The Age of Luxury is upon us...
by Richard Robertson
Plush A-Class motorhomes are still a rarity – even a novelty – on Australian roads. Never big sellers in this country (unlike America) due their cost, fuel consumption and sheer size, they none-the-less epitomise the pinnacle of motorhome travel to many people.
A-Class motorhomes have had something of a chequered career in Australia in recent years, following the demise of Swagman and although Winnebago still promotes its huge Classic on its website, they are scarce and only built to order. Winnebago does build the Esperance Premium, based on a Iveco Daily, but it’s more Euro-sized and a little unusual in appearance; incorporating part of the Daily’s cab in its front end.
Aquarius Motorhomes is based in Batemans Bay on the NSW far South Coast, which might seem an unusual place to run a motorhome business from. None-the-less, Alan Imrie – Aquarius’ Managing Director – runs a modern, efficient and impressive operation from this idyllic seaside resort town. It’s part of a not-so-small business empire this quietly spoken entrepreneur has built in and around Batemans Bay in nearly three decades of living there. Alan’s entre into the world of motorhomes is a touching and personal story that I won’t recount here; suffice to say he’s embraced it with his trademark determination and thoroughness and there seems little doubt Aquarius Motorhomes will become a familiar sight around Australia.
Having cut his teeth importing and converting US-built Mirada Coachman A-Class motorhomes, the Aquarius is Alan’s own design, built exclusively for him in America by the US’s largest motorhome manufacturer: Thor Industries. The Aquarius does bear more than a passing resemblance to the Avanti Motorhome – also built by Thor – but there are significant mechanical differences between the two so I’m just making a casual observation more than an uninformed guess!
Bucking the American A-Class brick-on-wheels design tradition, the Aquarius is a sleek and modern vehicle with a much more European feel. Also unusual is the Aquarius’ pricing structure, where pretty much everything but the pots and pans are included in the drive-away (NSW) price of $389,000. Cutlery, crockery, bed linen, towels, house maid (gotcha!), you name it; it’s a part of the package. And while nearly $400 k is certainly a lot of money, there are other smaller motorhomes out there that can also relieve you of that much money...
Importantly, everything Alan learned about the pitfalls of US motorhome importation and conversion he’s addressed in the Aquarius. So this vehicle is built to Australian specifications from the ground up; meaning Australian-compliant wiring and electrical fittings, gas connections and so on. Appliances are sourced and fitted in Australia, too, meaning extra peace of mind for service and parts down the track. Measuring 10.287 m (33 ft 9 in) long, 2.438 m (8 ft) wide, 3.680 m (12 ft 1 in) tall and with a gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 9299 kg, the Aquarius is something of a baby in ‘serious’ A-Class circles. But for Australia it’s a canny combination of liveable real estate versus real-world practicality.
Strip away the fancy bodywork and you’ll find the heart of the Aquarius is Ford’s F53 Super Duty A-Class motorhome ladder-chassis factory-built as right-hand drive, with a 5.790 m wheelbase. This puts it about three quarters of the way along the available wheelbase sizes for the F53 although all models come with a front-mounted 6.8-litre V10 petrol engine coupled to a 5-speed TorqShift automatic transmission.
Power is quoted at 270 kW while torque is 620 Nm, although at what engine speeds it develops these figures Ford doesn’t seem eager to publicise. The figures are also quite low for a petrol engine of this size, so I’d image maximum power and torque are developed reasonably low down the rev scale, to minimise fuel consumption.
Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that the quoted power figures are for the engine running on petrol, but the Aquarius includes a dual-fuel conversion that allows it to run on LPG mostly, if desired. The standard conversion includes a 175-litre LPG tank, but that can be optioned up to a whopping 360-litres, which is what I’d be opting for. That’s in addition to the F53’s standard 302-litre petrol tank.
Although specifically designed as a motorhome chassis, the F53’s suspension is fairly basic by modern engineering standards. The front axle features a forged I-beam while the back is a full-floating Dana axle, while it’s parabolic leaf-springs all-round with supplementary airbags, backed by Bilstein shock absorbers. Rims measure 19.5 inches an run 245/70 radial tyres.
Braking is by four-wheel discs with four-channel ABS and although it lacks an exhaust brake for auxiliary retardation (exhaust brakes are the province of diesel engines only), the transmission does have a selectable Tow/Haul feature. This changes down through the gears as the vehicle slows and also holds gears on long descents, to make the most of available engine braking.
Settling behind the wheel of any A-Class motorhome is always interesting and a little bit intimidating, even for a former ‘Coach Captain’ such as myself. In my case the intimidation comes from a burning desire not to scratch the damn thing, but for a novice I can image it could be seriously unnerving!
The Aquarius feature the trademark A-Class captains’ chairs and they are suitably impressive, plush and infinitely adjustable. Leatherette-finished, they also swivel to become huge after-hours arm chairs and one of the real pleasures of A-Class touring is to kick back at the end of the day, swivel the seats slightly and enjoy the view from your lofty perch, refreshment in hand. You really sit ‘in’ the view and it’s a perspective lesser motorhomes simply cannot deliver. But I’ve digressed...
The F53 motorhome chassis comes with a proprietary Ford steering wheel and instrument cluster, featuring the ubiquitous American column-mounted gear selector. The instruments are comprehensive and well laid out and are flanked to their right by ancillary switch gear and to the left by the radio/CD/MP3 player, air-con controls and a large, locally-installed colour monitor that provides rear as well as side views. Yes, side views. Beneath both the large, electrically adjustable/heated side-mirrors are tiny cameras activated whenever you put your right or left indicator on. How cool is that? Actually, I think they’re on all the time as I seem to remember the view on the monitor cycling between what was behind and what was down either side, as we travelled. Sat-nav is the other function built into the main monitor.
The expansive windscreen provides a myriad of opportunities for the sun to dazzle you, but electrically operated blinds do a stirling job of keeping it at bay. Aquarius also fit a pair of small electric fans – one in each top corner of the windscreen – to help circulate cooling air around the cab.
Back in the command seat, the tilt steering wheel features integrated cruise control and when you’re ready to go, a simply turn of the key wakens the sleeping giant beneath your feet. Yet despite being front-mounted, the engine sits low in the chassis rails and doesn’t intrude significantly into the cab area. Noise-wise, you certainly know it’s there when under acceleration (or when it down shifts on an incline to hold your speed), but when cruising it’s smooth and surprisingly refined.
Steering is commendably light as you’d expect from an American vehicle, whilst the 18.3 m (60 ft) turning circle feels surprisingly nimble in a vehicle this size. Acceleration/braking/steering responses are safe and predictable and even a novice will quickly feel comfortable behind the Aquarius’ wheel. Add in the convenience and safety of three rear/side-view cameras, in addition to the large side mirrors, plus a commanding view from the driver’s seat and the Aquarius quickly proves its mettle as a forgiving and easy-driving machine.
As befits the size, style and price of this motorhome, a relaxed driving manner is the most rewarding – both in terms of fuel economy and ride comfort. It’s worth noting that whereas modern coaches run full airbag suspension designed for consistent high-speed driving over our indifferent roads, the comparatively unsophisticated air-over-spring set-up of the F53 starts to feel light and a bit bouncy in the front end at speed over poor surfaces.
The test vehicle had not been fitted with LPG and ran purely on petrol. From what I could learn, a petrol consumption figure as low as 20l/100km could probably be achievable for gentle, open-road touring, but that could soar into the 30s when pushed or in mountainous terrain or city traffic. Where LPG is fitted, the system starts on petrol and automatically switches to gas when warmed. A couple I spoke to – Jenny and Peter – had just returned from 12,000 km around Australia in their brand new Aquarius towing a tandem trailer with a Suzuki Vitara onboard, said they averaged 33l/100km for the trip, which they were extremely pleased with. They also said they couldn’t have been happier with their new machine; had had no issues with it and often fought over who would drive for the day. They were seriously in love with their new and still-immaculate looking Aquarius!
Smartly finished and black and gold, the Aquarius body features two slide-outs: a large one at the front on the driver’s side that extends the lounge and kitchen, plus a smaller one at the rear on the kerb side that extends the bedroom.
Under-floor lockers around the vehicle open to include a myriad of storage compartments, room for the LPG tank/s, an Onan 3.5 kVa generator, 4 x 6-volt 200 ah house batteries on a slide-out tray, a 2700 W inverter/charging system, an integrated water management system and even an outdoor entertainment system with swing-out 66 cm flat-screen TV/DVD and radio, an external barbecue and the ducted central vacuum unit. Beneath the Aquarius lurks a hydraulic Big Foot levelling system, which at the touch of a button or two will level the vehicle and also steady it when parked up for the night.
On the near-side is a five-metre electric awning that only needs human input to set the legs, while at the rear is the spare wheel and a ladder for roof access. You’ll need the ladder should you want or need to reach the 2 x 190 watt solar panels, satellite TV dish and the Winegard TV aerial, air-conditioning unit/s (2nd is optional) or just clean/inspect the roof.
Automatic electric steps make entering the Aquarius’ inviting and impressive interior easy, as it is quite a height above ground level. I was pleased to see a Roam Safe mesh security door fitted as standard, too. The floorplan has the lounge up front, the kitchen and dining area in the middle and the bathroom and bedroom at the rear. It’s pretty standard fare for motorhome designs these days – it’s just the scale of the thing that looks and feels spectacular.
Throughout the vehicle curved cabinetry made from strong-yet-light bamboo is used, specifically because it’s a renewable resource. Other features include a soft-touch vinyl ceiling lining, carpet to the living area and bedroom, and tiled floors in the kitchen and bathroom. Ducted reverse-cycle air-conditioning is standard, as are Roman day/night blinds (black-out optional).
As mentioned, both front captain’s chairs swivel to provide very comfortable ‘after-work’ seating. Immediately behind the passenger’s seat (between it and the entry door) is a fold-down writing table/desk, with wall-mounted TV above it that swivels for optimal viewing. Opposite the entry door and just to the rear of the driver’s seat is an enormous, soft-touch fabric covered three-seater lounge, which sits in the slide-out (along with the kitchen) and is seat-belt equipped for three passengers. A four-seat dinette with two freestanding leatherette chairs and two matching, folding chairs for occasional dinner guests sits to the rear of the entry door, opposite the kitchen.
The Aquarius’ kitchen is bigger and more comprehensively equipped than some flats or houses I’ve lived in. The upmarket Corian benchtop looks great and is also used on top of a slid-out cupboard at the forward end of the kitchen, where it meets the settee. This forms a servery or extra work space and also stops people walking directly into the Chef’s cooking area. Very clever.
Standard fit-out includes a large bowl sink (but no drainer), an externally vented rangehood and two impressive Delongi integrated stove tops (2 x gas and 2 x ceramic-topped electric), plus a Delongi convection microwave/grill mounted in place of a conventional oven. Across the aisle is a 224-litre 3-way two-door fridge-freezer and a slim pantry cupboard with five slide-out baskets between the fridge and dinette.
It’s worth noting there are no protruding cupboard handles in the Aquarius. All cupboards feature recessed handles, which adds considerably to the clean and uncluttered style of the interior. Similarly, recessed down lighting is used throughout to enhance the overall effect.
To the rear of the kitchen is the bathroom, with a large shower with curved glass doors on the driver’s side and across the aisle, a separate powder room with dual-flush porcelain macerating toilet, Corian vanity with porcelain hand basin and a full-length mirror on the door. The powder room door can also be used for privacy between the lounge/kitchen and bathroom/bedroom. A washing machine is one of the few options listed, slotting in beside the shower.
With 500 litres of fresh water on board the Aquarius certainly lives up to its Zodiac symbol of the Water carrier. This is one motorhome that allows a ‘real’ shower when free-camping – as long as you don’t get carried away!
Along with this substantial fresh water supply, 181 litres of grey water and 170 litres of black (loo) water can also be carried, along with 22 litres in the hot water system. The Aquarius’ integrated “No Mess Termination System” handles all water management duties from an impressive panel in an off-side external locker. It includes a whole-of-house filtration system, on-demand silent water pump and a black tank rinse system.
At the rear, the Aquarius’ queen-sized bed is mounted across the vehicle and for walk-around access you need to extend the slide-out, as the bed-head is in it. The bed is still useable at other times, but extending it also provides access to a small stool and desk/reading nook recessed into the wall of wardrobes on the bedroom’s off-side. There is good cupboard space above the bed head, with recessed reading lights below and a small bedside table/cupboard to one side.
The Aquarius is an impressive and imposing motorhome that is well designed, seems well built and provides good value for money. It is a very sophisticated vehicle that even a review of this length struggles to do justice to. For your hard earned money you not only buy a lot of motorhome ‘real estate’, you get a very high level of standard equipment that’s been well thought out and integrated.
Easy to drive and comfortable to live with, the Aquarius should prove reasonably economical to operate when driven on LPG. Although Australians expect a diesel engine in a vehicle this size, don’t let this issue put you off.
After sales service is something Alan and his team pride themselves on, too, and a wide range of spare parts – including windscreens – are held in stock and can be dispatched at short notice. They also have support services available, nationally, for warranty issues and the like.
Judging from the owners I met and the testimonials on their website, the Aquarius A-Class is a luxurious-yet-practical motorhome well suited to Australian conditions. If you’re in the market for a vehicle like this be sure to put Aquarius on your shopping list. It’s likely to rise to the top.
- Australian designed
- High equipment levels
- Purpose-built chassis
- Value for money
- No diesel option
- Size in some situations
A QUARTER AQUARIUS TO GO...
If you don’t have the money, time or inclination to own an Aquarius full time, but would like to spend a few months each year living the high-life, a 25 percent share might be the way to go.
Sydney-based Own A Share is offering four people the chance to buy equal shares in a brand new Aquarius for $99,000 and guarantees to return $69,000 at the end of the 5 year contract. In return you’re entitled to 15 months usage (3 months each year), but you’ll need to find an additional $3830 in annual running costs and $320 per month for the term of the contract.
Own A Share covers all registration, insurance, storage and maintenance costs; provides an on-line booking service, quarterly accounts and, I’m told, will deliver and pick-up the vehicle anywhere in Australia when it’s your turn to enjoy it.
For full details visit www.ownashare.com.au or call Kevin Brandt on 0403 950 876 or (02) 9918 2147.
Click HERE to visit the Aquarius website
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications, photos and contact details.
iMotorhome Roadtest - Aquarius - 2012 (1956 KB)