To say I'm not much of a mechanic is a bit like saying Brexit was not the UK population's greatest idea. I know where the major parts are, just as I'm sure that those 51.9% of voters understood the essence of democracy. But equally, after I've dismantled a serviceable engine, I don't always understand how to put it back together again so that it still works...
With that it mind, you may understand that our camper requirements included an easily serviceable base vehicle, from a quality manufacturer - and additional bonus points if the model was one for which we were likely to find qualified mechanics and spare parts wherever we travelled. Secondary issues were fuel type, power and 2 wheel or 4 wheel drive.
- Power and torque
- 2WD v All WD
- Manufacturer and model
- Fuel type
There's a general acceptance, I think, that there are a few manufacturers who excel at producing high quality vehicles. Don't trust my opinion? Okay, it's a bit more than a thought. As you can see in the linked ranking, there are some stand out candidates, and others - well, they also stand out, but for all the wrong reasons.
Some of you know that I'm a bit of a fan of Land Rovers. My Series III - Rosie - is resting in the garage for the moment, but here she is in her heyday in 1982, working as a Land Rover demonstrator.
Having said that, I can only echo the implication in the list; although all Land Rover lovers know that there are some duff models, and some solid ones. Right? The Land Rover Defender with the TD5 engine, for example. There's an absolute beauty still (at the time of writing) waiting for a new home - already converted as a camper!
Looking up the other end of the list (!), most of the most reliable/quality manufacturers are Japanese marques. No real surprise there.
Of the top 10, there are some good potential base vehicles from Toyota, Ford, and Nissan. Mercedes are surprisingly low, but their Sprinter models have a strong reputation. So too do the Renault Trafic and Master vans, and, of course, there's always a Volkswagen Transporter, or (although much larger), an Iveco Daily.
Here's a quick summary of the makes and models we considered as possible base vehicles for a coach built camper or a conversion.
And aren't they all a pretty colour? Right?
There are a bewildering array of coach-built motorhomes. From American RV converted coaches, to pop-up campers. Perhaps some of highest quality brands in Europe are Concorde, Hymer (including Niesmann+Bischoff), Rapido, Burstner, the Swift Group, and Laika. There are many others! For something a little bit weirder and wonderfuller... what about a Tonke?
Or why not go the whole way, and shell out for a Thor, or a Winnebago, or the beautiful Airstream?
Here's a summary of some of the coach-built campers we've driven, viewed or considered, including a 1980s Airstream 345. Awesome. Except for the damp.
Power and torque
In a nutshell, it ain't the size, it's the way it's delivered. Lots of power may be nice; certainly critical if you're looking for high speed, but for a good tow vehicle or heavy motorhome, torque is the equivalent of the '0-60 in 5 seconds' in the petrol-heads' vernacular.
Torque is the ability to pull away from stopped. Torque is the characteristic that will enable you to keep going up a steep incline. As the wonderful Bob Hoskins claimed in the nineties, it's good to torque.
[Such a wonderfully dated image, not to say cringe-worthy and misogynist, of 1990s England].
Of course, in any practical application, torque is also related to the intrinsic power of a particular engine. There is no torque without power. Ask North Korea.
However, the higher the horsepower - the grunt - generally speaking the more fuel needed! [ed: damn you're good] Does that matter? Well, yes. Unless you're a 'climate change skeptic' - which probably means you're about as well informed as this guy - or you don't care about the cost, then it's likely that the choice of an engine for your motorhome has to balance torque v power v fuel efficiency v practicality. Certain engines are going to be nearer your 'Goldilocks' solution than others, but which?
Sadly electrically powered motorhomes are not up to the task, yet. But they're coming.
In the meantime the choice is essentially diesel, petrol or LPG. In Europe, LPG is widely available, and significantly cheaper than diesel or petrol. However, engines need to be converted to run on LPG, and a large new fuel tank has to be strapped somewhere. In addition - although, as I state, widely available - it's still not universally available, which implies another one of those awkward moments you probably want to avoid. It's not easy to push most motorhomes. And running out of fuel anywhere is never fun - yep... been there, done that. Several times.
These days, in our 'RV Rulebook', one of the most important rules we have is: 'One quarter? Remember your daughter.'
[ed: say again?]
All right: I just made that up thirty seconds ago. Weirdly enough.
We do, however, have a 1/4 tank rule: once the needle hits the line, we always take the next petrol station. Nearly always.
Petrol engines have, generally speaking, more power than a diesel, but the diesel engine has that great advantage of comparatively more torque. Why? I dunno, tbh. It comes down to higher compression ratio, turbo boost, more heat, and continuous fuel injection. Not very helpful? Well, sorry about that. Try this.
Did you get past the first 30 seconds? It comes down to four strokes, apparently, and that's where I left it too.
In the States, most vehicles - whatever their fuel type - are 'gas guzzlers', but it is changing. It's quite fun driving a motorhome with a 6.7L V10 engine, as we've had for our last couple of trips, but you don't get to drive for very long before you spend the next twenty minutes refuelling. And then you have to lug it around again for the next while at 5 mpg (60 - yes, not a typo - SIXTY litres per 100km or so). At least the weight reduces quickly.
Over the years, I've forgotten the number of times we've have conversations with friends, family and folks in the USA about fuel prices in Europe.
"How do you guys afford to travel when gas is four times the price that it is here?"
"Err, simple. We use engines that are four times as fuel efficient."
It is true to say that for Mr. Average RV in the States, we've spent the same money on fuel as for Mrs. Average Motorhome in Europe. And, naturally enough, the more efficient your motorhome engine, the more money you can spend on something else while you wait for that solar-powered model to do the hard miles.
So lpg v petrol v diesel? For us, and for the majority of motorhome owners in Europe; diesel. As a bonus, diesel engines have a small advantage over petrols in terms of maintenance - both easy and limited. No spark plugs or carburettors, nor... other things that go round and go bang. I don't know.
[ed: great job. Convincing.]
And don't believe someone who tells you diesel engines are noisy, dirty and smelly. It's true; but don't believe them.
So, where are we?
We want: a torquey; fuel efficient; reliable; low maintenance engine, in an equally reliable; widely available manufacturer's chassis; and a coach/body in a pretty colour.
As I've claimed before, high ground clearance is perhaps more important than the driving-wheel design, but nevertheless it's worth considering 2WD v 4WD options if all else is equal. Even if you don't use it too often, knowing that you have a slightly better chance of unsticking yourself, or that you can pull away from that wet grass pitch without too much drama - worth a look.
Two wheel drive or All wheel drive
First things first; all-wheel drive includes those vehicles with three axles or more, all driving. Enough said. We're not looking in the weight or size range that would justify that - beautiful monsters though they may be. But if you're interested in one, I know where there's a good un - similar to the below.
For us, the question was four wheel drive or two wheel drive. Many motorhomes today are on the edge of the maximum permissible weight (see previous on weight characteristics and the consequences of licence-led design), most of which weight is loaded over the rear axle, whereas the vehicle itself may be front wheel drive. As the weight is off the front, relatively speaking, this can mean poor traction - or more simply, a good chance of getting stuck. Having gotten us stuck in a sandy car park once ($300 for the tow) I can confirm that it's also easy with a front-engine rear-wheel drive motorhome, too! Of course, perhaps the most contributory elements, there, were a 7.5t coach RV and low ground clearance...
Nevertheless, having that extra chance to get out, has got to be good news. But at what price? Fuel for one. Expensive model vehicle is another. The fuel economy issue can be partly mitigated by finding something with a selectable 2WD/4WD mode, preferably with high and low ratio options to get your rig up the steepest inclines. Some even come with slip differential options (limited or full), meaning that as the torque comes off one wheel on an axle (e.g. when it's suspended in the air, or rotating uselessly on ice or wet grass), the torque is diverted to the other wheel(s) that still has traction.
But again - you can get anything stuck, if you try hard enough. Unless that's the goal of your fun day out, the best approach is to avoid situations where you might get stuck! And 2WD vehicles help to avoid tempting you into something you might not get out of.
That little track to the beach in northern Portugal? No problem with 2WD and high ground clearance. That snowy day in the hills behind Stavanger, Norway? Put your feet and the heat up, and grab a good book. Still perfect in a 2WD.
We decided to consider the option of 4WD if available, when all else was equal. But it wasn't a priority.