 mpg. Gulf Stream also introduced an
“Econo-Mizer” option for its Independence, Yellowstone, Sun Voyager and Crescendo Class A
brands.

gulf_stream_sterling_super_maxGulf Stream expects more buyers will be looking at smaller units, but Brian Shea,
president of Gulf Stream’s motorized division, isn’t sure that the U.S. market will
parallel the European market anytime soon.

“Looking at Europe, there are a lot more things
going on than just fuel prices,” Shea said. “There are regulations on licensing and road
systems there that are smaller and narrower than they are here.

“I don’t know that we are
heading to where Europe is. The American public wants more livability and we can give it to
them because the highways are better and there’s not the regulation.”

Gulf Stream’s
SuperMax Class C motorhome has been reconfigured on a new Sterling cutaway truck chassis
with a 19,500-pound gvwr from Daimler Trucks North America LLC.

The new SuperMax is
equipped with a 305-hp Cummins ISL engine and is available in 31- and 34-foot floorplans
with a $95,000 retail base price. The company estimates the new chassis will get the diesel
SuperMax 14 mpg.

The $5,995 “Econo-Mizer” option replaces a standard front-engine gas Ford
chassis with a Freightliner front-engine FRED chassis equipped with a rear pair of wide
Michelin X1 “Super Single” tires, a reduced gear ratio and a “fuel catalyzer” that adds a
green aspect to the package by cutting tailpipe emissions.

Other companies also are dealing
with ecological pressures that are developing beyond fuel mileage.

In addition to fuel
efficiency, Coachmen is looking for ways to make motorhomes more eco-friendly, said Bill
Martin, vice president of marketing.

“We are looking at ways to be more lightweight, more
green,” Martin said.

For a while Coachmen experimented with a motorhome powered by
biodiesel fuel equipped with an electrical system that operated on solar power. Another
Coachmen prototype employed a hydrogen generating system to produce a portion of its fuel.

“We feel the RV industry is evolving,” Martin said. “This will be a permanent change. To
what degree I don’t know. RVs will get smaller, yes. But there will still be RVers who want
larger coaches.”

Coachmen also has introduced its first Sprinter-based Class C, the 25-foot
Prism M-230 with European amenities to go along with the Sprinter’s 11,030-pound-rated
chassis.

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