Detailed ReviewThis pair of luxury coachbuilts’ goal is to offer top-notch relaxing in sumptuous lounges. But which one is best? There’s only one way to find out...
Despite working to similar design parameters, every country has its own distinctive style. Here designers from quintessentially British Auto-Trail face stiff competition from Hobby of Germany. Both teams have been briefed to produce seven-metre luxury motorhomes, incorporating large rear lounges, and for around £50,000 – give or take optional extras.
The Apache 634’s imposing Hi-Line overcab and rear spare wheel carrier, and the Siesta 65 UC’s svelte low-profile lines and maroon/gold decals, reveal their respective origins as obviously as any team shirt. Like all current Auto-Trails, the Apache is built on the new Euro 5 Fiat Ducato, while Hobby’s Siesta range is Ford Transit-based. Production Siestas will have the new Euro 5 motor, but this prototype test ‘van had the older Euro 4 engine.
As match referees, we judged performance on the day, but there were difficulties: the Apache was designated a prototype, but was more-or-less ready for production, whereas the Siesta was more a ‘concept’ and, as frankly admitted, still a work in progress. We know from experience that Hobby produces well-engineered classy designs tailored for British requirements, but this prototype Siesta resembled a reserve team fielded to play a Premier League outfit!
Rear U-shaped lounges have become a British speciality, providing comfortable relaxation, well away from the caravan door – panoramic windows giving an excellent view, often of the rain! The layout is less common on the Continent, where outdoor living is easier – the main requirement a fixed bed at the end of an energetic day, and a garage for storing barbecue and bikes.
Apaches come with either a Hi-Line roof with an overcab bed – here tested – or a (no-cost option) Lo-Line, with storage space instead. Super Lo-Line (Auto-Trail’s ‘proper’ low profile) isn’t available on Apache 634. Hobby produces several Siesta overcab motorhomes, but only the Siesta 65 UC, with its sleek low-profile roof, has this rear-lounge layout.
The Apache’s caravan door is (as usual with Brits) on the nearside. As with the Siesta, this is connected to the central locking system and similarly, you enter via an automatically-retracting step. Unlike the Siesta, there’s no hazardous lip in the Apache doorway, but a moulded inner step. Inside to the left is the wardrobe, with cab and overcab bed beyond. The main kitchen work-surface is to the right. Opposite is the washroom, aft of that the cooker, then a lower surface with convector heater below. Beyond is the lounge, with big windows all around.
The Apache’s upholstery is dark-brown/beige floral abstract (Axminster) with tweedy-brown on seat squabs. Curtains (lounge only) are flecked beige – their orange tie-backs matching the reverse of the scatter cushions. Dark wood-strip-effect vinyl flooring has removable beige carpets (in the cab it’s charcoal) and woodwork is medium brown (Aosta), with matt greyish-beige panels on overhead lockers and silver handles and highlight strips. Thick work-surfaces (and table) are finished in dark grey speckle. Despite the sombre tones, initial impressions are of spaciousness and light – seeming much bigger than exterior dimensions would suggest.
The Siesta is just an inch (25mm) shorter and narrower than its competitor, but its low-profile stance makes it seem smaller. Whereas Auto-Trail specifies appealing body-coloured front bumpers as standard, Hobby charges extra: the test ‘van’s grey bumpers didn’t impress visually, though are far more practical. To the right, inside the Siesta’s high (offside) caravan door, is the compact kitchen unit, to the left a tall slim fridge. Opposite the kitchen there’s a mini half-dinette that converts into a forward-facing travel seat. A small round swivelling table attaches to the seat base. This is useful for the rear passenger, but too far from swivelled cab seats. Aft of the dinette is the washroom, then the wardrobe and, occupying the rear, the lounge.
The interior seems more austere than the Apache’s, mainly due to the rear lounge lacking curtains. The strange omission of overhead lockers on the offside lounge wall makes it look rather like a waiting room. Plain brown corduroy upholstery (Havana) may not help, though it’s lightened by cream faux leather panels. Woodwork (Ariola) is light tan, with cream panels, silver strips and (positive-locking) catches on upper cupboards. The kitchen cupboards are cream-fronted. Work-surfaces and table tops are in mottled glossy-cream. Floors are tan bamboo-effect vinyl, with beige removable carpets (grey in the cab).
Fiat’s Euro 5 compliant engines were launched earlier than Ford’s, with production motorhomes so equipped now appearing on dealers’ forecourts. The Fiat engine’s displacement remains 2.3 litres, delivering 130bhp or 148bhp. The 3.0-litre engine now provides a stonking 177 horsepower (previously 157bhp).
Big news is that the Comfort-Matic auto will be available throughout the range, as an alternative to the six-speed manual tested here. This is a big competitive advantage for Fiat over its Sevel partners (Peugeot and Citroën) and Ford’s Transit for which no automatic option appears planned. The choice may be unimportant for white van man, but an auto is very popular with leisure vehicle owners and presently Fiat, Renault and Mercedes offer this.
ON THE ROAD
Fiat claims its Euro 5 engines are quieter, cleaner and more economical than before; relatively short-distance test drives in new vehicles can’t substantiate such claims, but the Apache’s Euro 5 motor was brisk and powerful. Ford’s Euro 5 engine for front-wheel drive versions like this Hobby will still be 2.2 litres – standard output being raised from 115bhp to 125bhp. The test vehicle had the potent, flexible and reasonably quiet 140 horsepower Euro 4 motor, which propelled the Siesta very smartly. Cabs are both equipped with all expected goodies: twin airbags, electrically-adjustable and heated door mirrors, cruise control and cab air-conditioning. Production Siestas will have Ford’s excellent heated windscreen – why don’t others copy this? – and also ESP (Electronic Stability Program), a handling safety feature not offered by Auto-Trail.
The test Apache had the optional Media Pack, which includes dashboard-mounted, seven-inch, touch-screen radio/DVD/MP3 player, doubling as the reversing camera’s monitor.
The driving position is good on both vehicles but, for me, the Ducato takes the contest because there’s steering wheel reach adjustment – the Transit’s is unaccountably, fixed. Moreover, Fiat’s trip computer is superior to Ford’s, and bigger door mirrors give better visibility. However, I find both base vehicles comfortable over long distances.
Driving these two revealed a few rattles: the Apache’s came from various doors, the cupboards’ lacking positive catches (a company feature). The Siesta’s conversion din came from the washroom and a rattling oven door. Auto-Trail utilises Fiat’s Camping chassis, which is wider and lower so enhancing roadholding and handling. The Siesta’s standard Ford chassis is higher and narrower and, with softer suspension, leans more. The Siesta’s large rear window was partly obscured by a backrest cushion, so through visibility was poorer than in the Apache.
LOUNGE AND DINE
This game will be won and lost in the rear. How comfortable and practical are these lounges? The Apache has slightly longer settees, but both ‘vans have ample seating.
The Siesta has flat seat cushions, which we applaud, though they’re rather too high. And its backrests are taller, with more rake – a mixed blessing at night. The hefty table – and its sturdy monopod – stores in a dedicated cupboard at the offside front of the lounge, below the television bracket. With the table stowed, its large boss remains in the middle of the lounge floor and it tripped both of us frequently. Adding injury to insult, I was also fouled by the sharp-edged ceiling light fitting: the raised lounge floor reduces headroom to 1.78m (5ft 10in) and 1.71m (5ft 7.5in) below the light cluster. Better to leave the table in situ as it swivels, allowing easy access, and is big enough for four diners.
Three – adjustable halogen – under-cupboard reading lights, plus a Midi Heki rooflight give reasonable, though not outstanding, illumination. In addition, the Siesta has the front half-dinette, but there’s insufficient room for more than one on the seat, though lovebirds might squeeze together. The driver’s seat swivels completely, but the passenger’s only partly. Two reading lights above the rear seating (none in the cab) and a small central Heki rooflight illuminate. An overcab rooflight is optional.
The Apache has just the one lounge, though its cab seats also swivel.
Settee seat cushions have slight knee-rolls (barely detectable when seated) and lesser shaping for the backrests. Dining is from a free-standing table (with dedicated storage cupboard), so it can also be used outside. There’s a strip-light both above and below overhead lockers (all lights in the Apache are LEDs, apart from two serving the overcab bed) and two reading lights in the rear corners of the lounge. However, there’s no central lamp, just a large Heki rooflight, so we found night-time illumination lacking.
There’s no step-up into the lounge, therefore it offers more headroom than the Siesta. The television occupies an overhead locker on the offside, above the heater, and lowers into view. However, the lounge lacks a mains socket, so you’d need to specify this as an extra. Overall, the Apache’s rear lounge is more welcoming, slightly larger, has better headroom and fewer hazards than the Siesta’s.
Traditionally, British motorhomes major on kitchens, so you’d expect Auto-Trail to be strong here and it is. The main kitchen unit features a long work-top, with large stainless steel sink and desirable integral drainer. There’s just one mains socket here and an LED strip-light – we’d prefer more illumination. Below the surface is a 96-litre fridge, with removable freezer compartment. There’s a splendid cutlery drawer, plus plenty more storage.
The cooker is a full-sized Thetford Caprice, with three hob burners and one electric hotplate, separate grill and oven. Above, is a large tambour-doored cupboard – presumably designed for a microwave – and alongside the cooker, a lower-level work-surface, beneath which is a Truma convector space heater. We didn’t like this arrangement: with the heater on, it would be uncomfortable to prepare food here, and the top was too low for our taste. However, that’s a quibble – overall, this is a really good kitchen.
The Siesta has typically Continental facilities. The narrow fridge – another with removable freezer – is set within a tall tower, but this time with 140 litres of capacity. Above is the oven/grill (part of the Luxus pack) that’s rather too high for safe use (1.69m/5ft 6.5in).
The main kitchen unit houses a Smev combination unit featuring a three-burner hob and round stainless steel sink, each having a separate glass lid, The mixer tap is between the two. There’s hardly any work-top and the little round dinette table – opposite – is too low for such use. There’s a mains socket in the unit’s side, so an electric kettle must stand on the lowered sink lid. The drawers below the surface are large, but plastic and rather waffy. Overhead (shelved) lockers are too deep and too low, impeding work at sink and hob and, when opened, their doors are hazardous. Illumination comes from a window, two halogen lights below overhead lockers and two above (obscured when doors are lifted). Not an impressive kitchen, so an easy win for the British product.
The Siesta’s washroom springs a couple of surprises. On the right is a Thetford bench-type toilet of a new design – the C503, which has a wheeled cassette. Opposite is a corner-mounted basin in a curved vanitory unit, with its mixer tap mounted on the wall behind. The walls are covered with mirrors, hiding five slim cupboards. Strongly lit by six halogen bulbs in a high-level panel, there’s no escaping your ‘beauty’ in here!
As a toilet compartment, it’s a little small: my knee was pressed tight against the vanitory unit, and there were no fittings whatsoever: no toilet-roll holder, toothbrush mug, robe hooks or towel rings. For showering, the whole side wall slides towards the toilet, revealing a plastic-lined shower cubicle with bi-fold doors. Again, it’s rather cramped and the mixer tap doubles as shower-head, though there’s no bracket to permit hands-free showering. A clever design, but we felt that omitting the sliding wall would have left greater space, with less complexity. We put the lack of fittings down to the prototype status of the ‘van.
The Apache’s washroom is less radical. The swivelling Thetford C250 toilet, with washbasin alongside, shows a similar problem to the Siesta: lack of knee and elbow room. Walls are largely wood-covered, with a large mirror containing LED strips above the basin. A cupboard above the toilet has a curved door, which fouled the towel rail behind. There’s another slim cupboard under the basin and all the usual accessories are present. Behind bi-fold plastic doors, the separate shower cubicle is plastic-lined, with shower riser bar and moulded ledge for shampoo/gel. The cubicle is perhaps a little tight, but it’s practical. Again, the Auto-Trail scores.
In a well-designed rear lounge, bed-making should be simple: you should be able to slide the settee bases out to the centre, fill in with backrests and have a generous flat bed made in moments. That’s the theory, and it works if you start with flat cushions, including backrests. However, it seems few manufacturers can resist shaping the cushions and this makes bed-making a chore, as knee-rolls, however small, must be turned to the wall. If backrests are shaped, they will cause lumpiness in the middle.
So it proved with the Apache. Moreover, Auto-Trail follows caravan design, drawing slats forward from the rear of the lounge to bridge the gap between settees. These jam easily, particularly when retracting them. Some parts of the settee bases are slatted, other areas are solid ply: this variation could cause discomfort. The Apache’s longer settees may enable many to use them as longitudinal single beds, then it’s just a matter of finding storage for the backrest cushions – probably the cab. With its enormous area, Braves could sleep in the Apache’s overcab, though the mattress is more normal in size. There’s an alloy ladder and once ensconced, you discover a window in the nearside, lighting, privacy curtain and reasonable headroom.
The Siesta’s flat seat cushions should produce an easily-made bed, but regrettably not in this prototype, though doubtless the flaws we uncovered will be remedied before production. Backrests are heavily shaped, so must be turned to the wall, but their length meant they didn’t marry with the seat cushion across the rear. Remove the rear seat squab – it’s really huge and unwieldy – plus the big awkward corner backrests and you can make a transverse bed of sorts, though the top and bottom curve upwards most uncomfortably. This bed, sadly, is a German own goal.
The settees are too short for sleeping lengthways, but at least the slatted settee bases roll easily (on wheels) out to the centre. When the cushions have been re-designed we hope, and expect, a comfortable bed will result.
The Apache is quite heavy (GVW is 3,650kg), placing it beyond some drivers’ licences. Even so, payload is just 340kg, so owners must take care when loading. Externally, there’s a low ‘garage’ – a large locker with external doors each side and a power socket. Inside, there’s the enormous overcab for bedding stowage. The big wardrobe has double doors, a light and hanging drop of 1.20m (3ft 11in), with another cupboard below. Above the lounge are two unshelved cupboards on each side, with two more, shelved, over the rear window. We wouldn’t store heavy items in these, given the lack of positive catches.
Beneath the nearside settee, there’s a little storage around the Truma boiler, with more under the offside settee. However, the leisure battery is set below the floor and, on this prototype, gaps to the outside meant cold air and road muck could infiltrate – an oversight to be remedied. The Siesta has a much better payload of 598kg, despite a 3,500kg GVW. It also has an under-store, but smaller in area, L-shaped and with just one offside door. However, internally, it’s taller, at 820mm/2ft 8.5in.
Above the Siesta’s cab, there’s just a lipped shelf where small items might live. It’s inadequate for bedding, so this would need to be stowed elsewhere. The good-sized wardrobe has a novel illuminated hanging rail, a shelf above and cupboard below. The lounge has five overhead lockers – all unshelved – at the nearside rear. There’s shallow storage under the nearside settee, above the fresh water tank. Under the opposite settee, there’s access to the Truma heater and to the ‘garage’. However, the test ‘van’s settee bases were almost impossible to raise, because the rear seat squab fouled them – this, and all the other cushions, must be removed. Another issue to be addressed by Hobby, it seems.
Both manufacturers supply plenty of goodies, but some of them are part of optional-extra packs. Remis cab blinds, awning, carpets and upholstered cab seats are all in Hobby’s Starter Pack, but surely most production vehicles will have this? Prospective buyers will probably require it. Likewise, Auto-Trail’s Media Pack (with TV and reversing camera) will be on most folk’s shopping lists. For standard-fit kit, the Apache has the edge, including exterior barbecue and shower points, awning, Remis cab blinds and a spare wheel, which sadly, the Siesta lacks.
We know Hobby is a master at this game, but the Siesta 65 UC suffers from lack of match practice and here, is outclassed by Auto-Trail’s Apache. When the Siesta’s design quirks have been fettled, as will happen, production models should be worth consideration, especially with Ford’s new generation of engines. However, on match day, the Apache proved itself the better in almost every department: Germany One, England five!
To read the full motorhome review in PDF format exactly as it appeared in the March 2012 issue of MMM, click here.