So You Want to Buy a Class A Motorhome


Mar 3, 2001


The Bottom Line Do some research so you know what you want for your money, talk to other owners, shop around and test drive different vehicles.

This Epinion was originally published in the How to Buy an RV section on July 29,2000, but I feel it fits better in this category

So you've done your research on all the different RV options out there, and you're thinking a motorhome, possibly a Class A, is in your future. So now that you've narrowed it down, you might just be coming to the realization that you've just discovered a whole new set of questions to ask. This review will discuss the differences between Class A, B and C motorhomes, as well as talk about the advantages of certain features of Class A rigs, and hopefully get you thinking about what it is you really want and what you can live without. Note: The word type is starting to be used when describing RVís, so you may come across type A, B and C instead of class.


So what is a Class A Motorhome?
The technical definition of a Class A Motorhome is a Ďbig, scary looking, bus like thing that could easily crush a Ford Escort if it accidentally ran over one on the freewayí. Actually, there is some ambiguity in the definition, but it generally has to do with size and chassis type. Iíve read that they are considered anything from 21í up to 45í but most people think of Class Aís as 30 feet or longer. The living quarters and driving compartment are built over top of an RV chassis, whereas the mini motorhome or Class Cís are usually built over a cutaway truck chassis with a pre-fab cab. Class Aís are from 96" to 102" wide and can be rather tall. With the vents and roof A/C units, youíd be scraping by to get under a bridge 12 feet tall or lower, so keep that in mind while plotting your course.

To make things even more confusing, manufacturers and owners like to make a further distinction between the regular class Aís and the luxury coaches and bus conversions. Luxury coaches are usually the high end models in a manufacturerís line, and have more expensive construction and amenities. Bus conversions are luxury vehicles built in a bus shell, or can be actual old buses that the handy type convert themselves. Some names of bus shells you might come across are Prevost, MCI or Bluebird.

Class B motorhomes, also referred to as van campers, look almost like regular vans but with a raised roof. They also can have dropped floors, and the result is an RV in which you can stand and move around in as long as you are not too much over 6í tall. The great thing about these machines is that they are about as easy to park and drive as a full sized van. They can also tow things, so if you want to take a boat or some off-road bikes on your vacation with you, you are not necessarily out of luck. Some brand names in this category are Road Trek, Coach House, Pleasure-Way and VWís Eurovan.

Class C motorhomes, also called mini motorhomes as stated earlier, look almost like a U-Haul with windows. Or perhaps the image is more like a full size van that drove through an extremely small house and got stuck. Of course, there are different types and some that are quite unique, but most of the ones Iíve seen have a sleeping section over the vehicle cab, and the user steps down into the cab to drive it. Some class C motorhomes are up to 31 feet long and have slide outs making them almost as spacious as a Class A. The net carrying capacity on these can be very small, so that is something to consider. A few brand names in this category are Fleetwoodís Tioga and Jamboree lines, Lazy Daze, and Jayco.

Discussing the Many Options
There are many different configurations and options available in RVís these days. The typical RV buyer will not be able to afford all of them, but it is amazing what you can get. It might also seem amazing to realize what you arenít getting for the money you are spending. This section will discuss the various choices you have and help you to pin down what may or may not be important to you.

Chassis: First letís talk about chassis: long, sleek, fine looking chassis. Most motorhome manufacturers build their RVs overtop of a chassis purchased from other companies such as Freightliner, Ford, Dodge, Spartan, Gillig or Workhorse. In some cases, a buyer can choose which type of chassis theyíd like, so if youíd rather have a Chevy than a Ford you can make that decision. Some RV companies make their own chassis, and you will often hear the term monocoque (pronounced mono-cock) used. Iím not quite sure what it means, but it is supposed to be a good thing from what I can tell. Iím pretty sure that monocoque is French for one coque, and having only one coque is surely a good thing, at least in the human part of the animal kingdom.

Actually, monocoque/semi-monocoque in RV terms means that there is steel framing that is built directly onto the chassis rails, distributing some of the weight into the frame of the RV. This makes the vehicle more rigid and means that the rails arenít bearing all the forces when the vehicle is driving down the road. The storage space is usually bigger, as there arenít rails running through the bays. Because the chassis is better integrated with the rest of the vehicle, an RV built with a monocoque chassis may not be as tall which is a benefit. Also, it seems that a more sophisticated suspension system can be put in place, which also makes for better handling.

Unfortunately, a buyer canít really dictate that he wants a semi-monocoque chassis other than by buying a rig from the specific companies who make them. Monaco has a division that makes Roadmaster chassis for their Monaco Coach and Holiday Rambler divisions. SMC Corporation makes the Magnum chassis for their Beaver, Safari and Harney lines. Foretravel and Newell Coach build their machines from the ground up too.

Suspension and Leveling Systems: Certain chassis makers such as Ford and Chevrolet use coil and leaf springs that may have auxiliary airbags . Full air suspensions with two bags per wheel are found on higher end models and these RVís have computerized air leveling systems. Suspension systems get more complicated as you move up the line, with manufacturers striving to make driving to the destination as fun as being there. Cheaper shocks and suspension systems might leave you feeling somewhat jarred after a few hours of driving. Take a few different vehicles for a test drive and note the experienceóit will definitely help in the decision making process.

Iíve mentioned air leveling systems, but there is also hydraulic leveling in which jacks raise the coach independent of the tires. Boards can be used underneath the jacks if the ground is soft. Also, the coach can be driven up onto boards to help in the leveling. Proper leveling is important not only for comfort, but for refrigerator operation. Overly steep slopes can pose a problem for air leveling systems, but the types of parks Iíve been to have almost level pads and very little adjustment is needed.

Brakes: Class A motorhomes use a couple different braking systems, depending on what is needed for the load rating. There are air assisted hydraulic disc and drum brakes as opposed to full air brakes with either discs or drums or a combination of both. Full air brakes are for the heavier machines, and from what Iíve read, drum brakes work well on heavy machines and a drum/disc combination will work as well as all disc. Still, some prefer all disc and think it is better system.

There are other brake assist devices like a retarders or engine brakes that can help in long downgrades where drivers have been known to burn out their brakes. And as in cars, anti-lock brakes and cruise control are common.


Roof: Some think that a rubber roof is better while some are in favor of fiberglass. It certainly seems that fiberglass is easier to take care of, but a gel coat or some other UV protective coating is required, and regular cleaning should still be done. One material used in making rubber roofs is EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer) which is more resistant to UV light and ozone. It oxidizes at a slow rate and needs to be cleaned to remove the chalky by-product. Never use a cleaner with petroleum distillates, however, or you could cause damage to the rubber. In general, I think that more people prefer fiberglass roofs as they are easier to clean and donít make the rest of the coach as dirty. Plus rubber roofs have been known to leak at the seams, and we all know how annoying leaking roofs (or leaking rubber) can be.


Engine Type: Diesel pushers are getting more affordable these days, but they are still generally more expensive than gasoline engines. A general rule of thumb is if you are going to travel fewer than 6,000 miles a year, a gas engine is OK, but if you plan to log a lot of miles, then a diesel pusher is worth the investment. The initial cash outlay might be more, but diesel engines are more durable. However, the regular maintenance costs are higher as well, unless you are the do it yourself type; a lot of RV owners are. There are slight operating differences as well in terms of cold weather starting, hill climbing and idling as these motors work differently than those powered by gas. An interesting note about diesel fuel: it is prone to a bacterial growth and you will need to add a fungicide to the tank in warm humid weather.


15, 30, 50 amp power: An RVís electrical system consists of two 12 volt DC systems and a 120 AC one. One 12 volt system runs the chassis/coach electrical components, while the other runs small house appliances like clocks, water pump and interior lights. The larger house like appliances such as A/C, televisions, microwave and washing machine run off of the AC system which is powered either by a generator or by plugging the RV into shore power at the campground.

The amount of power available is subject to how the motorhome is wired. Fifteen amps used to be common but 30 and 50 seem more common these days. Fifty amps is enough to run almost anything in the RV including two air conditioning units. Care must be taken when running too many appliances on 30 amps since it is possible to overload the circuit. And then there is the fact that the different parks and campgrounds, especially the older, smaller ones may not offer anything more than 15 or 20 amp service. Adapters are available to plug your coachís power cord into the shore power receptacle. You still have to be keenly aware of the power draw and take care not to run too many appliances as the plug can overheat, especially if the connection fits improperly. Also, turning on an appliance can cause a big spike in usage which could cause problems.


Slide Outs: Deciding whether you want a slide-out is the first step. For my husband, it was a definite requirement but I saw it as a weak link. Slide-out rooms can really increase the feeling of spaciousness inside, even if they only add a few square feet. There are differences in slide-out construction standards, however, and you might want to be aware of what you are getting. Stories of slide-outs coming out while driving, or leaking in the rain are not uncommon. What actually convinced me on the room extension on our RV is the way it fits flush against the side of the vehicle when not in use. It also has airbags that fill and seal the space once the room is extended as well as locking pins to firmly secure it. If the pins arenít in place, our motorhome cannot be put into drive.

Slide-outs can be powered electrically or through hydraulics and the latter is common on the higher end machines . They can open flush to the floor, or put the extra room up on a pedestal. The location of the slide-outs in the motorhome is also something else to be consider. Many have the living room furniture on the moving part but some put the galley (kitchen) there. Some people think that galley slide-outs expose you to additional problems since the hosing for the appliances must also be flexible. There are also bedroom slide outs that really open up the space around the bed.


Doors: Mid entry or front entry: this is obviously a convenience preference, but some RVers really like their mid-entry doors. I read a letter to the editor in one magazine in which the author was lamenting the fact that the trend seems to be towards the bus entry doors. When the door is in the middle of the coach, the co-pilot area of the cockpit is more or less the passengerís, to do with as he pleases whereas he might have to keep the papers and books to a minimum in an exit area. When the door is in the front, an RVer might actually have to carry a plate of food through the living room in order to get outside to the picnic table. Well, heck, that is what the dinette is for, and why have a powerful A/C unit if you arenít going to enjoy it. Plus, I need the exercise walking that extra 10 feet accords me. Having the door in the front maximizes the living room space, since you can have a couch where the door might normally be.


Awnings: Some RVís come with awnings over every window, plus a big one that extends out on one side of the coach to provide shade while sitting outdoors. Some RVís may only have the main awning while others offer none at all as part of their standard package. Awnings over the door and windows help to shade your windows and keep things a bit cooler. Having one over the refrigerator vent will help to keep the refrigerator operating more efficiently in hot weather.

Although awnings that are manually extended are the norm, automatic awnings are becoming more popular. Some automatic awnings have wind sensors so that the awnings are retracted in case of high wind. The manual ones can be a little tricky at times, as I found out the last time we put ours up and a friend almost broke his fingers. They usually arenít too hard to manage, however.


Storage Bays: Pass through storage is ideal if you have large items to haul, and roll out trays make things much easier. The doors of the compartments can be bus style where they actually fold up out of the way, but they swing up on many units which might be a little inconvenient.

Hook Ups: The area where the electrical, water and sewage hook-ups are stored can also have a sink for convenient washing and even a shower sprayer. Assess the way the hook ups are stored within the compartment as some set ups are much easier to deal with. Trying to get the kinks out of the drainage hose, or wrestling with the power cord while trying to plug in is not particularly fun. Also, there are hose adapters, electrical testers and water pressure gauges that you may need to buy separately.


Bathroom configurations: The bathroom experience can mean the difference between a home away from home and a place you can tolerate well enough for a few days. Make sure the bathroom and shower space is something you can live with. I personally didnít want an RV where the toilet was confined to a small closet, nor one that was located in the shower stall. A ventilation fan is very important as excess moisture can cause problems inside the motorhome, and this goes for the kitchen too. Another thing to consider is that It is easier to buy parts for household toilets than marine toilets in the event you need to make a quick repair.


Dinette: You might be tempted to go for the more elegant looking table and chair type of dinette. Extra folding chairs can be stored in the closet and the whole set up usually makes the coach living space look roomier. But the bench style dinette, besides having the restaurant booth panache thing going for it, also has more storage space in the area underneath the seat. Extra sleeping space is made when the table comes off and the benches slide into a bed. The coach we bought has a J-style dinette. No storage, no extra sleeping space, but the couch behind the table is comfy and means extra seating for guests.

Appliance Options: Todayís RVís come with a host of options in terms of appliances. You might be able to get a dishwasher, trash compactor, washer/dryer, DVD and CD players, VCRs, TV antenna, roof mounted or detached satellite dishes, convection oven, microwave convection combo, large refrigerators, extra freezers, automatic icemakers, storage bay TVs. Some of these are extra and will be installed before you take delivery of the unit. They can also add extra weight to the vehicle and if the net carrying capacity is already small, it might make a difference.

ē Some refrigerators can be run three ways: 12 volt batteries, AC or liquid propane while others cannot run off of batteries.
ē The washer/dryers you usually find in RVs are front loading combination units that wash, then dry and clothes can be prone to more wrinkling.
ē Roof mounted satellite dishes, especially ones that track automatically, are pretty convenient, but if you may not get a signal if parked under a tree or some other obstruction. The detached ones can be set up on the ground away from the trees.
ē If you plan to cook big meals, a convection microwave may not be sufficient for your needs. However, not having an oven leaves you with more storage space for kitchen utensils.


In Conclusion
Obviously, there are lots of things to consider when purchasing a Class A RV. Not all of them may be very important to you, but you should keep in mind that a neat feature you see on one type of machine may not necessarily be available on another model. You will know best how you will want to spend your money and what your needs are.

Quality differs from machine to machine so thoroughly investigating what other RV owners have to say about their rigs is a good first step. Join an RV newsgroup (alt.rv or rec.outdoors.rv-travel are two) or read user reviews on various sites like this one. RVAmerica (www.rvamerica.com) has user reviews. Also, www.rv.org, an independent consumer group, publishes books on safety ratings and how to buy an RV.

A final word about safety: feeling comfortable while driving one of these big rigs may take a little time. It might actually seem that a smaller unit might be easier to handle, but there are other things that effect handling besides size. A vehicle that is overloaded past its weight rating is dangerous. Operating at close to that capacity in a lower quality machine can be more difficult than driving a bigger RV with a good suspension system. Test drive several machines to get a feel of what driving them can be like. Check your area to see if driving classes are offered. Practice turning and backing up in empty parking lots before you go out on a trip. And of course, have fun looking!

In researching material for this review I consulted brochures, web sites and several books including _The RV Handbook_ by Bill Estes.

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