A LITTLE BIT FANCY!
Horizon Motorhomes ditches the woodgrain and goes Back in Black...
by Richard Robertson
When Henry Ford built the Model T he did so without consulting his customers. In fact he is famously quoted as saying, “If I’d asked them what they wanted they would have said, ‘A faster horse’.”
The same thing can be applied to motorhome interiors: wood panelling and timber hues rule the design world, but is it what customers want or just what they expect? So I was intrigued when Horizon Motorhomes’ Managing Director, Clayton Kearney, called to say he was releasing a Limited Edition model with a black and white interior.
“Good Lord man,” I thought. “A non-timber finished interior in a motorhome? Surely it can’t be done!” But done it he did and the result looks, well, bloody fantastic.
Thinking Inside the Box
Horizon Motorhomes specialises in converting large Fiat, Volkswagen and Mercedes vans into motorhomes. It is the manufacturing arm of the Ballina Campervan & Motorhome Centre (BCMC); better know simply as Ballina Campers. Based on the Far North Coast of New South Wales, about an hour south of the bustling Gold Coast, the BCMC/Horizon Motorhomes business is well established and has an excellent reputation for quality products and thoughtful design.
In recent years Clayton and his team seems to have moved their products to another level and I would now rank them amongst the best designed and built van conversions available. It’s probably by specialising in large van conversions and knowing their subject matter intimately that they have been able to evolve and hone their designs into such high quality products.
Horizon’s bread-and-butter van is Fiat’s popular Ducato, which I believe accounts for around 75% of all sales. Compared to the more expensive VW Crafter/Mercedes Sprinter doppelgänger, the Ducato is about an inch wider, has less rear overhang and carries about an extra half-tonne (in standard specifications). That’s a lot of advantage at a lower price.
Price and dimensions aside, the Ducato is also built to be a motorhome (even in van form). This means things like factory-fitted swivelling cab seats, specially routed wiring, tyres that resist ‘flat-spotting’ when parked for long periods and even a handbrake cable that’s kept out of the way, so under-floor tanks, etc, can be more easily installed. Oh yes, it also comes with a long range fuel tank of 125 litres capacity – 50 litres more than the Germans.
The Banksia sits second from the bottom in the Horizon Motorhomes’ model line-up, ahead of the Ducato-based Melaleuca in terms of price and size, but smaller and cheaper than the Wattle, Acacia and Grevillea (which are all VW/Mercedes-based).
Built on the Ducato extra-long wheelbase (ELWB) van, the Banksia is a handy 6.363 m (20 ft 11 in) long and a sturdy 2.05 m (6 ft 9 in) wide. It stands a reasonably squat 2.63 m (8 ft 8 in) tall, without the optional roof-mounted air-conditioning, or 2.75 m (9 ft) tall with it, and has a gross vehicle mass of 4005 kg – meaning it can be driven on a standard car licence.
Blue & Who?
Like all Italian vehicles the Ducato loves to be driven. The comfortable, multi-adjustable driver’s seat provides a panoramic view through the deep windscreen. A thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, with slightly confusing multi-stalk controls for lights, wipers and cruise, is typically Italian. The wheel itself is dotted with buttons that control the audio system and Fiat’s proprietary Blue & Me Bluetooth system. Like most technology, Blue & Me is really useful once you get the hang of it, allowing you to send/receive hands-free phone calls, operate the USB-connected media player and give voice commands for a variety of functions.
Fiat now includes a Tom-Tom GPS in all Ducatos and being factory fitted they’ve done a very neat job. Centrally mounted on top of the dash, the unit swivels so the driver or passenger can navigate, and the whole unit – including the base that delivers power without the need for external cords – can be removed in a moment for storage, to keep it out of sight of prying eyes.
Power comes from Fiat’s lusty 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, which produces 115 kW and 400 Nm. It drives through a standard 6-speed Comfort-Matic gearbox, which is a rather clumsy Fiat marketing name for an automated manual transmission – or AMT. This self-shifting gearbox is actually a manual without a clutch pedal, in which a computer changes gear for you. So it still pauses slightly between shifts, unlike a ‘normal’ automatic, but the benefit is manual-like fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions than a full auto.
The key to driving this gearbox properly is to not just plant your foot. Do that and you can catch it napping, resulting in lag followed by jerky changes. Drive with a smooth right foot, however, and it will reward you with seamless gearshifts and an enjoyable driving experience. It also has a manual mode that lets you hold a gear on an incline, for example, or just have fun self-shifting. Cleverly, when using cruise control you can knock it back a gear at the base of a steep hill, or when overtaking, without cruise dropping out. This is important as unlike a normal automatic, this cruise control won’t change down a gear for you on an incline. It will just let the road speed drop until it cuts out about 15 km/h below your set speed.
The 3.0-litre engine delivers open road performance in spades, and in Europe I have no doubt the van would sit on 160 km/h all day without complaint. Here, 100 km/h is just 2000 rpm in sixth gear, but with 400 Nm on tap and the engine sitting right in the middle of its maximum torque range, rolling acceleration is strong.
All Ducatos are front-wheel drive, which causes some folks conniptions, but I’m yet to meet a Ducato owner for whom it’s proven a problem. Electronic traction control is standard, along with stability control, anti-lock brakes, dual air bags and so on; all of which make the Ducato a capable and safe vehicle. Coupled with a wide track, long wheelbase and low overall height, it’s also a safe and confident handler at speed – aided in no small part by Michelin’s excellent Agilis Camping radial light truck tyres.
Remote central locking, heated electric side mirrors, electric cab windows with one-touch up/down for the driver, power steering, cab air-conditioning and electrically adjustable headlights are all included, too.
I’m sure it’s not politically correct to call anyone or anything sexy these days, but if a van can be sexy then the Fiat Ducato is. The cab’s sensuous curves and dazzlingly complex headlight reflectors, plus its jutting chin that Roger Ramjet would admire (showing my age!), give way to a boxy and functional body perfect for a motorhome conversion.
Horizon buys its Ducato vans without windows in the body or rear doors. This allows it to fit its own wherever it likes – and Horizon likes Dometic’s double-glazed, acrylic Seitz windows, with built-in blinds and insect screens. Just a note of caution here: Don’t use the kitchen window if you’re likely to slide the side door open or the two will connect, and the window will lose.
Horizon’s Banksia design makes the most of the Ducato ELWB’s length and boxy dimensions. Both cab seats swivel 180 degrees and there is a single, forward-facing and seat-belt equipped dinette seat on the driver’s side, opposite the large sliding side entry door. The bathroom is immediately behind the single dinette seat, while between it and the east-west bed at the very back are two slim wardrobes, one of which would make a great slide-out pantry (note to designers!). The kitchen takes up the space between the sliding side door and the bed.
I reviewed the Banksia in Issue 7 of iMotorhome on August 4th last year and wouldn’t ordinarily revisit a model so soon. The big difference with this version is the upgraded interior, which takes what was a nice but otherwise conventional van and turns it into something special.
“We call it the Back in Black Pack,” said Clayton. “It’s an experiment for us, but so far response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“The pack consists of black leather seats with white stitching, special black and silver alloy wheels, black and white cabinets, wall linings and floor vinyl, plus an external gas outlet and customised decals.”
“The dinette seat has also been upgraded to an individual automotive seat with integrated seatbelt, making it not only safer if you have a third person travelling with you, but much more comfortable for after hours relaxing,” Clayton enthused.
“The Pack ads $9000 to the drive-away price, making this Banksia $119,000 on the road in NSW, but we feel it transforms the vehicle into something very special.”
I think he’s right.
The black and white interior has been tastefully executed. It’s neither gaudy nor overwhelming, yet compared to the standard interior takes the Banksia to a whole new level. I also received unanimously positive comments on its appearance during the 10 days I lived with the test vehicle.
Outside, snazzy alloy wheels lift the look of the vehicle and I can only wonder how great (and possibly in-you-face) a Back in Black-equipped Banksia finished in metallic red or bronze would look.
Inside, the upgraded dinette seat is a real bonus; genuinely comfortable for both travellers and relaxers alike, it also looks significantly better than the standard fabric-over-foam seat it replaces. Also, the leather trim of all three seats has been meticulously applied and I especially liked the embroidered Horizon Motorhomes logo on each seat (plus on the leather-trimmed magazine holder on the outside of the bathroom wall). Speaking of the upgraded dinette seat, between it and the wall is a handy storage compartment and a deep cup holder, while beneath it is a slide-out drawer and separate, under-seat storage.
Overall, internal storage throughout the Banksia is excellent, especially considering the size limitations of the vehicle. There are two slide-out drawers under the raised false-floor between the cab seats and dinette, plus a generous boot beneath the bed, which is easily accessible internally and externally. Cupboards above the bed and dinette also provide good storage, while almost all door and cupboard handles are self locking.
Thoughtfully positioned 12 and 240 volt power outlets should make life on the road easier for those with a penchant for electrical devices.
Kitchen wise, nothing changes from the standard Banksia (save the colours), but this is fine as the kitchen works well and is both generously sized and equipped, especially considering the size of the vehicle. I also liked the simplicity and accessibility of the electrical switches, battery and water gauges, etc, all neatly in a row at eye height, above the kitchen bench.
The bathroom is compact and has only a light and fan/hatch for illumination, but features a china-bowled Dometic SOG cassette toilet that is odourless yet doesn’t use chemicals, breaking down waste using an oxygen-based method. Fresh water capacity is a healthy 150 litres, while grey is a rather more modest 55 litres, and hot water is supplied by a quality Truma system.
Interior lighting is 12 V LED throughout, with beautifully engineered reading lights above both cab seats and over each corner of the bed (so you can choose which way to sleep as conditions suit). External LED lighting is also used, while an electric step and Fiama wind-out awning are both standard inclusions.
The bed itself is reasonably long at 1.85 m (6 ft 2 in), but a bit narrow for big people, at 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in), at least on paper. In reality it feels wider than the numbers suggest because there is a significant gap between it and the rear doors. Although I’m as tall as the bed is long and I didn’t get to actually sleep in it – like Laura Palmer, the mattress was still wrapped in plastic – Mrs iMotorhome and I tried it for a while and found it more spacious than we thought it would be.
The Verdict is Black and White
There is no doubt this specially equipped Horizon Motorhomes’ Banksia raises the bar in this class of van-conversion motorhomes.
It is well thought out, well engineered and well executed. For example, the dining table is a free-form shape that provides optimum table space for two. That might not sound like much, but when the driver’s seat is swiveled aft it is offset against the forward-facing, fixed dinette seat, and a standard table shape wouldn’t work as well.
Fiat’s Ducato remains a pleasure to drive, is very well equipped and the combination of its Italian nature and Horizon’s out-there interior makes this vehicle something truly special. It’s also surprisingly economical. On test, running across the Hay Plains in 39C heat at 110 km/h by the GPS (115 km/h by the speedo), it averaged exactly 11 l/100km – or 25.7 mpg.
If you’re looking for a practical and affordable motorhome that’s a little bit fancy, this is it. And if you don’t have a bow tie or tiara don’t worry, Clayton is sure to thrown them in.
- Well equipped
- Good storage
- Back in Black pack ads $9000
- Side door/kitchen window
- Bed tight for taller people