21/02/2020
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A guide to A-class motorhomes

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It’s not hard to see the appeal. Just look at an A-class and you’ll see a vehicle that’s designed to be a motorhome, not a commercial vehicle that’s been adapted to a leisure role. None of the bodywork comes from a ‘mere builder’s van’.

Now put yourself in the driving seat and imagine touring through the Alps with a widescreen windscreen allowing you to really take in the views. That vision out of the vehicle can be just as important when parked up in a great location, too.

Of course, underneath, most mainstream A-classes use the same Fiat Ducato underpinnings as their lesser coachbuilt equivalents. The van dashboard will be retained, too, although merged (with varying degrees of style and success) into a larger cab environment. So, is there really more to buying an A-class motorhome than keeping up with the campsite Joneses?

You can read more about A-classes, and other types of motorhomes, in Buying Your First Motorhome, available as a digital magazine here.

Extra space in an A-class motorhome

For any given vehicle length an A-class will feel larger than a comparable low-profile, the cab will seem more like an integral part of the living area and there will be more room to move around up front.

An A-class motorhome - view from the cab

Nick Barker, Sales Manager at Travelworld, refers to this as extra “elbow room” while Wokingham Motorhomes’ Adrian Prior also points out that the driving position in an A-class often gives better vision for drivers over 6ft.

Nick also talks about the advantage of having “two genuine sleeping areas” as almost all A-classes have a drop-down bed in the cab – the ultimate in his and hers bedrooms, perhaps, or perfect for touring with friends.

Alistair Briggs-Price, Director of SMC Motorhomes (the sole UK dealer for Frankia), agrees, citing this being used when grandchildren come along on tour and pointing out: “The bed does not come down over the whole lounge as can be the case on steel cab low-profile models.”

Nick says that 98% of customers want a drop-down bed in their A-class and, while some models can be ordered with cupboards instead, Alistair warns to keep an eye on resale if considering deleting the front bed. “A big A-class with only one fixed bed is not for everyone”, he cautions.

Martin Storey, UK Agent for Groupe Pilote, also points to the superiority of an A-class for winter use, with “better insulation properties” and “insulation of the cab area the same as the living area”. That could be a deciding factor if you want to camp all year round, even if your next trip isn’t going to be skiing in Switzerland. Interestingly, he also suggests better cab soundproofing as a further plus for A-class owners.

How big are A-class motorhomes?

A Roller Team A-class motorhome

Of course, you’re probably thinking that all A-classes are big, but that’s not actually the case, with some models (including Pilote’s Galaxy G600 and Roller Team’s Pegaso 590) being just six metres long and others (including Hymer’s Exsis and Dethleffs’ Globebus) being slimmer than the norm.

Often, the more compact models have the drop-down bed in the cab as their main sleeping quarters and this type of layout remains sought after on the used market (with classic designs from Hymer and Rapido, in particular, being well worth looking out for). Pilote also states that its current six-metre models are still extremely popular.

So, what’s the optimum size for an A-class? Nick, unsurprisingly perhaps, says: “Basically, the higher the price point, the more we sell in larger lengths.” Adria’s Andy Taczynski also backs the ‘bigger is better’ angle, saying that the Slovenian company’s most popular A-class in the UK is the tag-axle Sonic Supreme 810 SC and adding, “if size isn’t a purchase consideration then A-class customers opt for the largest model available.”

However, Alistair tells us that both 7.5m and 8.5m have sold well at SMC, and Martin says the most popular size for Pilote A-classes is 7.4m as, “this offers good space without being too long” and that this length can “lend itself to good payloads without exceeding standard licence certification (3,500kg).”

Adrian (at the UK’s oldest Rapido dealership) seems to agree, saying, “at 7.49m you get the best of all worlds” but he also suggests keeping an eye on more compact lengths and a trend towards 7m to 7.2m models, commenting that the best length is “as short as possible.”

A-class motorhome layouts

Peruse the brochures and websites of A-class manufacturers and you’ll probably spot a leaning towards fixed single beds over a garage from German brands and island beds dominating in the French marques’ line-ups.

Unsurprisingly, as a Rapido dealer, Adrian points to island beds as top sellers, but Frankia (and Pilote) retailer, Alistair, says that twin bed models are number one at SMC. He adds that the desirability of particular models is constantly changing but the most appealing vehicles “currently, and for the last five years, [have been] fixed island beds and twin single beds.”

An island bed layout in an A-class motorhome

Up front, side settees are becoming a popular alternative to the classic half-dinette lounge, while another recent phenomenon in the A-class world has been the resurgence of the rear lounge. It’s a format that can work exceptionally well for couples seeking the ultimate in home-from-home comfort as the main bed will be the drop-down (sometimes arranged as singles or a lengthways double) and the lounge can remain undisturbed at the end of the day.

We’ve also seen C-shaped rear lounge seating (with sofas that face in all four directions) join the classic U-shaped arrangements for even more comfort. These fashionable designs have hit the mark with buyers, too. Nick says, “rear lounge models like the Dethleffs Alpa and Hymer Duo are very popular,” while Alistair reports “good take-up on rear lounge with garage [layouts] at all lengths from Frankia.”

Interestingly, though, while these big rear lounge models are all priced well north of £100k, Travelworld has seen “strong growth in lower price point A-class models from Dethleffs and Carado.”

If, up until now, you’ve been looking at buying a brand-new low-profile, don’t necessarily think that you don’t have the funds for an A-class. French firm, Itineo, specialises in affordable A-class vehicles (prices around £60k) but it’s not alone at this price point – Carado, Etrusco, Roller Team and Sunlight all offer attractive A-class motorhomes that are more keenly priced than you might expect.

Another trend, says Alistair, is “all A-classes are becoming more automotive in their styling and the design of the nose cone over recent years. This is also true for in-cab features like navigation, climate control and cruise control, which are expected in the automotive world.”

We’d certainly agree that A-class styling has, in most cases, become more sophisticated, with the vehicles looking less boxy and more attractive. The choice now, in the 2020 season, of excellent, smooth-shifting, torque converter automatic gearboxes from both Fiat and Mercedes, is another important factor for these often top-of-the-range models, while the Merc chassis adds another layer of automotive progress with its MBUX dashboard display and raft of safety systems.

What to consider when buying an A-class motorhome

All A-class motorhomes should be among the best that their maker can offer, especially as they typically cost around £10-12k more than a similar low-profile type. However, if buying used, we’d caution against vehicles where a manufacturer has dabbled in the sector and then pulled out.

Likewise, it’s always good to see a long history of making A-class models (and selling in them in Britain) and there’s added reassurance in choosing one from a brand that specialises in this type. Alistair points out that “all A-class are not the same – check the details of build and spec, don’t just buy on bling, look for real substance, value for money and resale value.”

There are also added factors to consider when looking at an A-class, not least the driving position and visibility. Pillars that are poorly positioned or too thick, windscreen wipers that leave large areas of glass unswept and dashboard designs that make judging the front corners a worry, can all affect A-class models, even some from well-known brands.

Ideally, the dashboard will slope down towards the screen, which will be tall for great vistas and have sunvisors that can easily be reached and adjusted, while bus-style mirrors should give a good view aft, aided and abetted by a reversing camera (maybe with more than one view). If in doubt, take a test drive, which will also highlight how rattly or rattle-free your potential purchase is on the road.

The dashboard in an A-class motorhome

It might be worth asking about the cost of a replacement windscreen, too – and checking with your insurer that it won’t exceed policy limits. And talk to owners about their experiences with the model you’re considering, especially with regard to aftersales support.

The A-class motorhome market

With no official data available, it’s almost impossible to assess the size of the A-class market in Britain and few in the industry are even prepared to estimate – Alistair suggests it could be as big as the van conversion sector, while Andy puts it at “circa 5% of motorhomes”. Nick simply says it’s “50% of what we sell” but adds the caveat that Travelworld is unusual in its specialisation solely in German Erwin Hymer Group brands.

There’s plenty of choice, though, from entry-level examples at around £60k new to liners from the likes of Concorde, Le Voyageur and Morelo at a quarter of a million pounds – or more! You can even get a liner A-class in which the garage is not for bikes but a full-sized car (usually a Smart or Fiat 500, though we’ve even seen Ferraris and Porsches).

Most of the large dealers will represent at least one builder of A-class motorhomes but a few dealers are specialists in this sector and will keep a wide selection on show – they will also have the necessary experience and workshop facilities for this end of the market.

None of the main UK manufacturers currently offers an A-class but almost all of the mainstream continental brands compete in this market and a handful (Mobilvetta, Roller Team, and Morelo) even build models with the layouts reversed to suit the UK.

For the rest, the cab door (if fitted) will be on the passenger’s side with right-hand drive and the habitation door will stay on the British offside. Before you let that put you off, ask yourself if it will really make any difference to you on tour – after all, most A-classes still have a door on each side.

A more important issue could be payload, if you want a vehicle on a 3.5-tonne chassis – an A-class should have an extensive equipment list which might leave you with a fairly marginal carrying capacity.

Equally, some vehicles (especially German ones) have lengthy options lists – great for building exactly the vehicle you’ve always dreamed of, but calculate carefully the costs (which can run into thousands) and the weight (even just adding an automatic gearbox and an awning could reduce your payload by more than 60kg). Most models will, however, offer chassis upgrades (sometimes resulting in huge payloads) as long as you have a C1 licence for driving a heavier vehicle.

If you want the ultimate motorhome, especially for longer term or all-season touring, it’s easy to argue the case for an A-class. Nick adds that “key advice is to buy if you need a four-berth motorhome or two proper sleeping areas.” Surprisingly, with many new A-classes sitting in the £80k to £100k price band, Alistair says at SMC they “increasingly see people coming straight in at the top level for their first motorhome.”

It’s a view reinforced by Adrian at Wokingham, who says buyers should “buy the best first time around and not keep climbing the ladder and losing money.” If you are thinking of entering the motorhome market at this exalted level, it’s even more important to do your research. Keep reading then…

 

 

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