Highway nomads shift to smaller RVs

''Small'' is ''big'' in recreational vehicles these days. To get back into high gear, the designers and engineers of RVs are taking a new tack. Traditionally, families migrated into larger vehicles, but that was before the economy went sour and the price of fuel began to soar.

Today, however, people are moving from the motor homes of yesterday to the micro-minis of today - and liking it. Some are making the switch for the obvious economy of the smaller units, but others yearn for the feeling of the great outdoors which is sometimes cut off by the luxury of the big RVs.

Winnebago Industries of Forest City, Iowa, is typical of the companies that have shown innovation in design for 1983. Its new class of fuel-efficient, compact RVs, for example, is built with a 2-liter diesel engine and a front-drive power train which is adapted from one built by Renault, the French vehicle manufacturer.

Three Winnebago models in this new class were introduced this year. The Centauri is a van-size conversion that is priced at less than $20,000. The Itasca Phasar and the Winnebago LeSharo are motor-home versions with a compact and efficient living area. LeSharo and Phasar are about 20 feet long, with a height and width of 7 feet and interior height of 6 feet. Gross weight is 5,830 pounds. Prices start at $23,000.

Although the handling, styling, and fuel efficiency are praiseworthy features of the new condensed Winnebagos, the units are criticized for lack of power and excessive engine noise when operating at high r.p.m. The manufacturer, however, boasts an impressive fuel economy of 20-plus miles per gallon - a long way from the preembargo days of 6 to 8 m.p.g.

Another trend is the increased popularity of converted vans, whose design has changed drastically in recent years. Most vans have the ability to perform double duty. The Horizon, by International Vehicle Corporation of Bristol, Ind., is one example of the newer van conversions that can shuttle a family around town during the week and yet be a self-contained unit for the weekend or vacation. These multiple-purpose vehicles start at about $21,000.

Then there is the bottle-shaped mini-motor home, which has added headroom without too much sacrifice of positive aerodynamic performance. Champion's TranStar started the whole low-profile craze in 1980 and is considered a superior camping vehicle, because it has a full-length, stand-up interior and, in general, offers more livability than a mini.

Until the advent of Georgie Boy's Trans Master, this new styling was literally in a class by itself. Now there are almost an even dozen makers of this type of motor home.

In 1980, about half of the recreational-vehicle dealers in the United States threw in the towel as the RV industry collapsed. Yet business was up 32 percent in 1981 and another 8 percent last year. Wholesale sales last year hit 258,000 units.

Why is the RV industry doing so well now while many other industries are still faltering?

''We attribute our success to two reasons,'' a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association asserts. ''No. 1, two-thirds of our customers are repeat buyers who held off buying in 1979 and 1980 because of high interest rates and the gas situation, but now this pent-up demand is being released. Second, in these times of recession, many families are discovering that they can't afford hotel-restaurant vacations and they're finding RV vacations can be more economical.''

Increased fuel prices and higher interest rates may have initiated the trend, but the innovative, practical new RV designs promise to propel it through the decade of the '80s.

Those who will benefit from the wide range of better-engineered RVs are the buyers.

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