Alice Springs to Ballina in Horizon’s new 4WD Waratah...
By Richard Robertson.
Motorhome tests are usually short due to few companies having the wherewithal to run demonstrators and/or the desire to clock up many kilometres on them. So when Horizon Motorhome’s CEO Clayton Kearney asked me if I’d like to drive his new 4WD Waratah from Alice Springs to Ballina – the final leg of a marathon ‘proving’ run and family holiday – the answer was a foregone conclusion.
Horizon specialises in big van conversions (think Fiat Ducato/VW Crafter/MB Sprinter) and has established an excellent reputation for quality, durability – and happy customers. The Waratah is Horizon’s new flagship. It’s a conversion of the Mercedes Benz Sprinter van and available in both 2 and 4 wheel-drive, with two engine options. On-road prices start at $123,000 and rise to $157,000, before options.
The test Waratah – also the prototype – was built on a Mercedes Benz Sprinter 519 CDI 4X4 van and specced for Clayton and his family. The main difference with a normal production model was the replacement of the rear over-bed cupboards by a set of fold-down bunks for his teenage children and the inclusion of a two-seat/seatbelt dinette upgrade. On-road price for the test vehicle was $188,000, which is highly competitive for such a comprehensively equipped 4WD motorhome and a full list of the options fitted is detailed at the end of this review.
Near-new when it left Ballina on June 22nd, with just 788 km on the clock, we picked it up in Alice Springs on July 21st, with the odometer reading 10,086 km. That’s almost half an average vehicle’s annual mileage in one month! On top of that, Clayton reported at least 3000 km had been over severely rough/corrugated roads. He said that at times, while attempting to video how much abuse the interior was being subjected to, it was even too rough to hold the video camera sufficiently still!
From Ballina the Waratah had travelled across NSW to Port Augusta, up to Uluru, into Alice Springs and then across the Tanamai Track, directly to the Kimberley. After a short break in Broome it headed north to Cape Leveque, then back down and along the infamous Gibb River Road before returning to Alice Springs via the blacktop for our rendezvous.
Our plan was to take the Plenty Highway, which basically runs eats from Alice Springs to the Queensland border, where it becomes the Donahue Highway and makes its way into the tiny town of Boulia. From there we’d head south to Birdsville before turning east again and making our way across the width of Queensland, then nipping across the border into NSW and Ballina on Sunday, July 28th. In the end our plans were cut short by a day, due to airline lost luggage, and we had to miss Birdsville and head from Boulia to Winton and then straight down the highway home, detouring via Mt Tambourine in the Gold Coast Hinterland to visit friends (sort of like a consolation present).
Our eight-day adventure added 3363 km to the odometer and around 750 km of that was dirt. In places it was rough enough to shake the fillings in our teeth and over two full days of dirt road driving we shook the Waratah senseless more than a few times and refilled it with red dirt (after Clayton’s careful pre-pick-up detailing). Sorry about that...
The Sprinter 519 CDI 4X4 is a long wheelbase model with dual rear wheels and a 4490 kg gross vehicle mass (GVM). A standard Waratah has a tare (empty) weight of 3565 kg (inc water and fuel), leaving a generous 925 kg for passengers, food, clothing and everything else. The test Waratah tipped the scales around 3850 kg empty, but including water (min 100 kg) and full fuel (optional 100 L tank/83 kg), leaving more than 600 kg for passengers and possessions.
Powered by a 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel producing 140 kW and 440 Nm, and driving through a 5-speed full automatic transmission with selectable 4WD (inc low range), it’s a formidable starting point. Of course it’s packed with the expected Mercedes Benz safety equipment like dual airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability controls. It also bristles with convenience items like remote central locking, a multifunction steering wheel with a comprehensive trip computer and audio controls; a cruise control/speed limiter wand, cab aircon, electric windows, electric mirrors and a radio/CD sound system with inbuilt Bluetooth for your phone.
In normal conditions drive is via the rear wheel. High-range 4WD is selectable via a small button on the dash and there is no requirement to hop out to lock-in the front hubs. The handbook says you can engage 4WD at or below 10 km/h, but in practice it’s best to stop. Low-range 4WD is selectable via a second dash button and the vehicle must be stopped to engage/disengage.
Front suspension is independent (with a transverse semi-elliptic spring and damper struts) while a conventional live axle/leaf spring combination looks after the rear. Ground clearance is listed at 200 mm and I’d say the lowest point is under the front suspension crossmember. So would a rock that was sitting on top of the mound between the wheel tracks somewhere back on the Plenty Highway. Fortunately it left nothing more than a small mark on the custom bash plate and as everything else is well tucked up beneath the van, if you can get the front wheels over an obstacle the rest of the van will follow. Having said that you do need to be mindful of the long 4.3 m (14 ft 1 in) wheelbase, as ramp-over angle (think of driving over a small mound/ridge/gutter) quickly becomes this vehicle’s limiting of-road driving factor.
The Sprinter rides on 16-inch steel wheels and comes with Continental Vano 205/75 R16 tyres rated for mud and snow. I’m not sure they were ever intended for the Australian Outback, but they did an outstanding job in all conditions and survived the entire trip without a single puncture and with few visible signs of tread damage. Impressive.
Delivering the Goods
Although it’s a light commercial vehicle the Sprinter’s body works well as a motorhome conversion. All delivery-style vans have sliding side doors, which in the motorhome world are collectively known a “whizz-bangs,” for the sound they make, especially in campsites at all hours of the day and night. The powered door option of the test Waratah eliminated that problem; instead opening and closing with just a slight hum from the electric motor and a discreet beeping from a warning buzzer. Operated from the key fob or a dash switch (and able to be closed by a switch inside the B-pillar), the door can also be left partially open at any point on its travel and proved an invaluable addition I initially dismissed as a gimmick. Considering the size and weight of the sliding side door, the power option is also a genuine Godsend for anyone smaller than a burley delivery driver – especially on an incline or in strong winds.
Two other options that proved their worth were the internal side-door and rear-door insect screens. With centre sections able to be rolled up out of the way when not in use they are a Horizon signature item and an absolute must-have in my opinion. The pleasure of siting back and enjoying the fresh air and view the huge side door affords – insect free – cannot be overrated. Similarly, with the rear door screens in place the ease with which you can cool the vehicle down inside simply by opening the rear and side doors (while also retaining a degree of privacy), instead of having to rush around and open individual windows and vents, is impressive. This is especially handy at coffee and lunch stops, and of course you could even sleep with any combination of doors open on a warm night if the security situation permitted.
The Waratah has only one external locker and it’s at the rear on the driver’s side. It houses a pair of 4 kg gas bottles and on our journey also the fresh and grey water hoses. The main storage area is under the bed and accessed via the rear doors, but there are a couple of under-bed areas only accessible from inside. The test Waratah was already packed with gear when we picked it up, including four folding camp chairs, two folding camping tables, an outdoor stainless steel barbecue, a slide-out chest fridge and a myriad of other bits and pieces Clayton and his family had packed and/or acquired on their travels.
The big rear barn doors didn’t seal particularly well, probably due to movement exacerbated by the road conditions, and we experienced a fair amount of red dust ingress on the dirt. Coupled with dust coming in around the fridge vents (I think), this is the one area of the vehicle’s design that needs some attention.
Horizon fits five Seitz double glazed hopper windows with inbuilt insect and privacy screens to the Waratah, plus a pair of fan hatches to the roof and another over the bathroom. The single 200 AH house battery with Redarc 3-stage charging system is a Horizon standard and integrates well with the optional twin solar panels. Naturally an awning is fitted and in this case it’s a 4-metre Fiama wind-out unit.
There is no doubting Mercedes’ ability to engineer a totally ‘together’ vehicle. If you’ve never driven a ‘Benz – any ‘Benz – you can’t quite appreciate how well they drive. The Sprinter extends this experience to the light commercial vehicle market and it’s just a pleasure – albeit a not desperately exciting or involving one – to drive. Unlike Fiat’s Italian character-filled Ducato, this big van perfectly reflects its national heritage.
The Sprinter’s driving position is very car-like, with an almost vertical steering wheel. While the dash looks Teutonically dull in all-over sombre grey and the HVAC (heating, ventilation and airconditioning controls) system takes a bit of getting used to, everything works well and both driver and passenger comfort over even the longest days is very good. Part of that can be attributed to the 4WD Sprinter’s surprisingly supple ride, a feature not unique to the test Waratah. Mercedes’ engineers have certainly done an excellent job of tailoring the spring and damper rates without sacrificing toughness or inducing body roll. In fact you’d be hard pressed to tell it is a 4WD when you’re behind the wheel. Even at speed the Waratah sits solidly, exhibiting minimal body roll and delivering excellent ride comfort.
The ‘big’ 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel is a delightful engine to drive behind. Smooth and with a gutsy ‘I’m serious’ tone, it mates perfectly to the six-speed automatic gearbox to deliver a class-leading driving experience. Combined with the excellent driving position, a wide range of seat travel, decent steering wheel adjustment, good visibility and excellent ride quality, you have perhaps the perfect long distance cruiser – over any road surface.
On bitumen road cruising we got 14.5 - 15.5 L/100 km (19.5 - 18.2 mpg). At speed on dirt, with high-range 4WD engaged, we saw around 17 L/100 km (16.6 mpg). Not bad for a 4.5-tonne vehicle being driven with deadlines in mind and no particular regard for economy. I did use cruise control whenever possible (and safe), but also made good use of the speed limiter on the dirt roads and in traffic. It lets you set a maximum speed that cannot be exceeded no matter how hard you press the accelerator. One thing I found, which Malcolm also encountered with Trakka’s 4WD Jabiru Sprinter, is what appears to be a factory-set speed limiter around 125 km/h. I found it when overtaking a 53-metre road train. Interesting!
The Great Indoors
In van conversion terms the Waratah’s overall interior layout is quite conventional. Up front it features swiveling cab seats plus a small dinette and forward-facing passenger seats on the driver’s side. In the centre is a kerb-side kitchen and a driver’s-side bathroom, while the rear is taken up by a huge full-width bed with a small dinette area at the front that could be left made if you’re short enough to sleep across the vehicle (more on that later).
The van body is lined inside and has insulation above its embossed plywood ceiling. The floor is covered in industrial strength vinyl and all cupboards are made from hardpressed plywood finished with a lightweight laminate. In terms of structural strength the Waratah’s interior passed its torture test with flying colours. Only the addition of a cheap Bunning’s barrel lock on the oversize pantry door proved necessary, Clayton said, to prevent it springing open on the worst corrugations. Given that this was a one-off door (the microwave usually occupies about half that space) it’s understandable. I’m also sure a redesign is already under way in case any customer decides the additional cupboard space is preferable over the microwave.
The front seats swivel easily and the dining table, which stores behind the forward-facing dinette seat when not in use or when carrying passengers, we left in-situ during our travels. It slides along a small wall track and can therefore be pushed aft when traveling, to make room for the driver’s seat. It can also be taken outside, where it attaches to a rail on the sliding side door. There are high quality LED reading lights above both front seats and a strip LED over the dinette, a double 240 V power point in the wall beneath the dinette table, a 12 V outlet and a pair of USB charging connectors – the first I’ve seen in an Australian motorhome. Clever.
Another small dining area is provided at the front end of the bed, where a cutout in the bed base provides single inwards-facing seats on either side of the vehicle. There’s also a multi-adjustable table that becomes part of the bed base at night. It’s right where the kitchen and wardrobe end panels meet the bed and the backrest cushions, which become part of the mattress, aren’t deep enough to really make this a comfortable arrangement. Good perhaps for extra dinner guests, we much preferred the front dinette.
The kitchen, which sits on the kerb side between the side door and bed, is well sized and equipped. It comes with a 3-burner gas cooktop and single-bowl sink with fold-up flick-mixer tap, all in the one unit but with individual smoked glass lids; a filtered drinking water tap; a rangehood with LED lights and a two-speed fan, and an under-bench 12/240 V 110-litre Waeco compressor fridge just by the bed. Above the sink is a 48 cm (19 in) LED HD TV/DVD on a wall bracket that connects to one of Winegard’s new style Sensar wind-up aerials on the roof.
A microwave is standard in the Waratah but was not fitted to this vehicle. It sits in the angled cupboard at the front end of the kitchen unit, by the side entry door. Clayton used this whole space as an extra-large pantry, reasoning they weren’t going to use mains power much and the additional cupboard space would prove invaluable.
The Waratah is the first Horizon design to have a range hood as well as the usual window behind the cooker and I’d think the window could easily be done away with and the extra space used for a spice rack or similar. Above the range hood is a small two-door cupboard and it now houses the electrical switches, battery condition meter, tank level gauge, Truma hot water service switch and a 12/240 V fridge switch. A double 240 V power point and a single 12 V socket are mounted on the forward-facing end of the cupboard, while on the vehicle’s side wall just above the TV is a small panel with two push buttons: one for the six LED ceiling lights and the other for the two LED awning lights.
The bathroom sits opposite the kitchen on the driver’s side, aft of the dinette and separated from the bed by a pair of fairly narrow top-and-bottom wardrobes/cupboards. Featuring a full length mirror door that adds a feeling of space to the Waratah’s interior, the bathroom is compact inside but has pretty much everything you need. This includes a cassette toilet with a ceramic bowel and an SOG fan extraction system that removes odours and breaks down waste without the need for chemicals; a quality hand shower with adjustable wall mount; a mirror; a small corner vanity unit with a sink on top and a pair of drain points in the floor pan. There’s also a shower curtain to cover the door and my only complaint is that the vanity doors don’t seal tightly enough to prevent some water entering.
While certainly not spacious the bathroom is a good comprise between providing sufficient room for the few minutes you’ll use it each time and taking up as little space as possible inside the van. If you need or want more space to wash, there’s always the (standard) external shower!
Water capacity for the Waratah is 100 litres, which might seem a little light-on, but is dictated by the underfloor chassis shape. An optional 75-litre fresh water tank was fitted to the test vehicle, while a 96-litre grey water tank is standard a. A 14-litre Truma gas hot water system is standard, along with a 19-litre cassette for the loo.
We left the rear dinette/bed made up as a bed from day one and that meant we didn’t have to make the bed up every night. Longer than the Fiat Ducato, the Sprinter is narrower and requires north-south (lengthways) sleeping unless you’re around 5’ 9” (175 cm) or less. Used lengthways the bed is about the size of a king – or damn close – and spacious enough for two people not to disturb each other when rolling over or even getting up during the night. Compared to many a motorhome bed we’ve slept in it’s palatial!
Four LED reading lights, the same as those by the cab seats, are provided in each corner of the bed area and provide ample light for reading or just ‘mood’ lighting. On the van wall just aft of the wardrobe end panel, is another double 240 V power point, a single 12 V outlet and another pair of 12 V USB charging connections. It’s also where the optional Eberspacher diesel-fired heater control lives.
This was a unique opportunity to spend serious time in a serious vehicle across some serious terrain. Apart from some dust leak issues and a non-working diesel heater (probably clogged with dirt), the Horizon Waratah performed flawlessly and, to be honest, beyond expectations. Seriously.
In the month prior to picking it up in Alice Springs the Waratah had traversed Australia coast-to-coast and made it halfway back, taking in some seriously tough conditions. When we collected it it was almost back in showroom condition, thanks to a concerted effort by Clayton and his family the previous day, but we soon fixed that.
Averaging nearly 500 km a day across half of Australia on dirt roads and tar we cooked, ate, slept, showered, worked, laughed, sang, thought and explored in the Waratah – and it didn’t miss a beat. It was reliable, capable and comfortable in all situations and proved a machine worthy of high praise for the engineering integrity of both its Mercedes’ underpinnings and Horizon’s robust and thoughtful conversion. It could be just the machine to expand your horizons. Check it out.
- Mercedes quality/durability
- Proven conversion strength
- 2WD or 4WD
- Thoughtful layout
- Standard equipment
- Ability (4WD)
- Dust sealing issues
- Smallish fresh water capacity
- Small standard fuel tank
Click HERE to visit the Horizon Motorhomes' website.
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications, photos and contact details.