Gone with the Windsport!
Frankly you won’t give a damn about having to take the kids in this family size motorhome…
by Richard Robertson
Although you can spend mega dollars on upmarket diesel-powered A-class motorhomes in America, entry level models are surprisingly affordable. Record low interest rates, long-term finance deals and aggressive dealer discounting mean many younger families are able to afford a new motorhome – even an A-class. The availability of bunk-equipped models from most manufacturers shows there’s apparent family demand and such models also work for Gramping – when grandparents take the grandkids away. In some bigger models all three generations could easily ‘enjoy’ a family vacation together.
The rental vehicle supplied by El Monte RV for our US adventure turned out to be such a family machine: A Windsport 34J Bunkhouse to be precise, from Thor Motor Coach, one of the big names in American RV manufacturing. With seat belts and sleeping for seven, including two bunks and a kingsize main bed, four TVs and a full-length slide-out it certainly had the room to accommodate most families. For just the two of us it was total overkill and turned out to be the wrong vehicle in some ways for the trip we’d planned, but it did let us fulfil one longstanding ambition: to holiday in a huge Meet The Fockers-style motorhome!
Thor Motor Coach is a mass market builder that churns out dozens of motorhomes a day. Like many US manufactures it produces a range of competing brands under its corporate umbrella and like others claims to be the number one brand. Go figure. A quick count finds 14 motorhome brands in the Thor stable, of which Windsport is one, with 6 models in it’s line-up. As I said, go figure.
Our test motorhome, registered new in April 2014, was a 2015 model and although designated a “34” was in fact 35 ft 5 in (10.8 m) long. Both discrepancies seem to be the way the American RV industry does business, although the latter one of understating size surprises me, given this isn't a country used to understatements! The test vehicle was missing a few bits and pieces as per the brochure, probably because it was destined for rental service. Externally there was no roof ladder, while inside the removable front coffee table was missing. Also missing was the remote control for a system called Rapid Camp, which lets you stand inside or out and operate things like the slide-out, electric awning, levelling jacks, generator and patio lights. Shame…
Speaking of externally, construction was standard US motorhome fare: A steel-framed floor and aluminium body frame; bonded laminated walls, roof and floor with foam core insulation, and one-piece fibreglass end caps. It’s not cutting edge but it works and will keep working so long as routine maintenance like roof seam sealing is observed. Standard equipment included automatic self-levelling jacks (that didn’t work), two 13,500 BTU roof-top air-conditioners, a 35,000 BTU LPG central heating furnace, power awning, electric steps, external shower, frameless windows (more on them later), an Onan 5.5 kVa gas (petrol) generator and a ton of external storage in numerous bins on both sides, including a whopper at the kerb-side rear for golf clubs and the like. Each bin was a moulded plastic unit with a sideways opening door (lift-up for the big one) and had an interior light. In places where a cable or hose passed through a bin, expanda foam was used to seal the gap and in places there were gobs of excess oozing out – an insight into the indifferences and disappointments of mass production.
Capacities-wise the Windsport 34J carried 50 gals (189 L) of fresh water and 43 gals (163 L) each of grey and black water, plus 6 gal (23 L) of hot water. It also had a chassis-mounted 88 lb (40 kg) LPG tank and 2 house batteries of indeterminate capacity. Apart from being 35 ft 5 in (10.8 m) long it was 12 ft 2 in (3.66 m) tall and 8 ft 3 in (2.51 m) wide. Gross weight was 22,000 lb (9979 kg) and the empty weight must have been 16,858 lbs (7647 kg), as it was placarded for a maximum combined occupant and cargo capacity (inc water) of 5142 lbs (2332 kg).
The price conscious end of the mainstream US motorhome market has ridden on Ford chassis for years, especially following the demise of the GM product. It seems all entry and lower priced A-classes ride on the Ford’s F53 SuperDuty, a purpose-built A-class chassis powered by the ubiquitous 6.8 L Triton V10 gas (petrol) engine up the front. Unlike E450 cab-chassis used in most American C-class motorhomes and that use the same engine, in this application it’s uprated by 57 hp (42.5 kW) to 362 hp (270 kW) and 50 ft-lbs (68 Nm) to 470 ft-lb (620 Nm). Fuel capacity increases from 55 to 80 US gallons (208 to 303 L) too.
Interestingly, full consumption worked out almost identically to the 32 ft 5 in (9.89 m) Fleetwood Tioga C-class we crossed America in last year, showing the extra power of the A-class doesn’t necessarily equate to extra thirst. We averaged 7.45 miles per US gallon (31.5 L/100 km) for this whole trip, and if you take out the first fill around 120 miles, which included escaping LA at speed and climbing steeply into the Mojave Desert, it was 7.75 mpg (30 L/100 km) overall. That might sound rather scary, but given the fuel price differences between America and Australia it works out about the same as having a diesel powered motorhome in Australia returning an average 20 L/100 km, with the dollar around 90c.
The F53 drives through a five-speed auto transmission, has conventional steel springs with quality Bilstein gas/oil shocks, I-beam front suspension with a Dana rear axle and anti-lock brakes. It comes with cruise control, an adjustable steering column and a comprehensive instrumentation cluster including oil pressure and temperature gauges as well as a trip computer showing total engine hours. Being front engined the Triton V10 sits under the cab floor in a motorhome application, almost over the front axle. It’s actually set quite a way back and daily checks are carried out (with a degree of dexterity) via a lift-up panel in the nose, just below the widescreen. Certainly low-tech by current engineering standards – especially European – the F53 is, never the less, a proven, tough and essentially bulletproof package that will likely outlast the body. It’s also not a bad drive.
Being a former ‘Coach Captain’ and self-confessed big vehicle nut I was seriously looking forward to getting behind the wheel. If you've driven a bus or coach the A-class driving experience is similar but not quite the same; primarily because you sit a way further back from the windscreen. It didn't take long to adapt but, when everything was new and it was time to negotiate our way out of the rental yard it added a degree of difficulty. At least I think it did. Mrs iMotorhome reckons my smile – okay, smirk – didn’t falter as I manoeuvred the Enterprise, I mean Windsport, from its berth and into the unknown.
Once out the gate there was little time to acclimatise and within minutes we were into the cut and thrust of a crowded Los Angeles freeway undergoing major redevelopment. It was pretty intense and I was pleased for those years of coach driving experience, especially as I was also adapting to driving a bus style vehicle with left-hand drive for the first time. As I’ve said elsewhere in this issue, even though there are no special licensing requirements in the US to drive an RV this size (or bigger), unless you have heavy vehicle experience and are a confident driver I’d strongly advise against it. Choose something smaller and also look at avoiding downtown LA for your first rental pick-up experience – it’s not for the feint hearted.
It’s a testament to the relative simplicity and ease of driving the big Ford that I was able to concentrate on driving and not have to think too much about the motorhome. Power delivery was gentle and surprisingly quiet (unless I floored it), while braking was strong enough without being touchy or wooden. The basic steel spring suspension was another surprise. Aided by the Bilstein shocks and enormous 242 inch (6.15 m) wheelbase it provided a generally comfortable and wallow-free ride, with little body roll. Steering was also pleasing and the steering lock felt surprisingly tight. Combined with the lack of massive rear overhang common on American motorhomes this meant there was little danger of striking the tail on telegraph poles when pulling away from the kerb or of hitting things (like other vehicles!) when picking my way carefully through a crowded RV park. Excellent side mirrors complete with cameras made the job easier too. Electrically adjustable and heated, each had a large wide-angle convex section in the bottom third and a camera that displayed the view down the side of the motorhome on the reversing camera screen whenever the indicator was used. Changing lanes I quickly learned to use the convex mirror first, indicate and then double check with the camera.
After a few hours behind the wheel I was feeling quite at home and after a few days I didn’t want to hand it back. The V10 Triton engine could hold 60-65 mph (100ish km/h) on the freeway quite easily and I soon got to know its limitations, i.e. when to cancel cruise and put my foot down to avoid the gearbox suddenly dropping back two or even three gears on steeper hills. Under normal operation the engine had a gutsy tone and with cruise engaged and the captain’s chair arms folded into place I spent a lot of our freeway cursing time feeling pretty cool!
Despite the bluff nose the A-class body seemed more streamlined than the bulky C-classes I’m used to. Crosswind buffeting was less, as was the ‘blow/suck’ from passing semis. The significantly higher driving position of the A-class provided much better visibility, as did the massive one-piece windscreen, but the downside was more heat in the cab during the late summer heatwave. There were a few days where the cab aircon REALLY struggled.
Not all was sweetness and light, however. The twisting coast road that was Highway 1 showed not all of America is big motorhome heaven. It was hard work keeping the Windsport between the centre line and armco fencing, as well as finding sightseeing places big enough to pull in to at short notice. Ditto navigating the narrow and RV-unfriendly streets of Napa. For a trans-USA adventure this would have been a great motorhome, but for our quick loop between two major cities in a densely populated State it was really too big. Fun though!
The party piece of the Windsport 34J Bunkhouse was its almost full-length slide-out, which Mrs iM christened a “side-out”. Encompassing the dinette, kitchen, bunks and main bedroom wardrobes it must have been the best part of 30 ft (9 m) long. Hydraulically operated, it was so big there were stickers instructing me to ensure the levelling jacks were deployed before extending it. This was not only to keep the vehicle level but to reduce stress on the chassis, I imagine. The jacks on this rental vehicle didn't work; instead displaying an error message that the El Monte RV handover man ignored and didn't point out to us. In fact he actually said the jacks weren't really necessary. We soon realised they would have been very useful and on the two nights we parked on non-bitumen surfaces I was able to find an uneven spot that leaned us the other way, which was then largely corrected when the slide-out was extended.
The floorplan was quite straight forward: swivelling cab captain’s chairs and a front lounge and dinette, mid kitchen and bathroom, and rear sleeping quarters.
Design-wise I felt the interior was a real mixed bag. There was a ton of room to move around with the slide-out open, but when closed there was a dark tunnel effect down the centre. This was exacerbated by a combination of small, dark tinted windows, only one tiny roof hatch in the living area and dark stained timber cabinetry. The rear bedroom – excellent for its expansive king bed – has no roof hatch and only one opening window. That window, like all windows in the Windsport, was hinged at the top and opened just an inch or two at the bottom by means of a scissor-action wind-out mechanism. That meant there was almost no bedroom ventilation unless plugged into mains power or running the generator and having the aircon on. Still on windows, fiddly Roman blinds we're fitted that didn’t quite cover the window edges and were a pain to use. Another design flaw in my opinion was the decision to fit the dinette with two small windows so a big TV could be wall mounted between them.
These issues highlight what I believe to be a fundamental, perhaps philosophical difference in the way Americans and Australians approach RV travel. For us it’s usually all about the view, fresh air, outdoor living and getting away from the everyday. Americans seen to be all about taking the every day with them and mains power and TV reception take precedence over fresh air and/or a view. Of course I'm generalising, but free camping (dry camping/boondocking in American terminology) seems to be the exception, while RV parks with all their connections are the rule.
Design philosophies aside, once set up in camp the sheer amount of space made this an easy vehicle to live in. The big, comfortable captains chairs could be swivelled but there was really no need unless entertaining a lot of people. The dinette behind the driver's seat seated four, while the sofa bed behind the passenger seat could accommodate another three comfortably. There was generous internal storage, although none under the dinettes seats, which I presumed was to keep weight down for the slide-out. Each rooftop air-conditioner had a central outlet below it, but ducted ceiling vents meant we could tailor air distribution as required. I was pleased to see LED lighting used throughout, but someone needs to tell the designer one fitting size – large – doesn’t suit every application. There were no reading lights in the bedroom, for example, and even on half setting the lights were bright and their white light bathed the interior in a stark, office-like glare.
Mrs iMotorhome enjoyed the kitchen, including the usual American inclusion of a twin bowl sink – just like home! Why Australia designers don't include these is a mystery. The enormous microwave, with its integrated exhaust fan and light unit below, proved very handy – aided in no small part by the luxury of a remote start generator a flip of a switch away. Even the smallest of US motorhomes seems to have such a generator, yet it’s a ‘luxury’ reserved for the lucky few at home. Go figure!
A motorhome this size would usually have a shower cubicle on one side of the aisle and the toilet and vanity across from it. The inclusion of twin bunkbeds precluded this, so an all-in-one bathroom was the go. Surprisingly spacious it featured a generous L-shaped benchtop, under-bench and overhead cupboards and a shower cubicle with sliding glass door that was also quite roomy, but let down by the cheapest possible tap and hand shower combo.
Sleeping accommodation for those lucky enough not to be on the sofa bed or converted dinette comprised the afore-mentioned twin bunks and kingsize main bed. The bunks, which sat opposite the bathroom between the kitchen and main bedroom, were well proportioned and on our rental vehicle the top one had its own small TV at one end while the bottom bunk had provision for one. The bunks apparently converted to a sofa, which explained the clothes hanging rail above the top one and the big TV mounted on the bathroom wall, opposite. Each bunk had its own window, light and privacy curtain, plus a small aluminium ladder was provided for access.
Down the back we were accommodated in something approaching royal splendour, thanks to the comfortable kingsize island bed positioned across the vehicle, with its head on the kerb side. The bed head was surrounded by cupboards and drawers, plus there was an entertainment system with Bluetooth connection that also broadcast outside via speakers on the kerbside wall. Opposite the foot of the bed, in the slide-out, was a full wall of wardrobes and drawers, with a central recess for the one opening window (the one in the back wall of the Windsport is fixed and an emergency exit only). Above the window was another TV – you can never have too many, apparently – while in front of it was a small dressing table with drawers below.
Built to a price for a specific market the Windsport 34J Bunkhouse has all the ingredients and equipment likely to satisfy its intended buyer. From the driver's point of view it's comfortable, capable and reasonably manoeuvrable, while a family would relish the overall room and places parents and kids could escape to.
Ford’s F53 SuperDuty A-class chassis is as tough and dependable as they come, while parts and service are relatively cheap and available everywhere. Ditto the motorhome body, which although far from cutting edge should be easy to maintain, service and repair.
The Windsport 34J Bunkhouse looks good – a couple of people commented to that effect during our travels – and while a front gas-engined A-class is never going to be the status symbol a diesel pusher is, it’s still a lot of motorhome for the money. Despite my interior design criticisms we enjoyed our time and would happily travel in it again – and I can't say fairer than that!
- Bang for your buck
- Vast living space
- Excellent storage
- Good load capacity
- Standard equipment
- Kingsize bed
- Tough Ford A-class chassis
- LED lighting
- Pleasant to drive
- Good range
- Dark interior
- Small windows/poor ventilation
- Fiddly, ill-fitting blinds
- Budget light fittings
Click HERE to visit Windsport's website.
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications and contact details.
Windsport 34J Bunkhouse (1960 KB)
Windsport 34J Bunkhouse (1960 KB)