Pros: Compact and remarkably efficient
Cons: some cheap materials and a little questionable construction
There was a time when yours truly wouldn't have been caught dead in an RV, but that was back before I burned out on tent camping by spending three nights a week in a two-man backpacking tent for nine months or so. Nowadays, with a pair of hundred-pound Labs along on every vacation, tents have gotten a little cozy. Besides, we weren't sure about the weather for our latest vacation: North Carolina's Outer Banks (OBX). After all, it was November. Motels get old and B & Bs aren't generally pet-friendly (if your pet isn't a yapping lapdog), but we had a stroke of genius: rent an RV! A little surfing, a couple of phone calls, and we were set. The nice folks at Cruise America set us up in a pretty new (20K Miles on the odometer) 2005 Four Winds 5000 (Majestic)* from Thor Industries. Here's what our eight days and nights in the big white box (with the billboard on the side) taught us.
It's an Efficiency Apartment on Wheels
The key to designing an RV is efficiency, since an RV has to provide all of life's necessities within a limited space and it's impossible to knock out a wall and add on later. You have to fit everything - sleeping, kitchen, eating, living, hygiene, and infrastructure - into about 200 square feet. All that, and leave room for the part that puts the "V" in RV: the cab and engine. Not only that, but you need room to store everything from food to clothing to cleaning supplies. Tough job, and one that will quickly make a minimalist out of an RV dweller.
Here's what the 5000 gives you in these terms. All observations are based on the floor plan designated 23A; there are five other variations (see below):
Sleeping: In theory, there's room for four adults and two little people, with a pair of queen-size beds and a short full-size. The "master" bedroom back in the rear corner has an innerspring mattress with one corner cut off to allow passage to the head. A second queen is mounted in the alcove above the cab; it has a foam-filled cushion. The third sleeping space is created by lowering the table in the dinette and rearranging the foam cushions. Moving the table is fairly easy except that the space is quite tight. Whoever sleeps in this space had best not be a restless sleeper, since the cushions seem to "migrate" quite a bit. Both the queen-sized spaces have curtains for privacy, lights, ceiling and window ventilation, and power outlets. There are cabinets above the master "suite" for storage of clothing and personal items, though there's very little space for storage in the front "top bunk."
Dining: Though the 5000 sleeps five or six, there's only room for four at the booth-style dinette and perhaps a fifth person in the nearby captain's chair, which is fixed to the floor. Kitchen facilities are literally one step away, and a window placed above the table allows a view of the lake, stream, or other RV that's next door. The dining area doubles as the living area (efficiency, efficiency), so electrical, telephone, and TV cable connections are located in the bottom of the booth. They can be rather difficult to reach. There is storage above the window (including space for the ladder to reach the top bunk) and beneath the seat on one side. This base model didn't come with the optional television cabinet that mounts above the forward seat in the dinette.
Kitchen: Everything you need for meal prep is present, although most is reduced in scale. There is a three-burner propane stove by Medallion, a combination microwave-convection oven by Amana (a microwave only is standard), and a 6.3-cubic foot dual-mode propane/electric refrigerator by NorCold. The fridge is well-designed, with a top-mounted freezer and a versatile (although small) interior. It runs on electricity but automatically switches to propane when the vehicle isn't hooked into the power grid. The stove is rather tight, but works well. A somewhat bulky light and hood is mounted above the stove and vented to the outside. A two-basin sink completes the kitchen necessities (I guess a dishwasher is out of the question). The basins are shallow, but at least it's mounted so that you can look out the window while washing dishes. Storage space for food and utensils consists of four drawers, cabinets under the sink and stove, and cabinets above the sink. Some of that room is taken up by the water heater and pipes. An electrical outlet (with GFCI) is mounted near the sink for coffeemaker or toaster. The counter space is very limited, so significant amounts of meal prep might need to be carries out at the dinette. Fortunately, it's only a couple of steps away.
Bathroom: A tiny sink and medicine cabinet are mounted near the rear; the countertop is just large enough for a toothbrush and bar of soap. There's additional storage under the sink for cleaning supplies and personal stuff. The bathroom, which is about four feet on a side, has a marine-style foot-operated "head" (by SeaLand) and a standup shower. There's one towel bar and a toilet-paper roll, otherwise no storage. There's a skylight/roof vent with a exhaust fan. The sink is mounted behind the door, so travelers will probably do most of their daily hygiene in the campground facilities instead of the RV - we did.
Safety and Security: Ingress and egress are via either the cab or the side-mounted door, which has a single-key deadbolt lock and an integral screen door. All windows are screened sliders except the rear window. The side window above the bed can be pushed out for emergency exit. A smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector, and propane detector are all standard (the smoke alarm and propane detectors work, as I can attest). The smoke alarm is mounted a little close to the kitchen for my cooking style... Four seatbelts are provided for the dinette (though use of the two rear-facing seats is not allowed by NHTSA) and in the fixed chair.
Infrastructure: All the typical house systems are present. For heat, there's a 25,000 BTU propane-fired furnace with floor vents and a thermostat mounted above the master bed. For cooling, there's a roof-mounted 13,500 BTU Coleman air-conditioning unit near the center of the space. You can run off of city water or off the 35-gallon storage tank that's hidden under the bed. Your septic system is divided into gray- and black-water holding tanks (both 20-plus gallon capacity), both of which empty through the same outlet and have electrically-controlled valves. If you're off the grid, there's an optional 4-KW gas-powered generator that runs off the vehicle's fuel supply. It's only needed to power the AC, wall outlets, and microwave since the lights and water pump run off of a secondary 12-volt battery. A propane-powered quick-recovery water heater is standard and can be switched on and off as needed. The shore line (power supply) is a thirty-amp system. A panel mounted next to the door holds switches for the water pump and water heater, indicator lights for the sewer valves, and gauges for the holding tanks and propane level.
Miscellaneous: There's also storage for the sewer pipe and a large exterior curbside compartment for storage of weatherproof items like coolers, lawn chairs, and such. All external compartments are keyed.
It's A Vehicle
Our 5000 had been built on a lengthened Ford F350 platform, using Ford's 6.8-liter V10 gasoline engine. The vehicle can also be bought on a Chevrolet platform, using Chevy's 6.0-liter engine. The Ford version comes standard with automatic transmission, power steering, ABS, cruise control, AM-FM/CD, and manual mirrors. The long wheelbase makes the ride fairly comfortable, although that huge open space behind you is fairly noisy (unless you use all plastic cutlery and don't carry any pots and pans). There's a pair of power ports and a console with some storage space, but no glove compartment.
At 24 feet long and with a GVWR of over six tons, this is a big vehicle - the only thing similar to it I'd driven in a long time is a loaded U-Haul truck. Handling turned out to be about what I'd expected for a box this big: it's top-heavy (because of all the storage cabinets up by the ceiling) and its turning radius is similar to that of the QE2. In actuality, acceleration is pretty fair (it could probably beat a 1963 VW Beetle off the line) and on-the-road handling fair - little wander except from cross winds - this is the quintessential high-profile vehicle. I'd have like a little shorter braking distance (there are definitely some idiots out on the roads) but the ABS came in handy a time or two. The wheelbase is limousine-length, so the ride (with dually rear wheels) is far less jerky than what you get in the box trucks you can rent from U-Haul or Penske.
Cabin comfort is average for a pickup truck cab, with bucket seats that are firm but need a little more lumbar support. The addition of adjustable seatbelt anchors and tilt steering wheel makes getting situated a little easier. Storage is a little more limited than I'd like, and the cupholders molded into the console turned out too small to hold 20-ounce bottles. There's space to walk through to the living quarters, but you'd best be wearing sandals - bulky hiking boots or even running shoes didn't have much clearance. The space between the seats is plenty large enough to hold a curled-up 90-pound Labrador.
In five hundred-plus miles of driving, we generally got well over nine MPG although traveling at freeway speeds (70 MPH) instead of on the secondary roads lowered out mileage to less than 8 MPG.
A Couple of Gripes
If you're going to pay upwards of $50,000 for your home on wheels, you'll want some quality construction. Perhaps it's because our RV was a rental (and therefore subjected to abuse), but lots of little things seemed to be out of commission. Hinges on cabinets had broken, molding had been torn off, and Velcro closures on most of the curtains were coming off. Two lights on the indicator panel were out of commission - the gray water valve seemed to be open the whole time and the black water tank was allegedly 2/3 full the whole time. The cabinets, a honey oak finish, had solid wood frames but the sides were veneer over chipboard. This may be marginally lighter, but it's weaker and not as strong as plywood.
The toilet was mounted slightly crooked. Not that that would render it less "effective," but it could indicate other sloppiness in construction (or just a drunken NASCAR tailgater among previous renters).
On the outside, the doors on all of the compartments except storage and septic were cheesy plastic, two were so damaged that they didn't lock properly. And the water supply inlet is on the rear of the vehicle, which makes it tough to hook up when the electrical and water supplies are both on the driver's side in most campground pull throughs. It could've used a little better design in my estimation.
The Four Winds 5000 comes in six floor plans, of which ours was designated the 23A. There are three other conventional floor plans that move around the kitchen and sleeping quarters and change the options in the bathroom. Most others have a sofa in the "living area" but do not have sleeping space for as many people. Two other floor plans have slideouts to increase floor space. One has a slideout dinette and the other has a slideout compartment for the sofa.
You'll want to take a close look at construction materials if you're looking at the 5000. The Four Winds label appears to be on the middle/lower end of the cost scale, and looks it. Cruise America hauls their fleet in annually for refurbishment, and I suspect this one was about due for a visit to South Bend. I'm sure I'd take better care of it if I owned it than some renters did.
The RV experience was fun, and it was amazing how well we could get by for a week in such a tiny space - especially with a pair of big dogs underfoot. It did prove, though, that while an RV is a nice place to visit, I wouldn't want to live there.
Note: For a great opportunity to check out this and similar RVs (including the Fun Mover floorplan with a "garage" in the back, check out Cruise America, which rents RVs in many major US Metropolitan areas
* The Thor Industries website vacillates between calling this the Four Winds 5000 and the Four Winds Majestic. I'll stick with the "5000."