Starrunner 18 1/2′

Many motorhome enthusiasts find it hard to justify the expense of a full-size motorhome
that’s used only a few times a year, much less one that gets between 6 and 9 mpg.
Sportsmobile may have the answer. Based on the Mercedes-Benz-built Sprinter van used in
Europe and now imported to the United States under the DaimlerChrysler/Freightliner banner,
Sportsmobile’s Starrunner has a standard 2.7 liter, five-cylinder Mercedes-Benz diesel with
a five-speed automatic transmission that averages more than 20 mpg. The chassis features
standard independent front suspension, rack-andpinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes with
ABS/ASR (traction control) and driver/front-passenger air bags. With a turning radius of
only 44.6 feet, it has the maneuverability of a passenger car (compare to a Ford Crown
Victoria at 40.3 feet). A variety of floorplans are offered, or the buyer can design his or
her own, so the price will vary from that of our test unit, $54,945 with limited options.
The first thing you’ll notice when you climb behind the wheel of the Starrunner is its
European genetics. If you’ve ever been inside a contemporary European car, you’ll be
instantly familiar with design cues that could perplex owners of American products. For
example, “universal” markings are used on almost all of the controls (you know, those
little symbols that are supposed to tell you what the thing does), and the placement of the
controls is comparatively unorthodox. The shifter is mounted on the dash, and instead of
the power door-lock button being mounted on the door handle, there is one button on the
dash that controls the locking and unlocking of all doors. But once you grow accustomed to
these peculiarities, you start to notice the truly well conceived aspects of the cockpit,
like the analog speedometer, tachometer and gauges that are large and easily seen through
the arc of the steering wheel. The cloth seats, though appearing rather austere, are almost
infinitely adjustable and very comfortable. The cruise control, which consists of a small
lever just behind and above the turn-signal stalk, makes it easy to adjust speed without
looking at the controls. And there’s another handy feature: adjustable headlights. Owing to
the van’s commercial background, there’s a switch at the driver’s left side that allows the
brilliant headlights to be aimed up or down several degrees in order to compensate for
heavy or light loads. We would not say that driving the Starrunner is like driving any
full-size van, because it isn’t – it’s better. Stability is superb, and the coach is
virtually unaffected by high winds and the bow wave of passing trucks. Steering input is
similar to that of a European sedan, with excellent feedback and on-center feel. Likewise,
the anti-lock-equipped brakes are strong and predictable and exhibit no signs of fade under
hard braking. The Mercedes-Benz five-cylinder engine clatters away contentedly at low
speeds, and gearing is properly matched to provide adequate get-up-and go from stoplights,
freeway onramps and the like. Don’t expect to win any races; our Starrunner averaged 20
seconds from zero to 60 mph, and just under 11 seconds from 40 to 60. The gearing in the
upper ranges of the transmission is one of those unfortunate combinations that find the
transmission hunting for the right gear if left in drive. For example, as we approached a 7
percent grade at 65 mph in drive (fifth) gear at 2,500 rpm, the transmission downshifted to
fourth gear at 60 mph and 3,000 rpm. From there, the hunting began. The engine began to lug
until it slowed to 55 mph, where it downshifted to third gear at 3,500 rpm. Speed then
climbed back up to 60 mph, where the transmission upshifted to fourth gear, and then began
to slow once again. Fourth is too tall to keep the coach moving at 60, and third is too
short. So, you must either be content to let the transmission shift back and fourth as you
climb a steep grade or, better yet, leave it in third gear and chug up the hill at 50 mph.
Granted, this was a 7 percent grade, but the experience will likely be similar on a more
moderate grade with more supplies/people on board. In any case, it’s something we can live
with – especially when you consider we obtained an incredible 21.1 mpg combined
city/highway driving. For drivers who prefer a compact motorhome for its fuel economy, the
Starrunner will set a new standard. At highway speeds, the diesel’s sound is barely audible
as the Starrunner’s aerodynamic shape slices through the air. There is very little wind
noise, and even though this was Sportsmobile’s first prototype on this chassis, there were
very few squeaks or rattles. Overall, we had few complaints with the driver’s compartment
with a couple of exceptions. The sun visors, though large and effective when the sun is in
front of you, don’t swivel to the side as they do on most contemporary vehicles. And the
entryway from the living area to the cockpit could use some padding; we banged our heads
here a few times. Sportsmobile is addressing both areas. The vehicle has good load capacity
for its size (1,514 pounds) and is designed to carry four adults. Living in the Starrunner
is just as pleasurable as driving it. Our test motorhome was the 50S, one of Sportsmobile’s
most popular floorplans, which features a streetside galley and a rear couch/storage area
that folds into a comfortable double bed. The galley countertop features a two-burner stove
and a sink, below which are a trash receptacle, an optional microwave oven, a 12-volt DC
3-cubic-foot refrigerator, a large storage drawer and a cabinet for the optional portable
toilet. Overhead storage cubbies allow room for small items like spices, while a large
slide-out pantry to the left can easily accommodate canned goods, cereal and the like.
Above the cab, another large storage area houses the tripod-leg device for the portable
table, the top of which is secured to the galley counter just behind the driver’s seat.
Simply set up the tripod, push the tabletop into place, and you’re ready to eat, play board
games or whatever. Another storage cabinet is located curbside, just inside the sliding
doorway. This is a good place to keep additional foodstuffs, plates, napkins and other
supplies. It also serves as a nice staging area for plates of food that are to be taken
outside for al fresco dining under the optional crank-out awning ($677). Moreover, the
Starrunner is loaded with thoughtful details that are the result of the company’s 43 years
in the Class B motorhome business. For example, a cabinet on the streetside of the sofa-bed
arrangement houses an optional 9-inch color television with DVD player ($299) that slides
out on a tray and can be swiveled toward the rear or the front of the coach. Aft of this
cabinet is a roomy wardrobe, which is accessible either from the sofa-bed area or from
behind the coach with the rear doors open. That is handy for those times when you don’t
want to track dirt indoors just to grab a jacket. Above the sofa-bed area is another
overhead storage compartment, which likewise can be accessed from the rear doors.
Underneath the sofa is a large drawer that is perfect for storing sheets and blankets. And
there’s a pass-through underneath that allows the owner to push long items, such as skis,
into the coach from the rear. The rear doors are a marvel of engineering. They can be
partially opened like standard delivery-van doors and secured using latches that prevent
the doors from closing in the wind. Or, if you like, release the latches and the doors will
fold all the way back until they touch the sides of the van, where they are secured by
powerful magnets. With the doors open, the user can also access a storage compartment that
houses the gray-water drain/freshwater supply hoses and a pull-out shower wand for cleaning
dirty feet. The Starrunner can be used for dry camping if need be, but is designed for
campsites with at least partial hookups. With a portable toilet, no separate waste tank is
needed, and gray-water capacity is limited. There is no AC generator, so shore power is
needed to operate appliances such as the microwave oven and the optional Starcool
airconditioning system ($1,567). In this particular model, hookups are needed to operate an
electric heater because a furnace is optional. A water heater is also optional. The
Starrunner we tested lacked some typical self-contained motorhome amenities, but
Sportsmobile offers options that can equip the coach with all the features wanted for
individual tastes. If you find the idea of an affordable, economical coach that can double
as a second family car appealing, the Mercedes-powered Starrunner is a very strong
contender. Sportsmobile Texas Inc., (800) 344-8154, sportsmobile.com.

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