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French Fancies: Rapido 854F vs Pilote 696U


It's normally UK manufacturers that favour end lounge layouts but, for 2022, two top Gallic brands have launched luxurious rear lounge models

Words and photos by Peter Vaughn

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Since Brexit, the French and British governments seem to have had as cordial a relationship as the cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry, but, fortunately, motorhomers are generally a bit more open-minded, more live and let live. So, France still figures top of our favourite European touring destinations and Chausson, Pilote and Rapido remain big-selling motorhome marques on our shores.

Up until now, though, these Gallic brands have tended to stick largely to continental-style fixed bed layouts with island beds or fixed singles, leaving the classic rear u-shaped lounge to British manufacturers. After all, those fixed bed formats sell well in all European countries, whereas the end lounge is often viewed as of rather niche appeal, except amongst those of us that drive on the left and eat fish and chips...

Now, for 2022, both Pilote and Rapido have launched high-spec rear lounge models with that appealing - to us, at least! - U-shaped seating group. Each can be used as a luxury two-berth or cater for four (with a quartet of travel seats, too), each has a drop-down bed (possibly two in the Rapido), and each is under 7m in length, so reasonably modest in size. However, neither is just a copy of a Swift or a Bailey with a bit of added je ne sais quoi to the styling.

They each have some interesting innovations to tempt you away from the, perhaps more obvious, rear lounge models from UK manufacturers. But which one more successfully mixes Gallic flair with one of Britain's most favoured and long-lived layouts?

A bit of background

The Pilote P696U is a low-profile but the one shown here isn't quite as you'll see it on dealer forecourts. It's in Expression spec, which replaces the previous Essentiel and Sensation trim levels. In this form, it's highly configurable, with many, many options to choose from.

The newcomer is also available as an Évidence model, which has all the features seen on this test vehicle, plus the automatic gearbox, and at a lower price. That makes choosing the Évidence a bit of a no-brainer, with its £64,500 price tag looking great value for the equipment included.

What do both have to offer?

For the record, Évidence spec includes the Media Pack with 8in touchscreen radio, a reversing camera, 100W solar panel, imitation leather upholstery, an oven, alloy wheels, a roll-out awning, gas/mains heating, an overcab Skydome sunroof and more. The Rapido is obviously going to be more expensive as it's an A-class - typically, that adds £10k to any motorhome. But, for its type, the 854F looks temptingly affordable, with a starting figure below £70k. Rapido has kept costs down by placing its new rear lounge offering in the 8-Series range, which uses Fiat's low-frame chassis, rather than the 80-Series, which has the more expensive Al-Ko chassis and a double floor.

In common with other 8-Series motorhomes for the new season, it does get some added spec, including a heated waste water tank, a lengthways skylight and a new locking mechanism for the cab bed. Like Pilote, Rapido enhances the standard kit list considerably for UK vehicles.

That means that the standard spec includes gas/electric heating, a three-burner hob (not two rings), an oven and grill, a second leisure battery, removable carpets, an external shower (in the garage), twin-lens bus-style mirrors, rear corner steadies, and (on the base vehicle) front fog lights, Traction+, Hill Descent Control and a leather steering wheel with radio controls. However, the base price is a bit misleading here because you're obliged to find another £2,250 for the Select Pack, which includes a reversing camera, Alpine 7in multimedia unit with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, ESC with crosswind assist, electric mirrors, height-adjustable cab seats, a pleated windscreen blind, flyscreen door and automatic gas inverter.

Fiat Rapido 854F vs Fiat Pilote 696U

Exterior of the Rapido 854F
Exterior of the Pilote 696U

'Our' P696U was based on the new Series 8 Ducato, while the Rapido we drove was on a pre-facelift cab - all subsequent production from Mayenne will, of course, be on the facelifted Fiat, although (as an A-class) the changes are even less noticeable. Pilote specifies the 140bhp motor, air-con, cruise control, stop/start, ESP, ASR and Traction+ as standard but, rather than Fiat's multimedia system, it adds an aftermarket unit from Pioneer. Featuring DAB radio, a 9in touchscreen, sat-nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the display is also linked to a reversing camera with fish eye-style vision.

It's worth noting, though, that your driving comfort may be jeopardised by the proximity of the wall behind the driver's chair - if you're over 6ft, you'll need to try it. On the road, there were also quite a few rattles from the living area. As the Rapido is an A-class, you benefit from that panoramic windscreen, which you'll really enjoy when driving through big scenery. And, for once, your vision doesn't disappear if it rains - there are triple wipers set up for RHD.

The 854F also has a long wheelbase and short rear overhang, making it exceptionally stable on the road. 'Ours' had the 160bhp motor (a £1,700 option) for spritely performance, but the nine-speed automatic gearbox (standard on the Pilote Évidence) is £2,780 here, widening the price gap.

Face the facts

Rapido 854F fact file

Pilote P696U fact file

Price from: £69,700 Price from: £56,900 (£64,500 in Évidence spec)
Price as tested: £79,200 Price as tested: £66,223
Berths: 4/6 Berths: 4
Travel seats: 4 Travel seats: 4
Length: 6.70m Length: 6.99m
Width: 2.35m Width: 2.30m
Height: 2.89m Height: 2.88m
Gross weight: 3,650kg
(also available as 3,500kg)
Gross weight: 3,500kg (3,650kg option)
Payload: 550kg (standard spec), 415kg (as tested) – both figures on 3,650kg chassis Payload: 625kg (standard Expression), 485kg (approx Évidence spec)
Base vehicle: Fiat Ducato chassis-cowl with 2.3-litre 160bhp engine (tested on run-out pre-facelift cab) Base vehicle: Fiat Ducato Series 8 Camping-Car chassis-cab with 2.2-litre 140bhp engine
Fridge: Dometic 139-litre, automatic energy selection Fridge: Dometic 153-litre, automatic energy selection
Beds: Cab bed 1.87m x 1.39m, lounge bed 2.10m x 1.53m, optional rear drop-down bed 1.98m x 1.35m Beds: Drop-down bed 2.00m x 1.53m, lounge bed 2.15m x 1.40m
Fresh water: 120 litres (inboard) Fresh water: 130 litres (inboard)
Space/water heating: Truma Combi 6 EH gas/mains blown-air Space/water heating: Truma Combi 6 EH (option on Expression)
Leisure battery: 2 x 100Ah Leisure battery: 95Ah
Options fitted to test vehicle:
Select Pack (£2,250), 160bhp engine with Eco Pack (£1,700), automatic gearbox (£2,780), alloy wheels (£740), rear electric bed (£1,350), Milan TEP upholstery (£320), Bellagio gloss locker doors (£360)
Options fitted to test vehicle:
Various, including – Relax Pack (£1,035), alloy wheels (£520), Combi 6 EH (£690), Media Pack (£1,210), Comfort Pack (£1,035), Lux Exterior Pack (£339), AGM battery and solar panel (£514), Sky Dome (£520), skirt locker (£610), carpets (£430), faux leather upholstery (£430)

What will you choose?

The lounge inside the P696U
The lounge inside the 854F

Of course, what probably matters most with these motorhomes is the rear lounge and, while the Rapido scores well for comfort, the Pilote has more views, more daylight and more space.

The lounge on board the Pilote

The P696U is the first rear lounge Pilote for several years but what a lounge it is. Measuring 2.16m (over 7ft) in length on the offside, you could sit seven people around this space - and that's not based on five of them being under 5s! It's light and airy, too, with large windows at both sides and in the rear, so you won't notice that the drop-down bed precludes a rooflight above. Nor will most have an issue with the 1.90m headroom under that bed, while 11 downlighters and two rear speakers are neatly integrated into the bed base.

If you want privacy from your campsite neighbours, there are net curtains in addition to the pleated blinds, and the wall-mounted bracket can support up to a 32in TV. Only reading lights are absent from the spec. The central table is fixed but it folds in half and, importantly, it's also height-adjustable - I found it uncomfortably high in its tallest position but that is easily remedied and you can even lower it right down as a coffee table.

The lounge on board the Rapido

It's a combination of talents that the shorter Rapido struggles to match. For a start, there's no back window in the 854F, but instead a set of high-level cupboards across the rear, reaching up to the ceiling. In the centre is a glazed section, putting your choice of wine on display in the cave, while to the left is a generous wardrobe (hanging height 980mm, width 710mm), complete with an arm that pulls the hanging rail out and down towards you, bringing your fresh shirt within easy grasp. Just as in the Pilote, this is a super-comfy place to relax.

The dining table again folds in half and lowers, and although it's a smaller lounge than in its rival, you can comfortably stretch out, feet up. Artificial lighting is good, too, and there are rear speakers as well as no less than six USB ports. The only negative to note is that there isn't a proper backrest under the offside window, so the seat here is more somewhere to rest weary legs than a place to sit to dine. Headroom under the drop-down bed is inferior to the Pilote, too.

The kitchen

The kitchen on board the Rpaido
The kitchen on board the Pilote

The French are famous for their food, so the kitchens here should be fantastique, ne c'est pas? Well, the Pilote doesn't impress at the start, with just a two-burner hob, although a Duplex oven/grill is also fitted as part of the Évidence spec. Much more like it is the two-door, 153-litre fridge/freezer with automatic energy selection, but we'd have liked more countertop for meal prep.

Storage includes four drawers and a trio of large top lockers, while a small shelf caters for condiments. Behind the sink are 12V and 230V sockets, as well as a double USB port, while another mains point and more USBs are located opposite, where there's a small surface for appliances.

In contrast, the galley in the Rapido seems surprisingly long and the L-shape towards the rear provides separation between the lounge and kitchen. That shape adds extra workspace, too, as does the three-burners-in-line hob mounted well back in the counter. The raised serving shelf is another novel addition and it's removable. This kitchen looks good, with its backlit splashback and contrasting black handles, while Rapido offers a choice of furniture styles to please a broader range of tastes.

Whether you opt for Bellagio or Nacarat cabinetwork, you get a comprehensively appointed kitchen with an extractor hood, an oven/grill, a slide-out unit for bottles and tins, a large cutlery drawer and a super-deep pull-out for pots and pans. There's even a hideaway tea towel rail, while all the drawers are locked electrically at the flick of a switch. Finally, there's a tall/slim fridge with almost as much capacity as the Pilote's.


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Storage space

Back door on the Rapido with some storage
The kitchen on board the Pilote

When it comes to stowing big items, you don't expect a rear lounge model to match a fixed bed layout. The Pilote tries to close the gap by offering external access to the space under part of the lounge. More innovative is the fact that the seat bases across the back wall can be raised, creating a sort of garage area that you can use while travelling.

However, you would need to reclaim the seating as soon as you park up, and would you really want your muddy bike wheels rubbing up against your upholstery?

No, we didn't think so... If you want to carry cycles inside your motorhome, the Rapido 854F makes a much, much better fist of things - and now you comprehend why there's no rear window. The 854F has a true garage, not just a little bit of external storage. It comes with a full-sized door on the offside, a small hatch on the nearside and an internal height of 1.18m.

Loads can be up to 150kg. Combined with the huge internal lockers above the garage, the 854F has a big advantage over its adversary if you're considering long-term touring. Both models can also have chassis upgrades for extra payload.

The bedroom

The bedroom inside the P696U
The bedroom inside the 854F

Unlike most British rear lounge models, the Pilote comes with a drop-down bed. It can be stopped partway down to allow use of the lounge seating as a second double bed, but we'd envisage most P696U customers using their motorhomes as two-berths. In that case, you just keep your pinkie on the button above the habitation door a little longer, until the bed is just 810mm off the floor.

It's a one-piece Bultex mattress of generous proportions but, in order to get the bed to its lowest setting, you have to remove all of the backrest cushions from the settees - 10 of them. That makes quite a pile of faux leather trim to fill the cab! On the plus side, however, the drop-down bed doesn't cover all of the offside sofa, leaving somewhere to sit to take off your socks.

In contrast, as it's an A-class, the main bed in the Rapido is in the cab. Here, the double berth swings down manually with little effort and, with a magazine pocket, spotlights at each end and a rooflight for ventilation, this bed ticks all the boxes. Although you can also make the rear lounge into a (rather lumpy) bed, the 854F works better than the Pilote as a four-berth as you can add a second drop-down bed at the rear.

This one is electric and comes down to 900mm off the floor. Even with the bed fully lowered, though, you'll need fairly long legs to find access easy. With two full-sized double beds, each requiring no make-up, the Rapido will also appeal to those couples who like to sleep apart, each in their own spacious bed.


How many berths?

So, both of these motorhomes can be four-berths and, unusually for this type of floorplan, they each have a pair of rear travel seats, too. That said, neither is the ideal family motorhome.

The passenger seats (one forward-facing, one rear-facing in both models) are a long way from the cab and, so far back, the ride is unlikely to suit anyone who suffers from motion sickness.

Showered with praise?

The bathroom on the Rapido
The bathroom on the Pilote

In the modestly sized (just 6.70m long) Rapido, it's no surprise to find the ablutions fitted into a single area opposite the kitchen. Inside the 854F's bathroom, there's loads of room to use the loo, while storage space is pretty generous, too. Then, for showering, the mirrored wall turns to the right, with the basin repositioning itself over the toilet, and a good-sized shower is created. It's a good washroom, but the Pilote's is soooo much better...

In the P696U, the bathroom is behind the cab and it occupies the full width of the vehicle. Two sets of sliding doors shut off the cab as well as separating the ablutions area from the rest of the motorhome. In between is a washing/changing room worthy of a 9m A-class!

On the offside are the superior Dometic toilet, the washbasin, a large mirror and plenty of storage. Then, opposite, as well as a generous separate shower cubicle, you'll find the wardrobe and cupboards below for folded clothes. In between is a super-sized area for drying yourself off and getting dressed - if you have a cat, there's plenty of room to swing it here (no moggies were harmed in the compilation of this road test).

Finally, we should also mention the uniquely designed entrance area in the Pilote, complete with coat hooks, a seat where you can slip off your shoes and even a cupboard for your footwear. Does that little bonus feature swing our conclusion in favour of the Pilote?

Final verdict

One thing is clear, you don't have to buy British to get a great rear lounge motorhome - in fact, the French not having such a history with this type of layout might have resulted in more fresh ideas. Which is best depends on your needs. If those include carrying expensive bikes on board (or anything big and bulky), or if you're planning to be away for long periods, then the Rapido is your motorhome.

For buyers seeking four berths, or separate beds, the 854F is also our winner. However, a rear lounge model is traditionally for couples and the Pilote is better in this role, not just against the Rapido but also in comparison with many other competitors. Its lounge is superb and its washroom sets new standards for this size of vehicle. It is less innovative but will probably appeal to a wider audience.

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