A head-to-head test between the Hillside Thulston v Vantage Zen. This motorhome review first appeared in the August 2011 issue of MMM.
It is always inspiring to visit the new generation of converters - you find the owners of these small companies brimming with enthusiasm, ideas and skills brought from other industries and backgrounds.
Many have been lifelong campers and, knowing what they wanted but unable to find it in established brands, built their own. Hillside Leisure, based in Derby, is the brainchild of brothers Mark, Adrian and David Cross who, some five years ago, started converting imported Mazda Bongos, then Toyota Hiaces and late-registered Volkswagen T5s.
With business snowballing, Hillside Leisure has appointed a northern dealer (ES Hartley of Ings, near Kendal) and increased its model line-up with two new long wheelbase T5s - Cromford and Thulston - all Hillside’s models are named after Derbyshire villages.
We tested the Thulston prototype, a smart hightop - featuring rear washroom and front lounge - priced just above the strategic £40,000 mark. Here, its competitor is Vantage’s latest baby, the Zen.
Unusually, the Zen is based on Vauxhall’s Vivaro, a Luton-built clone of Renault’s Trafic and a patriotic choice of base vehicle. Zen prices start at just under £40K. Company founder Scot Naylor’s backgroundis in the furniture business, but in the last five years, Vantage Motorhomes of Leeds, has been converting Sevel-based panel vans of varying lengths and configurations, all with high standards of finish and innovation.
Last year, Scot and his wife, Jane, spent three weeks touring abroad in the prototype Zen, proving to their satisfaction that longer duration travelling in this small high-top is perfectly possible and comfortable to boot.
Now it’s our turn to try this little camper, and see whether that claim rings true. Exterior beauty is, of course, subjective, but I’m sure most people will agree that the Thulston’s VW T5 base is one of the prettiest out there - sand-beige metallic paint enhances this.
In long wheelbase guise, with highroof balancing the extra length, it looks very elegant. Slightly odd - to our eyes - are the tall rear doors, but that’s nit-picking. More importantly, at 5.29m long and just 2.03m wide, it’s small enough to be practical as a couple’s sole vehicle.
The Zen is shorter still and the nearly vertical sides make it more boxy than its rival - a considerable practical advantage, as the inward curves of the T5’s flanks are a bugbear for converters.
The Zen’s steeply raked nose integrates smoothly with its metal high roof - though from the rear, the low bumper height and high roof makes the Vivaro look very tall and narrow, but so what? The test example was white, but production Zens will be in metallic silver.
Both ’vans have nearside sliding doors and living areas can be accessed through the rear.
Entering the Thulston (an electric step is an optional extra, as on the Zen) you discover a beige interior - sandy-coloured lined curtains, creamy-beige abstractly-patterned upholstery (including cab-seats) and a very serviceable mottled beige floor in the living area. American Cherry-coloured furniture is neatly made and finished.
Layout is pretty standard for a front lounge panel van conversion: swivelling cab seats, offside settee, single forward-facing nearside travel seat behind the sliding door. And aft, a split kitchen with sink, work-surface and fridge in an offside unit, and cooker opposite. Across the rear, behind a concertina door, lies a washroom. VW conversions always feel slightly narrow - unavoidable, given the van’s dimensions and the narrowing of the roof - an impression increased here by dark-tinted windows.
The Zen is different and unusual. Though shorter, it feels more roomy. Plenteous seating - upholstered in light-brown tweed with darker leather panels traverses behind the cab and down the offside, with another seat behind the sliding door, there’s seating for four or more. But travelling is strictly for two, only the cab seats have belts. Kitchen facilities are to the nearside rear, with washroom opposite and behind a door which folds out across the aisle to afford some privacy. Walls are covered in grey carpeting, highlighted with tweedy fabric panels and the floor in tough creamy vinyl. Woodwork is pale-coloured and excellent - unsurprising, given the proprietor’s background in furniture manufacture. Do you need this high quality woodwork in a camper van? Arguably not, but a craftsman’s finish certainly enhances appeal.
The Thulston’s beds are made by removing headrests and flattening the cab seats. The rear travel seat slides forward, joining to form the nearside bed, the settee helping to make the offside. The settee also pulls into the centre to make a partial double, though leaving a gap between the cab seats. Shaped cushions are supplied to level the cab seats.
The Zen’s beds are simply made utilising the backrest cushions, with a couple of infill boards across the aisle if a double is desired. Both ’vans are relatively narrow, so you sleep longitudinally.
Both base vehicles have been around for a while, each recently benefitting from a midlife revamp. With Vivaro, externally, there’s little new - it’s mainly a case of uprated engines to accord with the latest Euro V emissions
regulations. Vauxhall offers Tom Tom satnav and excellent Tecshift automated gearbox as options. With base vehicles scarce, Vantage converted a recent, but high-mileage example, powered by the 2.0-litre (115bhp) turbodiesel motor, with six-speed gearbox. A more powerful 146bhp engine is available.
VW’s face-lifted T5 is distinguished by a sharper-looking nose, but more importantly, features a series of new 2.0-litre engines (84, 102, 140 and 180bhp), all Euro V compliant, with six-speed gearboxes. Hillside fits 102 horsepower motors as standard, but the test ’van had the 140bhp variant. Highly desirable DSG automated gearboxes are optional.
Both vehicles have cab air-conditioning (standard on the Zen, optional on the Thulston), with ABS and twin airbags (though the tested Zen, being built on an older example, had driver’s only). Spare wheels are supplied with each.
Driving this Zen, you’d never guess the base van’s mileage - the engine spins sweetly and the ’van handles in a civilised, rather French fashion, with some controlled roll around bends. The drive-train is smoothness personified, with flawless throttle response at low speeds. Sixth gear is very high - only really usable above 60mph - but economy should be good by van standards (Scot claimed mid-thirties for his European sojourn). T
The Thulston has the advantage of VW’s peerless cockpit. Beautifully made, this new Transporter boasts the clearest instrument display I’ve seen: white-on-black, easy to read, practicality exemplified. The gearchange is sweet and snappy and the small steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. However, the driver’s seat (raise-able in most T5s) is fixed - moreover, fixed in a low position - doubtless to facilitate bed making.
Certainly, the engine was powerful, though raucous under throttle, and the handling was all you’d expect from the sophisticated independent suspension: safe, assured and compliant. Economy should also matchVivaro’s - excellent reasons for considering these two small, efficient base vehicles.
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