Recreation vehicles take on low profile, gas thrift

To an energy-conscious camper, driving a gas-thirsty recreation vehicle is a fond memory. Big and boxy is no longer fashionable, nor does it make sense at the gas pump.

In response to a public craving for lower operating costs, RV manufacturers have put their vehicles on a diet. In fact, the RVs of the '80s have been shedding weight quicker than a vegetarian at a barbecue.

As in the automotive world, the RVs have been radically redesigned to improve fuel economy. Some models are almost a ton lighter than models introduced only two years earlier. Materials such as aluminum and plastic are replacing the traditional steel and wood.

Lighter chassis, laminated fiber-comb walls clad with fiber glass, hollow cabinet doors, aluminum fuel tanks, acrylic windows, and lightweight appliances are high on their weight-loss diets. These features, linked with an aerodynamic , low-profile exterior, enable the redesigned units to increase their mileage significantly.

In 1977, Champion Home Builders of Dryden, Mich., turned the corner onto a new era of RV downsizing. The Trans-Van was the first low-profile mini motor home on the market. For the 1980s Champion has expanded the line to include the Custom Crown series in 17-, 19-, and 21-foot lengths.

But don't let the aerodynamic appearance fool you. There is a full 5 feet, 7 inches of headroom in the aisle and 6 feet, 2 inches in the rear galley.

Champion's Tran Star is an intermediate-size motor home in 21- and 24-foot lengths. On the outside it's about 2 to 2 1/2 feet lower than most full-size or mini motor homes on the road today.

Nevertheless, the self-contained units include kitchen, private bath, and most of the other amenities of its bigger brothers, with interior headroom that varies from 6 feet, 1 inch to 6 feet, 8 inches.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Champion should feel praised by its competitors. Georgie Boy Manufacturing Company of Edwardsburg, Mich., entered the low-profile motor-home market with its Trans Master, designed to run neck and neck with the Tran Star.

Winnebago of Forest City, Iowa, the original benefactor of the big-box design , introduced the Winnie Wagon II. The 19-foot wagon has 6-foot headroom in the galley and 5 feet elsewhere. The Seahawk, also by Winnebago through its Itasca division, has similar free-flow styling.

Aerodynamic design is not new to the RV industry. Airstream of Ohio has been a pioneer in reducing wind drag since 1937, and the aluminum-bullet appearance of its units is easily recognized.

Airstream now is going to the heart of the problem by offering a new fuel-efficient engine for its 28-foot, full-size motor home. Road tests of the 4-cycle, in-line Japanese Isuzu "6" indicate that the unit will have an average that approaches 15 miles per gallon on the road.

Several other RV manufacturers offer improved power systems to enhance their fuel economy further.

Dual fuel systems now are available which allow an RV engine to operate on propane as well as the traditional gasoline. The dual systems produce a lower cost per gallon and reduced engine maintenance.

Diesel engines are also more prevalent and provide a much greater fuel efficiency than their gas counterparts. Winnebago has a Class A motor home powered by an air-cooled Deutz in-line "6" diesel. It is slightly lighter than the liquid-cooled version, because no radiator is required. Although the engine is new to the RV market, KHD Deutz of America in Richmond, Ind., has distributed the West German-built engines for several years for industrial and agricultural uses.

As you might expect, the new low-profile coaches have a variety of uses and often double as a second car. A survey done by Champion (572 Trans Van owners responded), almost 50 percent use their units primarily for camping. However, a surprising 16 percent use their Trans Van as their only means of transportation. An equal number rely on it as a second car.

The new low-profile motor homes are versatile. They are practical multi-use vehicles for little more than the price of many cars.

What they lack in storage space on a camping trip, they reconcile with flexibility and economy. Furthermore, their stylish design successfully competes with the appearance of other types of transportation.

You can park one in our driveway any time

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