On the open road in a gas-saving 'micro mini' RV

Hurrah, I'm back on the road in a brand-new motor home, despite the price of gasoline. I'm not off my rocker and I haven't lost my wheels; in my micro mini recreational vehicle, the latest in the development of motor homes, I'm getting an honest 18 miles to the gallon.

My new small unit is the fourth motor home I have owned. Three years ago I sold my big monster of a unit, because it was too cumbersome and too expensive to operate. But I soon missed the life-style.

I started spending my weekends and vacations on wheels some 20 years ago when the words motor home and slash van hadn't yet been invented.

The camper I had then was a practical, primitive affair, compared with what is available today.

As the motor home industry flourished, units became as big and swanky as a Park Avenue address. Eventually I traded up, until my unit was so splended that guests had to take their shoes off so they wouldn't soil the carpet. It was also so cumbersome that it became a chore to take it off the main highways.

The appliances were so sophisticated that if something went wrong it took an electronic engineer to get things working again. In my first camper the heater went out while my wife and I were off skiing. With a screwdriver and a wrench I took the heater apart and fixed it. When the same thing happened in my monster RV, with its thermostatically controlled furnace, there was no way I could fix it. We had a choice of freezing or going home at the rate of four or five miles per gallon of gasoline.

The latest gasoline crunch has sent the motor home industry into a tailspin. Chrysler Corporation, which has been the leading supplier of motor home chassis, sold only 39 last June, compared with 28,500 units sold in the same quarter the previous year. All the manufacturers in Detroit that convert the chassis into RVs are closed. Winnebago, the biggest in the motor home industry, shut down completely last summer and is now producing units on a "build-to-order" basis.

But no one expects the industry to go down the drain. For many people, motor homes and trailers have become a way of life that is not going to change. What will change, industry spokesmen say, is a downsizing of the engines and the units themselves. Most of the RV assembly lines are either shut down, on slow production, or waiting for downsizing programs to be complete.

My micro mini, made by Sunline, is that downsize unit the industry has been talking about. A year ago, three or four small RV companies had the micro mini on their drawing boards and were starting to produce them. Today there are about 30 such small companies producing these new units. Their business is booming.

What is a micro mini? It's a completely self-contained motor home built on a cab and chassis with a four-cylinder engine. It comes with dual rear tires, which makes it very stable to drive.

The interior is a marvelously engineered feat. My 17-foot house has two beds , a full bathroom with shower, full kitchen with oven, three-burner stove, good-size refrigerator, plenty of storage and closet space, hot water, screens all around for the summer, and storm windows and a heater for the winter. It has all the comforts, including air conditioning, that my large motor home had, but at half the size, half the cost, and three times better mileage.

We found on our shakedown trip to Nova Scotia that the little house on wheels was a delight. The part I liked best was getting off onto side roads and finding our own little niche to park in for a day or two. At one stopping place , on the shore of North Lake, we parked only 10 feet from the water.

I can't remember ever having such a relaxed trip. It was like having a cabin with a constantly changing location and setting. And while it wasn't the peppiest thing going up hills (the big units are not any better), its gas mileage looked good.

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