The Ultimate Horizon Review

My wife Terry and I felt like lottery winners when we were asked to take a brand-new Winnebago Horizon for a two and a half month livability test.  In the last five years, we had criss-crossed North America putting 80,000 miles on two Navions.  We were drawn to the Navion for its simplicity, ease of driving, and clean Euro-inspired interior.

Most of our friends owned big rigs and a group of our former Vail Valley neighbors kept insistently inviting us to join them in their winter escape in Indio, California.  Indio is in the Coachella Valley and is one of several linked desert cities in a 30-mile long swath with Palm Springs on the north and Indio on the south.  The RV parks and resorts in the area start to fill in November and pretty much empty out in April.

The view from the patio at Outdoor Resorts where the Horizon was parked looking west toward the San Jacinto mountains.

All our friends are at the Outdoor Resorts Indio, where the driveway lots are all owner owned and some are available in the resort’s rental pool.  While the word resort is all too frequently paired with the word RV, it is most often mischaracterized at best and misleading at worst. However, in the case of ORI, the word resort is 100% true with many lots on the private golf course along with a clubhouse and restaurant, tennis, pickleball, lap pool, exercise room, and activities director all on-site.

Most lots have outdoor kitchens and the trend is to build much more substantial covered structures with TVs, fire tables, full gourmet kitchens, electric heaters, and even washers and dryers.

However, ORI only permits Class A vehicles (at least 28-feet long and newer than 10 years), so as lovely as our Navion is, it wouldn’t qualify.  Needless to say, leaving a Colorado winter behind, living in a first-class resort and getting to do it in an ultra-modern motorhome truly was a lottery win.

Getting started

In late January, we flew up to Winnebago’s Junction City, Oregon, plant that is just north of Eugene.  We spent a day picking up some basic road essentials between Costco, Target, Macy’s and Camping World – just enough to start living in the unit on day one as we would then spend the next few days driving the thousand miles to Indio.  I had pretty limited diesel pusher driving experience, and you can read more about how I came up the learning curve by reading this story.

Night number one.  We use Winnebago’s complimentary hook-ups a block from the customer service facility in Junction City, Oregon.

Because Terry and I are well-seasoned RVers, once we got on the highway and then exited later for an evening at a campground, the evening set-up and morning road-ready processes with the Horizon was pretty simple.  Our four days on the road gave us plenty of time to test the mobile systems.  And, once we set the jacks on the drive in Indio, we now had plenty of day-to-day time to settle in and learn all the house systems in depth.

Design matters

Amazingly close to the original vision.  A rare photo of the hand-built mock up of the Horizon two years before it was announced.

The reason the Horizon won the RV Business 2018 “RV of the Year” award is simple:  design.  Both inside and out.  It was a long three-year journey from concept to showroom (you can read a companion story here).  It starts with the refreshing disappearance of exterior swirls and complex patterns that vaguely channel abstract coats of arms.  I guess the best way to describe the exterior effect is more color and less drama.  Our test Horizon is very understated with a dark gray base and black accent color.  My personal preference is the clean white with the high contrast of the black side element.  But no matter your choice of exterior paint scheme, the effect is obvious:  this is a different RV with a design that will appear less dated as the years go by.

As I’ve come to describe the Horizon to RV friends, I’ve got my sound bites down cold:  there are no puck lights (except hidden in the closet), no external cabinet hardware and no RV wallpaper.  You can’t make that claim in my friends’ high-end Newmars or Newells.

(Click here to watch an in-depth video walk-through of the Horizon 40A)

21st century interior features

When RV-savvy visitors walk into the Horizon, there are two universal comments.  The first is how open it feels.  That’s due to the expansive windows that aren’t separated by mullions or screens.  The second is the ceiling.  A slim center canopy drops slightly from the ceiling with embedded LED lighting.  Gone are the mirrors, scrolls, pedestrian hardware, and impractical elements that confuse ornateness with class.

Our orange pillows from our loft in Denver added a personal touch to our winter home.

The color palette of this particular Horizon is the Briarwood/Hemetite combination.  I was worried that the dark gray counters would be too dark, but it isn’t at all.  The lighter Ultraleather fabric, light-color porcelain and medium toned wood and laminate coverings are surprisingly light feeling.  On the galley side, the liberal use of stainless steel for the back and side splashes really amp up the modern feeling without overtly calling your attention to them.

The bath design, with two entry points, stops people in their tracks.  It’s here that the size, functionality, lighting and storage completely reset one’s expectations of an RV bath.  Yes, there are more expansive baths (including the larger 43’ Horizon floorplan), but you won’t find any more comfortable to spend time in.  It makes me smile every morning.

Most of the high-gloss cabinets have hidden hardware and when a pull is installed, it’s slim chrome almost disappears, yet is comfortable to pull on.  As I write this review, I’m sitting in the living room lounge and as I look around the coach (as I do every day) I continue to marvel at the level of assembly precision and sleekness of my current home.  The daily living difference is profound.

The livability difference

And this isn’t about the move from a Class C to a Class A.  This is about the importance that we place on our living environments.  We’ve lived in several homes over the decades, and with each subsequent home, we increased our interest and sophistication in interior design.  When we did a major remodel of our former Vail Valley home, we spent a couple of months at multiple tile, stone and carpet showrooms evaluating surfaces.  Now, in our downtown Denver loft, we very carefully curate even the smallest of spaces.  We’ve often spent 2-3 years at major art festivals and galleries looking for that “one perfect piece.”   We’ve spent countless hours evaluating cabinet pulls, lighting fixtures, door handles, and plumbing fixtures.  We’ve also toured and been guests in multi-million dollar homes (some are tasteful and others … ).  It’s all that experience that makes us both critical and appreciative.  And truly, at any price point, the Horizon is the first motorhome where we don’t feel we have to compromise our design sensibilities for day-to-day use.

Classy = simple.  This is the vanity faucet.  Note the two-tone Corian sink with a silky smooth seam between the counter and sink which makes cleaning a breeze with a simple wipe down.

Winnebago has clearly broken free of the gravitational pull of traditional design and we know it won’t be for everyone.  But at least now, in the diesel pusher segment, there’s finally a more modern feeling choice.  Yet there’s another side of the design coin and, with sixty years of experience, it’s deep in Winnebago’s wheelhouse:  floorplan design.  Looking pretty and being functional are two different things.  And I’m here to tell you that the Horizon absolutely lives as well as it looks.  This 40A floorplan has a single bath, but the two entries (hall and bedroom) offer great pass-through access.   The fixed kitchen island offers a lot more space than competitive galleys, and the uncluttered open space of the main living area is very, very flexible.

Both of the Horizon floorplan options are derived from well-honed Winnebago designs.  They work.  They make sense.  And they make extended or full-time living exceedingly comfortable.

The driving and cab experience

The odds are you’re going to spend a lot more time living in a Horizon rather than driving one.  But getting comfortably and safely from point A to B and all the points beyond is important.  Moving you down the highway is a Cummins diesel in the rear.  There are three key differences between the 40A and 42Q models.  The 40A comes with a 400-horsepower engine and the 42Q bumps that up to 450 along with an independent front suspension and tag axle.

Coming from our Navion, we were immediately struck by the smoother ride and much quieter cab noise at freeway speeds.  Terry appreciated the electric cover that slides over the front stairwell and comfortable passenger seat.  I appreciated not only seat adjustability, but also the steering wheel tilt and adjustable brake and accelerator pedals.

The six-speed Allison transmission is fully electronic and controlled by push button.  There’s a nifty switch that immediately puts the transmission in downshift mode when descending steeper grades which got a good test on the rolling up and downs of I-5 in southern Oregon. You can also make manual gear selections as it suits your driving needs.

Switches are all within reach, but pretty typical of the over-the-road truck heritage switch placement and labeling that’s pretty utilitarian.  This isn’t a Winnebago shortcoming per se, I see pretty much the same arrangement in other competing products.  What this means for new drivers is spending some time exploring and playing with the switches prior to taking your eyes off the highway while you search for the sun shade button (which looks like every other button).  Though the Horizon’s molded dash curve looks as modern as the rest of the coach, it’s pretty clear that ergonomic user design hasn’t made it into the cockpit.

The large screen of the Xite infotainment system makes it easy to glance at information and get your eyes quickly back on the road.

So, while I’ll give the switches a C, the 10.5-inch Xite Infotainment system gets an A.  That huge screen really makes a quick glance of the Rand McNally navigation display easy.  And while the Winnebago signature high-quality side mirrors are excellent, the high-def cameras built into them display side traffic full screen when you activate the turn signal.  I found this HUGELY helpful in looking at my blind spot on the right side of the coach.  There were two instances where the video display revealed a vehicle on the right that wasn’t readily apparent in the mirrors.

Beyond the premium sound system, the Xite can also be used with a Sirius XM subscription and play music, audio books and podcasts through Bluetooth.  You find Xite units in various Winnebago rigs and many people have a love-hate relationship with it.  Those who love it (and I’m in that camp) are the ones who’ve patiently taken time to learn the deep features of the Rand McNally GPS software.  No, it’s not as brilliantly friendly as Apple CarPlay, but it’s much better optimized for specific RV driving needs.  (You can find a good video tutorial I produced by clicking here).  There’s also a smaller passenger display that can also control many functions. And in front of the passenger seat is a hinged cover that opens up to reveal storage for various dash accessories along with dual USB and a 12-volt charge point. When parked, we have come to enjoy the standby feature that displays both the time and temperature outside the rig.

Finally, going down the road with the slides in, Terry had no problem accessing both the galley and the bathroom.

Smart furniture

Winnebago both makes and contracts furniture built to their exact specifications.  In the front living area, both the driver and passenger chairs can be swiveled to face in and the passenger chair also has a pop-up footrest.

IMAX dining! We were surprised at the versatility of being able to move the dinette to the left and right.  It’s a feature we never thought we’d use, but did.

The “Glide and Dine” dinette is a Winnebago exclusive that always brings shocks and smiles as it’s being demonstrated.  Pulling an under-the-table lever allows you to slide the table a couple of feet to the left and the right.  It comes with two extension leafs that are slipped into vinyl-covered padded bags.  With the two extensions in place, there’s comfortable space for four.  There are two comfortable fabric covered side chairs with a hint of mid-century modern design.  When company shows up, there are two wood-frame, solid and sturdy folding chairs that are equally well designed and comfortable.  We’ve been living daily with one leaf in the table that adds a little extra surface for working with papers spread out next to our laptops.

Most RV sofas have footrests that don’t come all the way up to even out with the cushions which makes them less comfortable.  This is a much better solution — and sturdy, too.  You can sit on the foot cushions without worry.

Across from the dinette is the “Rest Easy” sofa.  I’ve shot a few videos demoing this piece of furniture, but now that we’re living with it on a daily basis, I’m here to tell you this ain’t no simple couch.  All three seating cushions are motorized, so you can tilt them back for TV watching or flatten them out for sleeping.  But here’s where it gets very, very cool.  There’s a slot underneath the front cushion that you reach into to squeeze a release handle.  You then pull out a sturdy steel rail frame with a matching top cushion that pulls up and locks firmly in place to form a footrest, ottoman, or sleeping extension.  The footrest/ottoman is rock solid and you can sit on it without worry.  The true brilliance to this design is that the ubiquitous ottomans you have to maneuver around in many coaches is completely unnecessary.  During the day, the cushion and rail slides back under the sofa where it’s out of sight and no longer a tripping hazard.

As you’re sitting on the couch, there’s a thin end table that hides a fold-out table for use by the adjacent recliner.  The recliner is a solid and reasonably heavy piece of furniture.  Like all the seating areas, it’s covered in a premium grade of Ultraleather that is easy to clean, very durable and has a silky and sumptuous hand feel.  The lounger can be swiveled to watch TV across the cabin or turn towards the fireplace for a chilly evening warm-up.

The other critical piece of furniture is the bed.  A queen bed is standard and one big upside is the thin nightstands that parallel its narrower size (they aren’t available with the optional king size).  It also makes maneuvering in the bedroom a bit easier.  Our Horizon has a full-sized king, and like the queen version, it has an inflatable internal bladder system that allows you to adjust firmness with a wired memory remote. We started our marriage over three decades ago on a water bed and, before they were fashionable, have been sleeping on a Tempur-Pedic.  We’re pretty fussy, but even for us, the Ideal Rest mattress in the Horizon is a pleasure to fall asleep on at night and wake up on every morning.  And thankfully, the king-size bed is easy to make.  The mattress is light enough that lifting the corners to pull on a fitted sheet isn’t hard.

Less a galley and more a kitchen

They say that the heart of a home is the kitchen and the central placement of the galley in the 40A truly makes that so.  The number one benefit of this floorplan galley design is the fixed island.

RV kitchens are usually pretty stingy with counter space, and the Horizon really excels on this point not only with the island but with what I’ll call a coffee bar in a very practical cabinet stack.  At the top is a large high-wattage residential convection/microwave.  Below is an open and deep counter for a coffee maker, toaster oven, etc.  We did find that our taller Keurig stores fine under the micro. But to use it, we slide it out toward the front of the counter, so the top lid can be opened.  Below the counter is an optional Fisher and Paykel drawer-style dishwasher.  If you don’t get this option, you get a second big roll-out pantry drawer. And there is also a big pantry drawer below which is ideal for taller items.  This entire stack is hidden by cabinet doors that open and then slide back to remain out of the way for day-to-day access.

Splitting the difference with a large and smaller divided sink.

The kitchen sink is divided stainless.  Winnebago has walked a fine line here with respecting that there are two camps when it comes to sinks.  There’s the “one big sink” divinity and then the church of “the divided sink” brethren.  The sink they’ve chosen is probably the theologically correct answer with a larger main sink and a smaller second one.  We don’t mind it at all and we really like the stainless waterfall front facing.  The large single-control faucet with integral hose sprayer is very equivalent to what we have in our loft at home.

Next to the sink is a two-burner induction cooktop.  We discovered the joys of induction cooking several years ago with a portable unit for our Navion.  Temperature controllability is really close to natural gas.  You can read more about our induction experience here.

Filling out the galley compliment is the refrigerator.  In our coach, Winnebago chose a French door, lower freezer model made by Samsung.  We’ve had Sub-Zeros, Jenn-Aires, and Kitchen Aides and I think this Samsung compares quite nicely.  It’s a 23-cubic-foot fridge which is LARGE.  In residential appliances, you usually top out at 25 cubic feet, so this one is quite generous.  There’s a lot of flexibility in shelf placement and I like that the ice maker and dispenser are built into the left top door.  By putting the ice maker on the door, it frees up space in the freezer below.  Finding items in bottom freezers can be a chilly treasure hunt.  What’s nice about the Samsung is a sliding wire shelf that allows you to better organize and see what’s in the freezer.

In day-to-day use, the kitchen has been really easy for two people to work in at the same time without complicated choreography.

The bath with a wow factor

While the 42Q floorplan has a half bath and master bath, the 40A has a single one and it’s a masterpiece.  Now that’s not just me cranking up the rave machine, we hear this from absolutely everyone who has toured the coach.  So, let’s start our tour with the modern barn door in the hall suspended on a roller and stainless-steel rod track.  Then there’s the entrance into the bedroom that can be divided by a pocket door.  With the doors open, we find ourselves using both the hall and bath entrances as we move back and forth from the bedroom to the coach.  There’s never a traffic jam and the dual flow somehow seems to make a lot of sense.

Two entries into the bathroom makes it feel even larger than it is.

It’s a toss-up as to which is more dramatic, the floor to ceiling backlighted stainless-steel panel in the shower, or the wall-mounted, single-control faucets for the dual vanity.  With a natural skylight, backlit wall panel, and tube-ring LED lighting, taking a shower seems to be a more enervating experience.  There’s a molded seat built at the right height for in-shower leg shaving or setting down a shampoo bottle.  The single-handle control feeds a flexible shower head that can be positioned vertically on a slide rail at various heights and is easily detached for washing off bare feet or being a doggie spa.

The dual vanities are seamless Corian with integral sinks that make wiping them down easy and fast.  The sink stoppers are a wide stainless pop-down-to-plug design.  A very sensible choice.

And finally, in the porcelain department, there’s a Thetford Tecma toilet.  It’s a very stout and comfortable design that keeps a little base water in the bottom of the bowl.  It’s an electric flush with two-lighted buttons on the wall next to it for light and heavy flushing.  No foot pedal or cleaning hose.  The more powerful flush cycle does a pretty good job flushing out solids, but definitely invest in a small bowl brush.  We found that it fits very nicely in the dead corner to the rear of the toilet.  The Tecma uses more water for flushing than traditional RV stomp and dump mechanisms, but with this class of coach you’re more than likely to be hooked up and not worrying about water sufficiency.  There’s also a nifty indicator light on the flush buttons to tell you when the black tank is getting full.

Beyond the high-quality fixtures, the other “wow” moment about the bathroom in the 40A is how much storage there is.  There are two open cabinets below the sink, a stack of three center drawers, three medicine cabinets, a tall and shallow two-door storage cabinet next to the toilet, and a large and deep (though a bit narrow) closet behind the toilet that might best be used for linens and cleaning supplies.

Storage (above)

Just like the bathroom, Winnebago really optimizes storage and, unlike many competitors, they do it in a really smart way.  Like so many features in motorhomes, things are often designed to captivate and capture a buyer’s heart as they walk through a coach at a dealer or RV show.  Some of those ideas at first glance seem super clever, but after you start living with a coach that first impression of admiration can quickly turn to “what were they thinking?!?!”  Throughout all their motorhome products, Winnebago does a pretty good job of prioritizing usable over sexy when it comes to storage, and the Horizon reflects that kind of thoughtfulness.

Terry liked that the dresser was also a perfect stand-up desk, with plenty of storage below.

I’ve produced quite a few videos of Winnebago’s Class A products over the past few years and my sense is that there is a subtle trade-off between panoramic visibility and storage in the Horizon.  For instance, in the 40A we have a lower dresser (with a televator) and above is a large window.  In the 42Q there’s no window, it’s all storage.

When I tell you that we downsized from a four-bedroom, 3,800 square foot house to a two bedroom 1,500 square foot loft, and have traveled in Navions for the past five years, that’ll pretty much tell you where I’m coming from.  Less stuff means less hassle.  But I think the Horizon 40A is perfectly capable of storing everything that a multi-month Snowbird or full-timer would want or need without much in the way of trade-offs.  In our primary residence, we’ve learned to edit wardrobes and home accessories to the best and most essential items and have never felt we cut corners or that we were missing something.

It took us longer than expected to transfer clothing, food, tools, etc from our Navion to the Horizon.

For our extended desert stay, we essentially emptied out our Navion into the Horizon and we have tons of space we’re not using.

In the main living area, there are four wide and deep overhead cabinets on each side (eight total).  There are two more tall and wide cabinets over the dash with a little side storage above the door.  Over the fireplace are another two shallow, but wide cabinets.

Under the dinette bar, six cabinet doors open into two deep and divided cabinets on both sides of the shallow televator cabinets.

Galley storage is pretty good with large, open capacity under the sink, three deep pullout drawers and two overhead cabinets.  Terry and I both think that we’d dedicate the cabinets over the fireplace to additional galley use either for foodstuffs or glassware.  Figuring out kitchen storage is more an art than it is a science and you may come up with a completely different strategy than ours.  Suffice it to say, at least you have options.

In the bedroom, the main wardrobe closet is a little over five feet wide and accessed by very solid bypass doors.  There’s an additional 7-1/2 inches of depth behind the hanging clothes with some fixed shelves.  This would be great for seasonal storage, shoes, and infrequently used items. The wardrobe closet is the only place you’ll see a typical RV puck light and the LEDs are bright and really help you see your clothes.  Underneath the washer and dryer cabinet is a nifty long and deep storage drawer which can act as a small dirty clothes hamper or detergent storage. On the other side of the bedroom, hidden behind the articulated doors leading to the hall, there is a tall, long, and skinny floor to ceiling closet that offers storage options for smaller items like socks, paperbacks, pet supplies, etc.

We are big fans of The Container Store’s plastic shoe boxes and have used many of them in the Navion.  We’ve moved some of them into the Horizon and they’re excellent for storage organization in the overhead cabinets and the bedroom closet.  And here’s a super cool thing I discovered:  For sound dampening and item protection, Winnebago lines many of their cabinets with a very low-pile, carpet-like material.  It’s the kind of stuff that Velcro sticks to beautifully.  This opens up many possibilities for creating divided and secure storage in many of the cabinets.

Storage (below)

Diesel pushers in general have lots of “basement” storage.  On the Horizon, there are 5+ storage compartments.  The “plus” comes from a couple of bays that have mechanical equipment, but also good storage cubbies.  At the heart of the Horizon basement storage is a double-wide bay with a roll-out tray that can be accessed from either side of the coach.  I haven’t seen this kind of wide storage in other, far more expensive, coaches and it’s due to Winnebago’s custom Maxum chassis which lowers the coach rails, improves center of gravity, and allows for this super-wide storage drawer that has even more fixed storage below and on the side. It’s pretty impressive.

That’s one BIG storage bay!

One of the other storage bays on the passenger side can be fitted with a roll-out Dometic freezer/refrigerator which is ideal for ultimate tailgating or Costco miscalculations where you just couldn’t pass up the 10 pounds of USDA Prime.  And while we’re on the subject of bays and tailgating, there’s a bay up front on the driver’s side where a 20-pound LP tank is stored.  When connected, the tank feeds a connection tap on the passenger side of the vehicle to power a propane barbecue that you supply.  What a treat not having to mess with a bunch of one-pound bottles and worrying about running out of gas before dinner is cooked.

All the large bays have bright internal lights and you can turn them on and off from a variety of locations including an inside panel right at the front entry.

Surfaces

Unlike larger residential spaces, the smaller space of an RV tends to take you much closer to finishes.  While it didn’t hit us immediately, after a couple of weeks in the Horizon we started noticing things we hadn’t paid attention to before. The first was the absence of the traditional RV papered wallboard.  You won’t see any of it in the Horizon.  The wall surfaces behind the sofa and recliner are padded soft vinyl panels.  The same holds true for the main ceiling panels.  The walls around the bath and leading to the bedroom are highly dimensional laminate that have the appearance of variegated slate.  It’s an unusual product and an even more unusual application of it.  The lighter porcelain tile in this model has a very good foot feel.  Though smooth, there is a slight roughness to the surface that makes it less slippery in socks or when stepping out of the shower.

From great foot feel on the tile, to the soft padding around window frames, every surface of the Horizon is a pleasure to touch.

The Italian-made Technoform cabinetry is a high-gloss laminate.  And yes, fingerprints do show up, but we’ve found that it’s a minor issue and a quick wipe takes care of it.  The glass-like finish of the cabinet doors and matching door panels adds to the sense of spaciousness with their high degree of reflectivity.  All the positive locking overhead cabinet latches are hidden right underneath the doors and the larger cabinet doors and drawers have these thin chrome pulls that are barely noticed.  However, they provide an excellent grip — especially for the positive soft-close drawers.  These are the subtle touches you just don’t see in motorhomes in this price range (or often higher) and they’re next to impossible to notice as you dart in and out of various makes and models, but these are the small details that, in aggregate, lead to a more comfortable and satisfying living experience.

Windows, shades and awnings

I’ve talked earlier about how much we enjoy all the expansive glass on the Horizon.  This afternoon as I was reviewing the draft of this story, I saw a Newmar London Aire back into a space near ours.  I was struck by the large size of the windshield.  My friend who owns a similar Essex told me the replacement cost of the window (which he had to do).  That’s one expensive piece of glass and a good argument for insurance.  While it gives the coach a bold look on the outside, on the inside a lot of that real estate is hidden behind the front cabinets.

I looked at the London Aire and then again at the Horizon.  Both are handsome coaches, but the Horizon gives you all the windshield you actually need which, heaven forbid, is a lot less glass to replace without any sacrifice in wide angle views from the front seats.

All the Horizon shades are manual except for the front sun and blackout shades which are controlled from a switch to the left of the driver’s seat.  There’s a limiter that lowers the shade enough for driving into the sun, but not too far when you’re driving.  When parked, you can set them at any height.  All the rest of the shades are the field-proven MCD mechanisms with both sun and blackout shades which I have always found to work well.

There are two exterior awnings.  One over the front door and the other down the passenger side.  Both have wind sensors for auto retraction and embedded LED lights.

Electronics

I’ve already discussed the Xite infotainment system with optional premium sound speakers.  It’s worth noting that the sound system is strictly for the front cab.  For the home entertainment electronics, there’s a cabinet and rack above the driver’s seat where there are shelves, outlets and connections for satellite, cable, and internet.  Additionally, there’s a pre-installed Blu-ray DVD player.  Our coach has four TVs.  One on the outside with a soundbar and wireless sub-woofer, two screens (dining and bedroom) on televators that are controlled from light panels, and an optional fourth 50” screen above the fireplace.

We found that we never turned on the big screen above the fireplace and would just as soon pass on that option and go with the more stylish cabinets instead.  There are two reasons for that.  The first is that we (like most people) like watching TV directly facing the screen.  The only seats that really do that are the rotated driver and passenger seats.  On the other hand, the sofa – with its built in electric recliner and pullout ottoman – directly faces the dinette screen.  And while it’s just a tad smaller, this is a more sophisticated Samsung than the other sets and it has an excellent soundbar and subwoofer.  We also have found that it’s impressively cinema-like to sit at the dinette table with the chairs angled to watch TV.

I think Winnebago has made a wise decision to forego adding a stereo system and speakers in the coach.  I find many friends who simply don’t turn them on for watching TV.  Too many remotes. Too complicated.  The main cabin TV soundbar sounds excellent.  If you do love listening to music (and I do) then consider a standalone solution like Apple’s wonderful HomePod.  It arrived at the coach on the first day of shipping and it’s a winner being able to stream Apple Music from the internet or from our iPhones and iPads.  I also recommend the competitive products from Sonos.  Either way, you’ll get great sounding music without any wiring or control hassles.

For video signals, the Horizon comes with an autoseeking Winegard HD antenna which has worked well for over the air signals.  You can also order a Winegard satellite dish.  For the past couple of months, we’ve found that a combination of over-the-air and streaming have been a perfect solution.  For $44 dollars a month, we have a 100Mb internet cable modem connected to an AppleTV.  More and more streaming is where it’s at and with a modem connection we use the AppleTV as our main viewing hub to access our Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO subscriptions.  The pro-class HDMI switcher in the electronics cabinet allows you to send signals from any source to any TV to support different programs in different locations.

For in-coach WiFi, I installed some nifty WiFi routers from Google.  There’s one in the front electronics cabinet plugged into the cable modem.  Then I put one in the back in the bedroom and through a simple app they connected and formed a “mesh” network.  This gives us strong WiFi on the side and back patio on our lot which is great for using my portable outside Bluetooth speaker or fast surfing on my Mac or iPad outdoors.

Systems

Engine

This class of motorhomes all put a lot more emphasis on the word home rather than motor.  However, it’s worth pointing out a few things about the vehicular aspect of the Horizon.  One of the big conveniences is having locking diesel fill doors on both sides of the coach for maximum flexibility in filling up.  A large DEF tank with an easy-to-read gauge is on the driver’s side to the rear.  It’s far enough from the diesel fill that you may have to roll the coach forward about 10 feet if you’re at a pump that also has a DEF dispensing nozzle.

The 40A has a 400HP engine and the 42Q has a 450HP engine.

Service is pretty straightforward.  The 40A is a rear radiator and the 42Q has a side radiator.  Some owners, who are mechanically inclined, will say they prefer the side radiator style for easier service.  For owners like me, I’m happy to tend to other systems and let the engine guys handle the oil changes and routine service.

At the back of the coach is a 2” hitch receiver with standard 7-way connection that supplies power to an auxiliary braking system in a tow car.  Oh yes, you can tow a really, really big car as the hitch rating is for 15,000 pounds.

Generator

The Cummins Onan generator is in the front of the coach and can be manually pulled forward for access to service.  It’s a 10,000-watt generator that’s capable of running the three ceiling air conditioners.  In running it, we were certainly aware it was on, but the noise and vibration wasn’t bothersome.  In the back of the coach, you are barely aware of it, so if you found yourself spending a hot night in a Walmart parking lot or boondocking in Quartzite, the generator could run all night and keep the air conditioning going without keeping you up. There is also an automatic generator start (AGS) which monitors house battery level and automatically starts up the generator before battery levels get too low.

Electrical

The Horizon is an all-electric coach and, especially with a residential refrigerator, there are six AGM batteries to supply power when not connected to shore power or running the generator.  For those times you’re strictly on batteries, there’s a 2,800-watt inverter to keep juice running to the refrigerator and lower wattage 110-volt electrical devices.  On the roof is a 100-watt solar panel which can be easily expanded.  Now this isn’t enough solar to meaningfully power devices, but it’s excellent for topping off battery charge and maintaining long battery life – especially if you’re storing your rig outside for extended periods.

For shore power, there’s a thick 50-amp cable that stores in a bay large enough so you don’t have to wrestle with cramming a cable that’s become stiff at low temperatures.  We’ve felt there are a decent amount of 110-volt outlets throughout the coach and really, really appreciate that many of them also have two USB ports in the receptacle.

The Firefly multiplex control panel is in the closet and is surprisingly easy to read and figure out if a relay needs to be reset.

The 12-volt system operates lights, ventilation fans, and the televators.  There are two suppliers to the RV industry, Silverleaf and Firefly. Generically, this is referred to as multiplexing. Both systems are very powerful and capable, but I personally like the Firefly system that Winnebago uses because of the clarity of interface in their panels.  After all, you don’t want to spend time puzzling switches out on a daily basis. All the panels are backlit which makes them easy to see in the dark.  If that’s too bright for you, there’s a button you can push that turns the lights off.

Every panel has a different mix of controls depending where it’s placed in the coach. There’s a couple of panels you might not see at first.  One is above the sofa, which has lighting control and raises/lowers the TV.  The one over the bed offers lighting and televator control, but also allows you to start the generator from bed.  Nifty.  The Firefly design uses a small blue indicator, so you can see at a glance if a light or device is active.  Most of the light control buttons also have a dimmer.  Simply press and hold and the lights will cycle from dark to light where you can choose the optimum level.

The main Firefly control panel not only gives you control over all the coach lighting, but also is where you monitor tank levels, electrical system health, slideouts, and heating and cooling.  The interface was very easy to figure out and I didn’t need a manual to explain the control options.

Heat and air conditioning

There are two systems.  One below and one above.  Below the floor of the coach is an Aquahot heating system.  The Aquahot is both a water and radiant heating system.  It can run off of either electricity or diesel.  If you want to heat the coach (or water) quickly, you simply turn on the diesel burner from the master Firefly panel.  I’ve found that you can start with a quick diesel heat-up and then maintain temp throughout the day with electric.  The diesel heater makes a low-pitched hum which isn’t distracting, and it can barely be heard a few feet away from the coach. For heating the coach, you have three zones.  The main cabin, bedroom, and underneath storage bays (for keeping plumbing from freezing on very cold nights).  The Aquahot circulates an anti-freeze glycol fluid through coils across which zone fans blow and put the hot air through vents that are well placed.

An electronic fireplace uses an electric element and fan to actually put out heat.  A few years ago, when we saw an electric RV fireplace we thought they were pretty hokey.  Well, our opinion has taken a 180 as this fireplace puts out enough heat to take the chill off a cold evening and, with all its fancy wireless control, actually looks aesthetically pleasing.

Up top, there are three air conditioners that can also act as heat pumps.  However, heat pumps rapidly lose their effectiveness when the air temps drop below fifty degrees. On one cold northern California morning, we gave them a go to help bring the temp up quickly.  Within about five minutes, they started blowing warm air. But we also supplemented with the Aquahot furnace which, in combination, got us to a pleasant cabin temperature in about ten minutes.

In hot (and humid) climates, the air conditioning can be running all the time.  The Winnebago ceiling design offers both good air distribution and some degree of sound baffling. The net effect is that you’re aware the air is on, but can still carry on a conversation and, with a slight bump in volume, hear the TV.  If the hot nights cool off a bit, there’s a silent and effective two-speed ceiling fan in the bedroom to keep air moving around which can be turned off either at the wall panel or the panel right above the bed.

Water

The outside water and sewer service bay is large and easy to access.  There’s a Firefly panel that allows you to turn on compartment and exterior work lights along with the water pump.  Hose and sewer connections are fairly high and don’t require a lot of bending over.  I also appreciated the black tank flush and rinse connection.

Central vacuum

There is a port mid-way in the coach that, when you plug in the heavy duty hose, automatically starts a strong vacuum. The expandable hose stretches to get to every corner of the coach and comes with several tools.  You can access it from the main storage hatch where there is another port.  This came in quite handy to vacuum dust off of some of our patio furniture outside.

Washer and dryer

In this long, long parade of features, it’s important to give a shout out to the Splendide stacked washer and dryer units made by Ariston.  These can handle modest RV-sized loads and we were both really impressed by the cleaning ability of the washer and the power of the dryer which has to be heated with a 110-volt line.  You’ll feel a slight wobble in the coach when the washer goes into spin cycle, but beyond that, this petite combo has been doing a fine job.

Saving the best for last – a long warranty

Winnebago is putting their money where their mouth is by backing their quality with the industry’s best warranty.  It’s a full three-year warranty on the coach itself which is unheard of.  That certainly gives buyers some piece of mind and economic certainty for three years.

Final thoughts

By their nature and design, diesel pusher motorhomes are created for extended living over weeks, months or year-round.  Every floorplan and feature set is a study in compromise, and all run hard up against the legal limitation of highway size.

In the couple of months we’ve been living in the Horizon, we’re both surprised and pleased at its livability, comfort and convenience.  We’ve rarely found ourselves saying, “gee why couldn’t we have that feature” or “boy, what was Winnebago thinking?”  Our living test has been one of gradual discovery, not only of features, but how we adapt to them.

Within the resort we’ve been staying, there’s a strong representation of top-end coaches that include products from Prevost, Marathon, Foretravel, Newell, Newmar, Entegra, Tiffin and (of course) Winnebago.  From the outside, our Horizon is subtly different, but you have to linger for a moment to appreciate its elegant simplicity.  But walk five steps up into the coach and it only takes a moment for an eyebrow to raise or someone to exclaim “wow.”  And it’s not an over-the-top wow, it’s a recognition of a design that is at once, completely new and immediately comfortable.

Of course, that leads to the next question of “how much is it?”  That’s when the second shock wave hits that, in some cases, it’s a third to a quarter of the highest-end coaches.  And when owners from similarly priced coaches in the $300-$500 thousand-dollar range walk through, both their reactions and their comments reflect a consistent sense of wishing that the Horizon was available when they bought their current coach.

The Horizon brings a remarkable balance of RV features with a palpable feeling of style that makes every morning and every evening a relaxing and comfortable environment you want to be in. It’s the first Class A that has ever opened us up to considering moving from our well-loved Navion.  I never would have thought that was possible, but that’s what the power of good design does – it invites and inspires.

 

Click here for full specs, floorpans, colors, and virtual tours of the new Horizon.

Don and Terry Cohen spent two months living in a brand-new Horizon and there’s nothing like really living in a coach to understand it.  Here’s their in-depth review of the Horizon and a look at one of America’s top RV resorts, Outdoor Resorts in sunny Indio, California. (Read their detailed Horizon review here.)

If you’re thinking about retiring and considering escaping the northern cold for a warmer climate, then gather closer for a tale about an extraordinary winter living opportunity.

My wife and I have been second homeowners for thirty years.  Living full-time for twenty years in the Vail Valley (the second home was in Denver), we became very conversant in understanding both the culture and economy of the second home market.  About half of our neighbors showed up for a month or two in ski season and then came back to stay through the summer.

Intro to super-elite RV resorts

This is not at all unlike the huge RV snowbird migration that swells the population of RV parks and resorts in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.  Throughout the sunbelt states, there are numerous RV parks that fill with trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes.  Many offer reduced full-season rates. Some allow long-term ground leases for park models.  A few have lots you can actually buy.  And within that smaller group, there’s about a dozen or so super-elite properties that most RVers never hear about.

Outdoor Resorts in Indio from the air.  Most sites are on the Par 3 golf course.

In the Coachella Valley (anchored by Palm Springs on the North and Indio on the south) there are four high-end resort ownership properties.  At the top of the list is Desert Shores where every lot has a casita, garage, and many have a small pool.  Next down is the Motorcoach Country Club, which only allows Class A motorhomes.  Across the street is Outdoor Resorts/Indio (ORI), which is also Class A restricted.  And about 20 minutes north is Outdoor Resorts/Cathedral City, which allows both motorhomes and fifth wheels.

These properties all essentially work the same way.  You purchase a lot (driveway).  You then pay a monthly homeowners fee and the requisite utilities and property taxes.  Some resorts allow you to improve your lot with enclosures, shade structures and outdoor kitchens.  These resorts are highly amenitized with executive golf course, gardens, tennis and pickleball courts, clubhouses, and on-site dining.

Our experience at Outdoor Resorts/Indio

Unlike a traditional resort, there are no garage door openers where you drive into your home, cocoon, and then have limited engagement opportunities with your neighbors.  What’s great about ORI is it melds country club living with the unique outgoingness of the RV culture.  There’s a wide range of affluence from comfortable to high net worth, and not a hint of class hierarchy.  What you can only tell, after spending a few weeks or months living at ORI, is how lively, active, and inclusive it feels.  This culture pretty much eliminates the “starting from scratch” re-establishment of social connections people have when moving to a new community.

The Horizon at Outdoor Resorts.  Fortunately, the only lemon(s) in the photo are on the tree.  The new Horizon has been remarkably trouble free.

We were drawn to Outdoor Resorts because we knew four couples from our old Vail Valley neighborhood who now spend the winters there.  With the assignment to live in a new Winnebago Horizon for several months, I knew we had a great place to test it out.  Our experience showed me a largely hidden facet of the high-end RV lifestyle and uncovered a really appealing strategy for enjoying luxury for less.

Lots accommodate rigs up to 45′ with at least one parked car (many have two).

Rules, upgrades & investment

The ORI rules are pretty simple.  Once you purchase a lot you must have a Class A motorhome that’s at least 28 feet in length and less than 10 years old.  So yes, a new entry level Winnebago Intent, which you can buy below $100 grand, would qualify.  However, most of the rigs you see in ORI are diesel pushers that (new) range from $175,000 to $2,000,000.  An unscientific walk through the community seems to indicate that most owners have coaches in the $250,500-$500,000 range. You see Tiffins, Newmars, Prevosts, Entegras, and Winnebagos.  You’re not required to upgrade your rig after you buy, but the community ethic seems to insure that even older coaches are very well tended to.

Many owners build enclosed pergolas with electric heaters when the nights get a bit cool.  Our friends Dennis and Kathy even had a digital fire video playing one evening.

Once you’ve purchased a lot, you then are responsible for the monthly HOA fees.  At ORI it’s $455 a month.  When you add in property taxes and electric, the good rule of thumb is that your annual operating costs will be around $7,000.

There are 419 lots and at any given time about a quarter are up for sale.  And here’s the thing — there are some undeveloped lots (no outdoor kitchen) that are on the market for as little as $25,000.  To be sure, there’s a few that are on the market for over $200,000, but lots that were bought and improved (pre-recession) with over $200,000 in original value can be purchased for $50,000 to $90,000.  Many owners have now taken their lots and added permanent pergola structures with full outdoor kitchens, TV cabinets, fireplaces and premium drive surfacing for $75,000 to $100,000.

A driveway transformation.  Improvements like this one lot can run between $75,000-$100,000.

You can take a medium priced lot for $75,000, put another $75,000 of improvements on it, add in a near new diesel pusher for $200,000 and find yourself smack dab in the middle of a beautiful resort for $350,000 – and even less if you keep your improvements and motorhome modest.  Granted, even this “good deal” may be out of reach for many.  However, if your income and savings allows it, this is a very attractive option, especially when you compare it to patio homes built on golf course communities nearby in Indio.  Those homes are in the $800K to $1.2M range with all the cost burdens of homeownership and much higher country club fees.

RV resort vs. traditional second home

Second home real estate can be a temperamental beast.  The Great Recession hammered all the homes in the Coachella Valley including the RV resorts.  Prices dropped by half and while they’ve recovered, the annual price growth of around 4% is not governed by the wildly inflated SoCal and Bay Area prices you read about.  Generally, unless you are in a high-demand second home market, your modest equity gain is probably eroded by maintenance, taxes, and real estate commissions.

Compare traditional resort real estate to the RV resort model and the gap isn’t as great as you might think.  First of all, your cash outlay for an RV and a lot to park it on will generally be less, assuming a standard 20-25% down payment on a sticks and bricks home.  And your carrying and transaction costs will be way less with the RV resort model.  Of course on the other side of the ledger, you know that your RV (whether new or lightly used) most likely will have a steep depreciation curve.  However, during the 100+ degree summers, you can enjoy your “second home” in cooler climates, only to return when the mercury slides back to pleasantly warm.

There’s gold underneath this rainbow.  Pickleball and tennis courts.  Putting green, pool, spa, indoor steam/sauna, high-quality exercise equipment, meeting room and owners lounge.

What’s interesting is that the original developers of these luxe RV resorts all went bankrupt.  Like so many economic white crosses on the side of the RV industry highway, the sales expectations fell significantly short of the huge infrastructure investment required to build this small number of resorts.  Today, to build an ORI from scratch, you’d probably have to price lots at $250,000-$500,000 which can’t support a market.  I’m doubtful if any more will be built. The four high-quality resorts I mentioned have a combined inventory of 2,000 lots for a market area that includes the western halves of the U.S. and Canada. Yet, few know about these properties.

A pre-Super Bowl tailgate party.  At 72 degrees that evening, many (like us) watched the game outside on their patios.

Talking with many owners at ORI, there is a universal recognition that none of them look at this as an asset play.  Their return on their investment converts to fun.  And that passion and deep contentment is far more persuasive than the glossiest of brochures.

All of these resorts are homeowner association-owned. Their owners are starting to realize that their valuations are unusually low and are starting to make changes to property policy and marketing to change that.  If they’re successful, that will definitely push property prices up.  Even then, it should remain an extremely attractive option, but for now, it’s a downright steal.

In the past five years, we’ve put 80,000 miles on two Sprinter-based Winnebago Navions that have touched all four corners of the United States, including a few crossings into both Canada and Mexico.  We chose the Navion for two key reasons.  The first is that it was super simple to drive and not particularly intimidating.  The second was the more clean, modern, Euro-inspired interior design.

When I first saw the conceptual mock-up of the Horizon, I was intrigued.  Three years later, when my wife Terry and I saw the first production models, we both agreed that this was the first Class A motorhome we would consider. We simply like modern design.  That’s what sings to us.  And if the Horizon were a soundtrack, it would be either a warm jazz combo in a New York club, or a soft Bossa Nova on a warm Miami night.

Getting in the driver’s seat

But for all of its interior sleekness, the Horizon is a diesel pusher.  A big, long, and wide conveyance that from one moment took my thoughts from sublime mobile living to terrifying highway traffic anxiety.  So let’s get this over with — I’m tearing up my “macho” card and freely confessing that driving a big rig is intimidating.  That’s one of the top reasons we bought the nimble, shorter, skinnier, and easy-to-drive Navion.  Yet even at that, there was some adjustment.  I vividly remember the drive home from the dealer with our first Navion where I white knuckled our brand-new purchase twenty miles from back to our storage garage. However, by the end of our first 6,000-mile trip in the Navion, Terry and I felt very comfortable driving it and now don’t even give its size a second thought.

Still, as we drove up to the Junction City plant, I really was dreading having to muscle a big motorhome south for one thousand miles of both freeway and Californian urban traffic.  To psych myself up for the journey ahead, I would remind myself that many others have stepped up (literally five steps) and gotten behind the wheel.  At least a few years earlier I had received a lesson from the Winnebago pro, Paul Smith, as he calmly talked both Terry and I down the quiet rural country roads around Forest City behind the wheel of a Grand Tour.  But for the upcoming trip, there would be no Paul reassuringly next to me.

Night #1 a block from Winnebago’s Junction City, Oregon plant.  A perfect back-in with the help of the rear video camera.

After a full orientation on the coach at the Junction City, Oregon plant, provided by the lead foreman who was involved in its construction, there were hugs and handshakes and then the solitary tension trending toward dread that I was going to have to get this puppy out onto the street, down to the Safeway to fill up on diesel, and back to our first overnight campsite across a park from customer service.  Alone in the big lot next to the factory I gingerly reversed away from the building and then, pushing the transmission button to drive, I slowly started tracing figure eights in the lot to get a sense of the size and steering wheel feel.  By the third circuit, I was both shocked and pleased that all that time behind the wheel of the Navion had surprisingly prepared me for the next step up in scale.  It was much easier and far less tense than I had anticipated.

With confidence slowly seeping inwards, I pointed the Horizon out to the main highway that goes through Junction City and a mile north to the Safeway for fuel.  It was not a simple drive-through truck stop. I could see that I would have to pull into the station and circle around to get to the diesel pump, not unlike pulling in with our Navion and tow car attached.  Not too bad.

When we drove back to the guest hook-ups I was now confronted with having to back into the space.  Terry jumped out, as she always does, to direct me in my side mirror.  While she stayed in my sights, the backup camera appeared on the 10.5-inch Xite display screen and I shocked Terry by deftly backing into the hook-ups without any adjustment.

In trucker territory.  Big rig friends suggest getting credit cards with the truck fueling chains like Pilot and Flying J for discounted fuel and pay-at-the-pump convenience.

Differences in big-rig vs. small-rig driving

Driving a big rig, there are several things you immediately sense that are different.  The first is the high and wide panoramic view.  Actually, this has a lot less to do with scenery watching for the driver as it does simply seeing lane lines and traffic.  Perhaps it was the 80,000 miles of Navion driving, but there was no typical car reflex to look for a rear-view mirror.  And frankly, all your focus is what’s in front or on the sides of you.  Let’s just say that I’m not aware of any stories about an RV being rear ended!  You also notice a different dynamic in turning as you’re essentially sitting over the front wheels.  That gives you a surprising sense of maneuverability.  The final driving difference is steering wheel orientation.  It’s more horizontal and “bus-like.” And while comfortable, it’s a decidedly different experience, though one that didn’t require much adjustment.

Now if you’re currently a Class A gas owner, the transition will be even easier.  You’re already used to the same width and height, so that won’t even be a hurdle.  What you’ll immediately notice is a smoother, quieter, and more powerful ride in a pusher.  So at this point, you can be excused from reading further.  As for the rest of you newbies or small rig readers, keep your seat belts on.

A panoramic view from a huge windshield.  The up and down grades on I-5 were a great way to learn about engine braking, which is as easy as flipping a rocker switch.

In our trip from Oregon to California, I made sure I would stay on major arterials and fuel up at truck stops.  In our smaller Navion, we could easily pick almost any gas station and pull u-turns on many streets.  Not so with a diesel pusher.  But the good news here is that if a semi can do it – so can you.  There were times that I actually felt the 41-foot Horizon (we weren’t towing) seemed “small” when navigating through a truck stop.

Prior to our thousand mile trip I pointedly questioned my big-rig friends about their driving experience.  And what they told me seemed very consistent with my own experience.  These vehicles are easy to drive, but they require more focused attention on the road than cars or smaller RVs.  You find yourself constantly tending to lane placement and scanning mirrors and traffic ahead – especially in higher traffic urban areas.  The general consensus of large coach drivers I’ve talked to seemed about right:  you can do 350-400 miles a day comfortably.  In our Navion (and in past car driving trips) I always figured that 500 miles was easy and 600 was doable.  I think most people would feel pretty beat up driving a big rig that far in a day.  And though a full tank of diesel can last you for 500-600 miles, you definitely change your mindset about where rest stops and truck stops are to take a short breather.

Stay in your lane and traffic will sort itself out around you.

For me, I never felt very tense during driving, but I did feel that there was a higher level of intensity in paying close attention.  There were a few spots, most notably a three-lane street in Sacramento where there was a lot of traffic and the lanes were much skinnier. There were cars and a delivery truck or two on each side.   Intellectually, I knew we were less than a foot apart with no room for maneuvering. I’m sure I gripped the wheel a bit harder and deeply, deeply focused on staying right in my lane.  I just kept myself where I needed to be and everyone else could sort it out around me, but I became more relaxed when I could merge onto a freeway and wider lanes.

Now you may laugh (or cringe), but a surprisingly large number of RV buyers don’t actually test drive an RV.  Their first experience is driving off the dealer’s lot.  That’s intimidating enough for even first time B and C drivers.  And when you step up into a bigger Class A, the pucker factor can really kick in.

The need for a special driver’s license can vary from state to state.  Some states require a version of a CDL (commercial driver’s license) based on driving a vehicle over 26,000 pounds GVW.   Check your state’s regulations carefully.  While the weight requirement in my state of Colorado is 26,001 GVW for a Class B license, a paragraph later it states that “Recreational vehicles such as a motorhome” are exempt.

If you feel you want to build your confidence and skills, you may want to research various RV driving schools on the Internet.  Class costs range from $250 to $600.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask a dealer for a test drive and a quick lesson.  They do it all the time and it’s a common request.  Good RV sales reps have plenty of driving experience, which they’ll be happy to share with you.  Nothing’s better than a big parking lot to get the feel of the rig (brings back memories of my high school driver’s ed class). Once you get a little parking lot confidence, you’ll find that most dealers are on the outskirts of major metro areas, so there’s usually quieter roads nearby to test drive on.

So boys and girls, I’ve done it and you can too – especially the gals (I’ve met a lot of women big rig drivers over the past few years).  I’m guessing it won’t be half as intimidating as that first time many of us, as teenagers, learned to drive.  Like most things, the idea is much scarier that the actual reality.

Read more about the Winnebago Horizon in this detailed review.

Who knew?  Five years ago, on a lark, I reached out to Winnebago with the idea of creating a tiny hobby job.  That little whim turned into an amazing journey.  Starting from scratch with GoLife we now get over 40,000 visits a month.  We have attracted the best digital storytellers and RV enthusiasts in the industry.  It’s been exciting, surprising, and very gratifying to work with a team that has brought a consistently fresh and upbeat viewpoint to the RV world.

Western film buffs will quickly recall the final scene from John Ford’s “The Searchers.”  John Wayne stands in a doorway for a moment and then walks out into the wide expanse of the desert southwest as the screen fades to black.  Whoa.  Wait.  Rewind.  That’s not quite how this story ends.

Yes, I’m handing the keys over to a team who’ll be taking you and GoLife on new journeys and destinations.  In my edited cinematic scenario I’m walking out the door, but waiting outside is a new Winnebago.  No driving off into the sunset, just a change of direction.

My own Winnebago life will be shifting toward special projects like our recently completed livability test of the brand new Horizon.  It’s a fantastic rig and you can watch our in-depth video review by clicking here. There’s also a deep written review.

When I started GoLife I had expected that it would be a year or two before other manufacturers did the same, but they haven’t.  What really has impressed me is Winnebago’s commitment to support a growing WinnebagoLife universe.  At its core Winnebago is still a company that passionately cares about its customers and its products.  It is that belief that has deepened the company’s commitment for a continuing conversation on the GoLife website, Facebook, Instagram, and other forums.  It’s one of the things that continues to separate this venerable brand from its competition.  And it was that forward thinking that drew me into the Winnebago world which has (and will) continue to fuel a remarkable journey.

Don

The Messe complex is about a 15-minute train ride from downtown Dusseldorf, Germany.  At the end of summer, sprawled across nineteen exhibit halls is the Caravan Salon, the world’s largest RV show attracting over 200,000 visitors with 500 vendors and 2,000 towables and motorhomes on display.  The investment in the displays is significantly greater than what American RV buyers see compared to the parking-lot style of indoor and outdoor shows held across the country.  It reflects the premium the European market places on design, from the way product is presented, to the product itself.

The Catalyst to Change

Descending an escalator between halls seven and nine, down to the train platform, Ryan Roske was feeling the out-of-sync end of day letdown from jet lag.  As Winnebago’s product manager for the company’s line of diesel pusher motorhomes, he had just completed his first day’s mission of rambling through the many halls taking notes and dozens of pictures.

Growing up in Winnebago’s hometown of Forest City, Iowa, Roske had risen through the sales path to become a product manager.  And now his trip to the Caravan Salon was adding another link in the chain of the company’s commitment to discover, source, and embed world-class components into its motorized products.

Keeping a watchful eye on the competition, Winnebago product manager Ryan Roske’s office is mapped with the competitor’s floor plans.

More than any other American motorhome manufacturer, Winnebago has paid very close attention to the European market for nearly three decades.  With gas shortages in the mid-1970s, the company turned to fuel-efficient German and French chassis to build higher mileage products.  In 2006 it was the first U.S. company to construct a motorhome on the Mercedes Sprinter light delivery van chassis.  But beyond chassis mechanics, Winnebago also paid very close attention to the sleek, super-efficient interior designs inside all the small Euro motorhomes.  And, a few years after the launch of the company’s best-selling View/Navion Sprinter motorhomes, they switched to an Italian company to specially manufacture the interior cabinetry.

The gentle rocking of the train to Roske’s downtown hotel added weight to eyelids that were still set for a time zone seven hours behind.  With his backpack between his legs, he closed his eyes for a moment to begin sorting out the day’s visual stream of rounded corners, glass-polished cabinet surfaces, and envelopes of edge-glow lighting.  He had come to Dusseldorf fairly confident that the company should risk going against what would come to be called “the sea of sameness” of RV interior design, but now he was sure, absolutely sure, that it was time to set in motion events that might very well bring the biggest change to American motorhomes in decades.

Historically, interior RV design had mirrored the deep roots of midwestern cabinet makers with traditional hardwoods with the sculpted trim being the invariable standard for every manufacturer and every product line.  The View/Navion products were different.  While the Mercedes star brought intrigued first-time buyers into RV dealers, Winnebago’s more sculpted and contemporary interiors sealed the deal offering buyers a distinctly more contemporary and stylish mobile living environment.

Designed for Luxury and Class

Four thousand, three hundred, fifty-nine miles away in Forest City, Bob Ritter was leafing through clippings and images of yachting magazines. Also, an Iowan native, Ritter could easily fit the role of the gruff, but always fair high school football coach.  For fourteen years, Ritter had steered a team that always had to balance a complicated list of variables.  Surfaces, colors, tactile effect, durability, temperature resistance, livability, and functional efficiency were all pushed hard against the constraints of manufacturing processes and final price tag.  And the photos he was looking at all were from products whose single cost would be greater than the combined value of four full blocks of well-tended homes up the hill from Winnebago’s main plant.

Bob Ritter led an in-house team that boldly broke out of traditional design with a complete rethink of a modern interior.

In the rarefied air of ultra-luxe motorhomes of over one million dollars, when you walk into brands like Newell, Foretravel, and Marathon, you’re looking at design elements that brook no compromise and are priced accordingly.  Yet in a quirk of American consumerism, many of these ultra-luxe coaches often have little design coherence. Their designs are often driven by the owner’s whims and just like their lower-priced RV cousins, they can still feel like they were assembled out of the same parts bin, albeit with filigreed wood, ornate trim, and cut-glass cabinet insets.  In envisioning a truly contemporary designed motorhome, both Roske and Ritter were looking at a different inspirational model — luxury yachts.  Of the top ten yacht builders in the world, nine are from Europe and only one is from America.  At prices ten to twenty times greater than their luxury RV land counterparts, these toys for the super-rich more often than not reflect the minimalist elegance of high Italian style with rare hardwoods and formed and lacquered composites.

For the View/Navion series, Winnebago had found a family-owned cabinet manufacturer, Technoform, in Bologna, Italy.  They had many European clients including high-end yacht companies, so it was a pretty big accomplishment for Technoform to land an American brand.  Technoform had the ability to shape and mold cabinets with precise, graceful curves both concave and convex.  They did it with a process and special machinery that would form laminate materials into doors and front pieces.  This process also allowed the rich design of wood-like surfaces or deep chromatic laminate colors.  The surfaces themselves could be finished with mirror-like reflectivity or subtly textured matte qualities.  For motorhome use, the cabinetry components were dimensionally stable which made them immune to size changes due to humidity and temperature variations.  And finally, for as strong and durable as the cabinets were, they were remarkably lightweight, which was a critical requirement for the smaller Sprinter-based motorhomes.

Paving a New Path

Early on, there had been some discussion about simply taking an existing coach line like the company’s entry-level Forza models and simply re-skinning the interior with more contemporary cabinetry.  Winnebago even mocked up a sample galley with other Technoform components used in the company’s Era Sprinter van. It was placed alongside other potential cabinet fronts which were put on display at a dealer meeting in Las Vegas in 2014.  But dealers were skeptical.  They knew that, by and large, most of their buyer’s homes were more traditionally furnished and felt that many wouldn’t embrace an aggressively modern interior.  Doubts and opinions were strong and both Roske and Ritter worried that pushing the taste envelope could be the kind of bet that limits careers and leaves competitors snickering.

Roske returned from Europe fully resolved that the creation of a completely modern mid-luxury diesel pusher motorhome would find market acceptance.  While there were timidity and skepticism in the dealer network, Roske had heard plenty of first-hand comments from motorhome owners that they loved what the company was doing in its smaller Euro-based motorhomes and vans.

There’s an adage in the RV industry that says, “Floorplans sell motorhomes.”  And to some extent that’s true.  For those who’ve shopped for RVs at shows and on dealer lots, floor plans and finishes all become a blur after the first hour’s survey.  To break through the product monotony, manufacturers will often create design features that look indispensable at the show, but end up being ignored in real use.  More than most, Winnebago’s floorplans are constantly being adjusted based on owner feedback.

The First ‘Buck’

Aligning the engineering, product planning, and interior design teams started a process where collectively they would consider length and floor plan style.  For this new product, it was decided there would be two plans.  The shorter one would have a single bath and the longer one a bath and a half.  The planners selected two very successful core designs that had found great favor in other Winnebago coaches.  But for the shorter model, they made a very interesting tweak to the single bath with a pass-thru entry from the main hall and from the master bedroom.

In a large warehouse in the factory complex, they began to assemble the framework of a new motorhome.  It sat simply on wood risers, not an actual chassis.  Just like building a home, the full-scale model took shape with framing, exterior walls, and a roof.  The prototype is called a “buck,” a name given to the process so long ago that no one can recall how the term came to be.  Special factory craftsmen hand built all the structural components of the buck based on all the computer-aided design drawings of the approved floor plan.  Concurrently, Winnebago sent the dimensions and surface finishes to Technoform to tool up and build components for a single coach.

It’s a time consuming, complicated and expensive process working across languages and time zones, creating something from scratch where there are no road maps.  And over the months, dozens of people worked on various aspects of the mockup.  While Technoform was to supply the cabinets, the furniture such as the driver and passenger captain chairs, couches, and side chairs would all be manufactured domestically to Winnebago’s specs.

Ritter and his team had long trusted the UltraFabrics company who’s Ultraleather fabrics are used extensively in Winnebago products.  Ultraleather is a premium synthetic leather fabric that is manufactured by patented technology from a Japanese mill.  While its “hand” and texture can be completely indistinguishable from real leather, its durability, stain resistance, ability to withstand the heat and cold of off-season coach storage, and remain colorfast are superior to leather.  And underneath the Ultraleather upholstery are fillers, padding, and suspensions that are built to high-use commercial grade quality.  Once the cabinet components were installed in the buck, then the furniture was placed.

The interior design team knew that just bolting new cabinets to the walls and placing some modern looking furniture nearby wasn’t going to make the big leap from nice to remarkable.  They spent a great deal of time evaluating different wall and surface textures.  A variety of treatments were experimented with before settling on several never-seen-before laminate textured surfaces Technoform had developed.

As fashion forward as the cabinet surfaces were, hardware was selected that was equally as modern.  One of the most evident applications would be the brushed steel barn door suspension hardware on the bath — a space saving technique used in modern urban lofts and boutique hotels.

They gave a great deal of thought to a ceiling treatment that would hide and diffuse the rooftop air conditioners, but also provide a soft envelope of coach lighting.  While a viewer’s eye would be drawn to fabrics and curving surfaces, perhaps the greatest perceptual impression would be the least paid attention to — a ceiling with a disciplined simplicity.

The creation of the buck served two important purposes, the first as a fully immersive proof-of-concept for the radical new deep Euro look.  The second was a working laboratory where manufacturing issues on wiring, line assembly, and components could be fine-tuned.  Now complete, the future would be quietly displayed to a handful of dealers who, after walking down a long corridor, through a nondescript white door, into a dimly lit warehouse, would step up on a plywood box and walk onto the porcelain tiled floor of the future.

The Birth of the Horizon

The reactions were pretty uniform in their surprise and excitement.  “Do you really think you can build a production unit that looks like this?” one admiring skeptic asked.  “Sure we can,” Roske replied, but in the back of his mind, he was thinking of component logistics and spreadsheets of cost analysis knowing that there were a lot of details to be worked out.  Standing in the buck, Roske knew that this yet-to-be-named motorhome would also rewrite Winnebago history to be the first all-new model not to be made in the company’s Forest City plant.

The Great Recession treated the RV industry with extra viciousness.  Almost overnight it snuffed out a large swath of manufacturers with well-known names.  Monaco, Holiday Rambler, and Country Coach were just a few.  Winnebago’s workforce shrunk by half from four to two thousand and, perhaps the most extraordinary number of all was seeing business plummet from nearly one-billion dollars a year to two-hundred and fifty-million — a seventy-five percent drop.

There were two things that kept Winnebago from joining other storied brands as little white crosses next to the RV highway.  The first was no debt and sufficient operating capital.  That admired Midwest Iowan business conservatism had served the company well.  The second thing is that they were still selling some products.  Specifically, the Euro-inspired View/Navion models which were surprisingly still in demand.  Painfully, order by order, quarter by quarter, the company and the RV industry began to walk out of the smoke of the wreckage.

Market demand and momentum started to build.  Good, but undercapitalized, manufacturers were acquired.  Among those was the Middlebury, Indiana trailer company, Sunnybrook, that Winnebago bought.  Then, in 2015 the company’s senior vice-president stood in front of a small podium surrounded by dozens of dealers and Winnebago employees at the industry’s annual show in Louisville, Kentucky and announced the company’s acquisition of Country Coach in Junction City, Oregon, just north of Eugene.

Country Coach had built a passionate following of luxury diesel coach owners. It was known for its well-built chassis and high-quality interior assembly.  Winnebago viewed the acquisition as a positive for two reasons.  First, it would provide a west coast presence for direct factory service.  And second, there was a skilled motorhome manufacturing workforce in the area.  By 2014 it was evident that, across the industry, there was a strong resurgence of buyers.  Workers were added back to the assembly lines in Forest City as the company geared up for new orders.

In motorhome manufacturing, there are two common approaches.  The most common one is bay assembly.  For Winnebago, with larger volumes, a three-path assembly line was developed over the decades for high volume.  But, the company and its dealers had learned, after the recession, that the consequences of having too many unsold rigs at a dealership weren’t a good thing.  The term they used for it was “lot rot.”  So, instead of making a big guess and building twenty of a particular model at one time, Winnebago had to adeptly adjust by creating a logistical symphony of parts and technicians that would work on lines where a Class A diesel might be followed by a Class C Sprinter, and then a Class A Ford gas chassis.

With a west coast facility that was purpose-built for diesel pusher manufacturing, Winnebago began a two-year project to transition the big rig manufacturing to Junction City.  It would free up capacity for Winnebago’s other product lines, but it also represented a significant change in supply chain, support services (like exterior painting), and manufacturing processes.  Unlike Forest City, the Oregon plant used a bay assembly process which, for large-scale coaches with big slide rooms, was actually more efficient.  And it was here that Roske’s new model, now badged with a past nameplate of the Horizon, would be built.

While the true innovation story of the Horizon rested with its advanced coach design, it would sit atop Winnebago’s exclusive chassis of choice manufactured by the Daimler-owned Freightliner Custom Chassis in Gaffney, South Carolina.  Depending on model, the chassis would come with a high horsepower Cummins diesel engine.  Winnebago had perfected an important change to the basic Freightliner design with their Maxum branded chassis that lowered the motorhome’s center of gravity and provided capacious underneath storage.  The skeletal frames of newly delivered chassis were neatly parked next to the plant to be driven into the assembly bays where the Horizon would take shape.

Risky First Impressions

The term “line pilot” is given to the first units assembled.  These are the ones that are the next step beyond the full prototype.  It’s here that final engineering and assembly steps are adjusted for efficiency and quality.  As the line pilots were set to go under construction, a small group of Winnebago dealers was meeting in Phoenix as part of a periodic advisory process.  Roske couldn’t attend in person but sat in as a voice on the speakerphone in the middle of the room.  When the conversation turned to the Horizon, the tone was optimistic, but after a while doubt started creeping into the conversation.  Was this too big a risk?  Would buyers smile, but turn their back on such a sleek approach.  The negativity started building until one long-time dealer defended the project and made the case that with great risk, comes great reward. Things would continue to move forward, but in the back of Roske’s mind the list of logistics from supply chain to marketing seemed to grow even longer.

If the move to an aggressively clean European design seemed like a risk, the debate around what the exterior should look like was even more fraught with anxiety.  After all, one’s first impression of a motorhome is when it’s being looked at from the outside.  This was the problem staring at Matt Clements.

Clements is the head of exterior design.  Like almost all the departments on the Forest City campus, Clements and his team work out of a windowless area tucked away in the back of the main administration building.  On entering, one is struck by the bright lighting and, in the middle of the main design area, hanging on big frames, are full-sized clay models of both fronts and backs of whatever future coach is being contemplated. Designers check sketches and CAD drawings to physically sculpt the front and back caps with modeling clay.  Ultimately these models will be scanned and that data will be used to create the forms from which the caps will be molded.

Matt Clements (R) reviews the design of the new Winnebago Intent which, like the Horizon, is a big departure from traditional external graphic treatments.

While sculpted by hand, the precision of inset lines, headlight locations, and front cowling curve are astonishingly precise as they are painstakingly shaped with the same tools a fine artist would use.  And, not surprisingly, many of the members of Clements’ team pursue artistic hobbies off work.

At sixty-five miles an hour, all motorhomes essentially look like shoeboxes on wheels as they rush by.  But at a campsite, a driveway, or RV resort it’s a different story.  Not only did the designers want to create a pleasing and inviting look — something that said, “Come drive me,” but also a consistent visual theme that ran across the model line.  Like the difference in faces, the front ends take on personification of eyes, cheekbones, and smiles.  In describing the Horizon, Clements uses terms like “confident,” “purposefulness,” and “positive tension” as he talks about the impression good design should leave.  He explains that “Our real challenge is to work within many constraints to come up with something that beckons, but still stays within the existing geometry — and finally is recognizable as a Winnebago.”

Ditching the Swirls

Beyond the physical dimensions of exterior RV design, the elephant in the room is. . .how to paint the elephant.  When once asked of the long-term editor and publisher of Motorhome Magazine, “Where did the swirls come from?”  He paused, thought about it for a moment, and tentatively said, “It’s been so long, I can’t remember.”  One long-term industry insider claims that swirls appeared first on the 1993 Beaver Patriot.  What’s clear is that for over two decades the American RV industry has been tightly wrapped up with swirls, swooshes, and flairs.

In one of the rooms where Winnebago exterior designers work, the walls are covered with laser prints of thumbnail models of RV sidewalls in various colors for various models. Altogether creating a sense of a palette display in a paint store.  On closer inspection, the patterns change in intricacy, but then there’s one group that clearly stands out based on its simplicity.  What’s noticeably absent is what Clements calls “graphic drama.”  These designs show a visual simplicity that hews to the visual concept of negative space, where the eye finds a balance in the total view.

From the front of the coach Clements’ team begins with a dark accent paint that sweeps up and rises to exit to the rear of the coach.  Below is a monochromatic base that is separated by textured paint that the designers call a fade.  And finally, below are thin horizontal stripes that bisect the lower expanse as if an artist dragged a paintbrush along the side as if to finish the canvas.  The effect, to RV aficionados, is at once both heretical and innately pleasing.

Introducing the Finished Product

It was now a month before the Horizon’s official launch at an industry event called the Open House in Elkhart, Indiana.  Elkhart has the largest concentration of RV manufacturers in North America.  A few years ago, some of the biggest companies headquartered there decided to throw their doors open to dealers.  Unlike trade shows, which are concentrated in one place, the Open House takes place throughout the greater Elkhart area in fields, parking lots, and plant facilities.  The two-line pilot Horizons would ultimately have to make their way from Oregon to Indiana.  But first, a stop off in Denver was planned to use this modern city as a backdrop for photography and video.

On the day of the total eclipse, the two Horizons were parked at the base of a three-story open stairway in downtown connecting Denver’s toniest and newest urban neighborhood.  The surroundings matched the Horizon’s aggressively modern design and, as the drivers moved them into position, passerby’s slowed in curiosity to watch two big rigs maneuvered to the base of the stairway, jacks set down, and slides pushed out.

Roske and the company’s marketing team stepped in and out of the coaches for final preparation while a photographer launched a small drone to capture a top-to-bottom video arc, with the Horizons beneath the 12-story suspension mast of the pedestrian bridge.

For an intimate private showing, a small invited group had gathered outside of Denver’s historic Union Station and alongside Winnebago’s CEO, Mike Happe, and the motorized division’s vice-president, Brian Hazelton, walked two blocks to the West to the base of the Millennium Bridge, crossing the freight line tracks.  From the top of the bridge they could see a large park with the South Platte River and the front range of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.  It was here, less than 1,000 feet away, where Denver would germinate about a hundred years after the rendezvous of French fur trappers and plains Indians.

Prepositioned in lower downtown Denver early in the morning, two Horizons are made ready for a private preview showing.

Ahead of time, the marketing team had determined a stopping point at the top of the bridge that offered a panoramic view, yet held the Horizons below out of sight.  On a well-rehearsed schedule, Roske addressed the group and, with a few steps forward the Horizons were now revealed.  For the next hour, the coaches were carefully studied from the inside out.

Million-Dollar Motorhome?

For Roske, the harbinger of things to come was both with the positive reactions of the group and then a small procession of neighborhood locals who were keen to poke their heads in.  This was the first time anyone from the public had gotten to see these motorhomes. They were drawn in by the clean exterior design and bowled over by the quiet sophistication of the interiors.  The comments were telling, “Is this a million dollar motorhome?  I have never thought of having an RV, but this would change my mind.  I’m calling my husband, he needs to see this.”

The Horizon’s spacious bathroom suggests a modern luxury hotel suite.

Over the next several months at industry-only events, the word of the Horizon spread quickly.  Skeptical dealers realized that Winnebago was quite prescient in understanding the strong consumer appeal of the first truly modern Class A motor coach of the twenty-first century.  Winnebago had unlocked new interest in a static segment by elevating design.  And within two months of its announcement, the order backlog for the Horizon assured the manufacturing team at the Junction City plant that they would be very busy for months to come.

At the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association’s annual industry trade show in Louisville, Kentucky, in early December 2017, the stream of dealers, press, and competitors walking through the Horizons on display was continual.  And at an industry social event in downtown Louisville the publisher of RV Business magazine, Sherman Goldenberger, shook Roske’s hand as the Horizon was named “RV of the Year.”  The doubts, second-guessing, and uncertainty of three years vanished in that moment.

With the clean lines of a luxury yacht, the Horizon redefines modern motiorhcoach interiors.

The introduction of the Winnebago Horizon had earned a mark on the historical timeline of RV history.  It was one of those inflection points where a singular product changes perceptions and competitors change plans.

It was now late fall and the precise GPS guided planting of green rows of Iowan corn and soy beans had long been tilled under to wait for spring renewal.  A northern wind pushed the idea of winter coming closer as Roske walked out to his car.  Behind him, most of the buildings sprawled across more than a square mile of campus, had grown quiet following the final afternoon shift.  Just another day at the office.  But, like Roske’s sleek new Horizon, the company behind him was changing too and showing that talent, innovation, vision, risk and hard work were alive and well and doing just fine growing in the American heartland.

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About the Horizon  The new Winnebago Horizon comes in two floor plans starting at an MSRP of $385,214.  In addition to its first-in-the-market contemporary design, Winnebago also offers an industry-leading three-year coach warranty on the Horizon and all their diesel pusher products. You can see specs, photos, virtual tours, and videos by visiting the Horizon web site.

 

 

Here we are nearly two decades into the 21st century.  Smartphones. Streaming media. Electric cars. Digital 3D movie theaters. Wind farms.  GPS routing. Flat screen TVs. All products of this century.  So why is it that this far into the 21st century that RV products and the ownership experience still stay so persistently rooted in the last century?

I just recently replaced my Navion’s water heater with a new, state-of-the-art Truma.  The one we took out was essentially just like the one in my dad’s 1971 Ute Liner.  The only difference in about forty years?  An automatic pilot light igniter.

As I walked through the various exhibit halls of the national Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in late November I was on the hunt for the future.  With a few exceptions, all I saw was a repackaging of the past.

I walked into one competitive Sprinter-based motorhome product where they proudly were featuring a Honeywell touchscreen system that clearly was designed for home residences and screwed onto a wall for a “modern” effect. Lame. In another top-tier manufacturer’s highest end diesel pushers I looked at their home system control screens with interfaces that took me back to my son’s Nintendo 64 video game.  Really?

And it’s not just electronics. For years now the industry has equated different floor plans with being innovative.  Well, you know what?  In the name of innovation, all those floor plans add a lot to buyer confusion and manufacturing inefficiency.  In the RV world, the idea of innovation and fashion often becomes conflated.  Bolting on another gizmo or naming a cabinet color for a wood finishing process that nobody has ever heard of is not innovative.

RV’s, and specifically motorhomes, are the love union of the automotive world and residential homebuilding.  Those two industries are on wildly different evolutional timelines.  The automotive industry is fixated on annual model years and constant engineering innovation.  We consume and discard cars a lot more frequently than we do homes. Innovations in homebuilding are more on a geologic timetable with over-the-decades improvements in energy efficiency and construction materials.  Beyond location, a home choice is usually predicated on aesthetic interests.  The floor plan may be about the same with the ghosts of harvest gold appliances and green mini shag now futuristically reimagined in stainless steel and engineered hardwood.

In the general public’s mind, the Winnebago brand stands for dependable recreational vehicles that get sub-categorized into a generic camping experience.  It’s not a brand, or for that matter an industry, that you’d associate with either innovation or fashion.  And that’s where it gets very, very interesting.

When you sift through the six-decade history of Winnebago you see many points of innovation and the inevitable market following of competitors that occurs afterward.  The Winnebago View was the first Mercedes Sprinter-based motorhome in North America in 2006, but it was the product of two decades of experience on fuel-efficient chassis from Toyota, Renault, and Volkswagen.  This is just one example of the company’s market leadership over the years.

Coming out of the Great Recession, Winnebago was, like it’s remaining competitors, battered and bruised and simply happy to slowly build back production volumes based on its pre-recession product lines.  Orders slowly came back and new products were conservative refreshes of existing models.  The course was solid but wholly unimaginative.  Winnebago ceased to be a market leader and fell back into the comfort of being a safe, albeit unimaginative choice for RV buyers.  A restlessness from the board of directors resulted in sweeping management changes with a clear expectation that the company needed to not only get their groove back but exceed even their past primacy as a leader in the RV industry.

Battleships take time to turn around, but in just two years the company has been making significant changes.  Wall Street, investors, and, most importantly, buyers are noticing. At Winnebago, the 20th century is finally receding in the side view mirrors.  It’s happening in many ways that you can’t see behind the scenes, but you’re now seeing those changes show up in some exciting, market-leading products.

On the true innovation side, Winnebago blew the garage doors open when it introduced the Travato B-van several years ago.  Industry-wide the B-van space is on fire and Winnebago’s suite of Euro-based vans built on the Promaster (Travato), Transit (Fuse) and Sprinter (Era) well demonstrates the company’s track record of finding success in developing new market segments.

The explosive and enthusiastic embrace of the Sprinter 4×4 Revel has been phenomenal.  The company is ramping up production to an even higher than expected pitch to meet demand.  It is bristling with innovation from onboard electronics and components, to a custom engineered living environment.  The Revel is very compact and not for everyone, but to the untapped reservoir of outdoor adventurers, it streaked to the top of everyone’s wish list.

The new Intent is far less sexy or overtly innovative as its spunky little Revel cousin.  It’s the most basic of traditional Class A gas motorhomes.  But here too, the company’s renewed passion for reinvention shows up with many behind the scenes manufacturing simplifications that improve quality and consistency of the product while, at the same time, lowering the purchase price.

Finally, there’s the Horizon, Winnebago’s newest up-market diesel pusher.  It just won the RV Business Motorhome of the Year award in a contest that wasn’t even close.  Like its competitors in the $300,000 and up class it has all the standard check off luxury items, but unlike any Class A motorhome manufactured in America today, when you stand inside a Horizon, you know you’re in the 21st century.  It’s akin to the same feeling you get when you settle behind the wheel of a Tesla and look at its console-wide vertical display.  This is the future and you know it when you see it.

Innovation isn’t just about technology, nor is it the transient moment of a shift in fashion.  Innovation is the hinge point where desires shift and expectations raise.  Innovation is about thought leadership, moving past the incremental into the uncomfortableness of dramatic change, which in time becomes so normal that it’s hard to remember the time before.  This is what’s happening at Winnebago.  The sweat, strain, and struggle of pulling the RV industry out of one century into the new one have been long overdue, and the RV industry, in general, owes Winnebago a real debt of thanks for leading the way.

In the fall of 2012, my wife Terry and I set out with a mix of excitement and apprehension on our first motorhome trip in a new Navion.  It was a 6,000-mile cannonball into the deep end of the pool for the two of us with each and every stop carefully planned and plotted for the four-week voyage.

Now, 80,000 miles and two Navions later, our most recent trip shows how far we’ve come, not in miles, but in mindset.  Paint-by-numbers travel planning has given way to plein air impressionism.

In mid-September we found ourselves rolling across I-80 on the way to an RV industry event in Elkhart, Indiana.  It was here that Winnebago would be introducing three exciting products.  It was a grand success and you can read more about it by clicking here.

Throughout most of the summer, while I worked on the product launch event, we cut back on some of our RV travel.  Now, that assignment completed, we were up for a little road adventure.  The only thing we knew was that we needed to be back in Denver in ten days.  Now what?

When you eliminate National Parks, scenic wonders, tourist must-sees, family, and friends from the planning calculus, you find yourself with old-fashioned paper maps, and an iPad for fast web and Wikipedia searches.  Such is ad hoc travel planning.  And that’s how we fashioned a remarkably entertaining journey.

Exploring Elkhart

Indiana had always been a drive-through state for us and so we figured that, as long as we were there, we’d find out what the state had to offer.  Our travel criteria were pretty simple: stay off the freeways, don’t spend the entire day driving, look for biking opportunities, and be inquisitive.  In some ways, our travel plan (or lack of it) embodied the romantic, but rarely practiced, view of throwing yourself into the wind.  Our spin-the-bottle equivalent was GPS roulette played by always choosing the alternative route presented by our onboard Rand McNally Xite infotainment unit.

We were in the northern part of the state and had a vague idea of a few points of interest.  Studying the maps, we plotted a path that drifted roughly south through the center of the state and then west.

Just outside of the South Bend/Elkhart area, we began with a couple of nights in Shipshewana. This is the heart of Amish country and never before had we seen so many of the locals rolling by with the clip-clop of hoof-powered carts.  We had chosen this starting point because of the Pumpkinvine Trail which is a paved rails-to-trail that winds through stretches of forested areas, homes, and small prosperous farms.  The trail connects the towns of Shipshewana and Middlebury and actually runs along the back of the Winnebago Towables plant (it’s big!).  Along the way, we’d occasionally nod to Amish residents who were walking or riding bikes along the path (horses and carts not permitted).  We noticed quite a few large well-kept Amish homes with only a one car garage, but a large stable and cart barn adjacent to it.

Summer was still winning the tug-of-war with fall, and even though we were in the third week of September, we were happy at the self-generated breeze of pedaling through 90+ degree heat.  That, of course, required a mid-point deflection at a Dairy Queen that truly was conveniently right on the path.  We slowly cooled off with measured sucks of Blizzards to avoid brain freeze.

The Dairy Queen drive-thru is conveniently on the Pumpkinvine Trail and offers horse-cart parking for the locals.

Next to us in a corner booth, a half dozen young teenage girls, engaged in lively conversation, crowded around the circumference of the table. Their language sounded sort of Germanic sprinkled with English words of celebrities and brands.  It was puzzling and later on during our trip we learned that in some of these more concentrated Amish areas, locals also speak in a mix of Germanic-based language that’s often referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch.

A walk through time with early RVs at the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame really makes you appreciate all the benefits of 21st-Century travel, like cell phones and GPS displays.

On the morning of our departure from the Elkhart area, we couldn’t leave without an obligatory trek to the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame.  With the largest concentration of RV manufacturers in the country, it’s not a surprise that the industry would create a venue for self-congratulation and promotion.  They got it about half-right.  The historical tour of RVs is both interesting and fun.  But, whether through limited vision or funding constraints, the opportunity to present the industry today (and of the future) falls pretty flat.  Nonetheless, it’s worth a one to two hours go for any RVer.  And, not surprisingly, you can stay overnight in the parking lot for free.

Heading West to Indy

An abbreviated afternoon drive pushed our southern line toward Indianapolis with an indirect stopover at the small town of Delphi.  The town’s population is just under 3,000 and it sits along a couple of preserved sections of the Wabash-Erie canal.  While this easily could have been a boondockable stay on a normal September evening, the outside temperature was high enough that we sought an electric-only hook-up (an outlet on the outside of a town park maintenance barn) to run the air conditioning without the generator.

We were up early to beat the heat for biking along the canal, over the Wabash, and into the rolling countryside.  As we departed late morning for the final 40-mile drive into Indianapolis, we drove by the local high school with a big sign proclaiming it to be: Delphi High School “The Home of the Oracles.”  Why not?

The original namesake is 5,000 miles away. In 2002, we were in Greece and actually visited the town of Delphi (locally pronounced as del-fee).  These are the remains of the oracle’s temple.

Like most larger American cities, RV camping is more on the periphery of the metro area, but in Indianapolis, you can get a year-round hook up at the large state fairground complex.

Fancy it isn’t, but if you’ve got bikes with you, it’s an ideal location because it’s directly adjacent to the Monon Trail.

The Monon is an 18-mile paved rail to trail that, from the fairgrounds is an easy and quick seven-mile ride south into downtown Indy.

It connects with a recently completed ring of a downtown loop (path, sidewalk, street) called the Cultural Trail.  It’s a great way to see the city center.

There’s good civic energy here with refurbished canals, new urban housing, and a handful of buildings under construction.

It’s not Venice, nor San Antonio.  This refurbished canal is adjacent to downtown Indy with many new apartments and condos.

We also ventured north up the Monon and one evening steered off the bike path in the gentrified neighborhood of Broadripple for an excellent dinner and some early Sunday evening live jazz at The Vanguard.  Our weekend in Indy left us with the impression that this is a city definitely on the upswing.

Small Town Charm

About 50 miles south of Indianapolis is, arguably, one of the great small cities of America:  Columbus, Indiana.  It has a population of around 50,000 and is the corporate home of Cummins (diesel engines).  What sets Columbus apart is the symbiotically enhanced relationship the company has had with the community.  Going back to 1942, Cummins made the commitment to invest in world-class architects to design both civic and commercial buildings, and the cumulative effect is altogether charming and impressive.

The downtown main street has a near movie-lot quality to its shop and building fronts.

A Henry Moore sculpture sits in front of the I.M. Pei designed library (not pictured) across from a 1940’s Usonian style church.

The city’s “C” logo is shaped in steel curves that serve as bike racks.

And the Cummins headquarters is a tranquil low-rise building that artfully erases the hard line between architecture and nature.  Together a drive and stroll through town are well worth the freeway exit time.

Historical New Harmony

From Columbus, we headed due west through the rolling forests of Southern Indiana, past the beautiful campus of Indiana University at Bloomington, and then southwest toward Evanston, Indiana which wraps around a huge bend of the Ohio River.

Our final destination was at the heavily forested New Harmonie State Park near the small town of New Harmony that sits on the banks of the Wabash River on Indiana’s western border right across from Illinois.

There’s a lot of fascinating history about New Harmony and that’s what brought us there.  When it was founded in 1814, this was the “far west” of the fledgling United States.  As its name intones, New Harmony was created with higher social aspirational goals in mind.

Colonial-period English manor design made its way to the western woods of Indiana.  Note the old-timbered cabin behind the two-story brick building.

Its full-time population numbers less than 1,000, but its historical imprint of utopian thinking has rippled through history with scientific, social and educational effect.  Notably, there are several locations worth exploring and lingering.

In town is the Labyrinth, which was constructed as a contemplative maze in the 1930’s and rebuilt based on historical documents in 2008.

A few blocks away, on the north side of the town, is the Roofless Church that was designed by noted architect Philip Johnson in 1960.

Nearby are the preserved early settlement cabins with ax-cut timbers, and just beyond is the Atheneum which was designed by Getty Museum architect, Richard Meier in 1979. This startling collection of buildings attest to the spirituality and enduring power of human aspiration that they exist lovingly honored in a tiny community far from the greater energy of larger towns and cities.

As an example of departure from the thicker lines of the freeway map, New Harmony, and our other week’s worth of discovery throughout Indiana, remind one of the greatness and endless fascination of the American story.  Now, with five years and 80,000 miles in the rearview of RV travel, we’re sure we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

When we bought our first Navion in 2012 one of the few systems that was completely familiar to me was the water heater.  It was almost exactly like the one that my dad had in his 1971 Ute Liner, but as a “21st century product” the big upgrade was the self-igniting pilot light.  My dad always kept a butane lighter handy for near nightly restarts.

Honestly, I’d given the water heater about the same amount of consideration that I have in the numerous residential properties with hot water heaters we’ve bought over the years.  My deep analysis pretty much could be summed up as, “Yup.  It’s got one.”

With all my work for Winnebago I have crossed paths with the folks from Truma over the last several years and they always made polite overtures that they’d be happy to swap my water heater out for their AquaGo product.  While it seemed like a very generous offer, I would, in turn, politely decline.

In my mind there were three roadblocks:  the hassle of replacement, the loss of dual heating options, and the belief that, for all their trouble to swap a unit out, I wouldn’t notice much difference.

In September, we were in Elkhart, Indiana, for Winnebago’s big product launch event.  And once again, we revisited the conversation with the Truma execs.  A few weeks earlier, I was talking with a couple of Travato owners who simply loved their Truma Combi system which combines hot water and heat.  The Combi is a pretty amazing product, but its heat output just doesn’t have the BTUs for heating a larger rig like a View/Navion.  I think it was those Travato owner’s passionate enthusiasm that finally pushed me to relent and hand over the keys to our rig to let the Truma techs do their thing.

The next morning I headed inside the Winnebago display area while two technicians showed up. By lunch I walked out to see how they were coming only to find a new hot water heater installed and the instructions sitting next to the sink in the galley with a blue rubber ducky.  Okay – so that happened.

A couple of days later, the product launch event was over and we headed off for a ten day wander through Indiana and parts west.  It would be the perfect test.  With 80,000 miles of Navion travel over the past five years, I knew exactly what to expect from our water heater. So, the changeover in our existing Navion would really allow me to get the best comparison you could hope for.

As my good friend Kelli often says, “Holy Buckets!”  Yeah, it was that much better.  I know, I know.  You’re thinking the same thing I did, “How much better can a water heater be?”  Well, let me tell you, a lot better.

Let’s work through my roadblock list one at a time.  First, the changeout was reasonably easy and had no impact on other systems.  Most importantly, the exterior cover fit exactly and has a much sleeker, smoother and finished appearance than the old heater.

Sleek and stylish, the AquaGo looks great on the outside and slides into a standard RV hot water heater opening.

The next thing was noise.  The Truma barely makes a peep.  In our floorplan (a J), if the window is open in the evenings (and sometimes, even if it isn’t), I could be awakened briefly by the whoosh of the old heater as it blowtorched the reservoir tank back to temperature.  When the Truma comes on, you barely hear it.  But better yet, it only comes on when you’re using hot water — so no nighttime “hot flashes.”

A simple control allows you to set the super-efficient eco, regular, and cold weather modes.

Another roadblock was losing the ability to heat hot water electrically when we were connected to shore power.  As we used the Truma over a period of ten days it seemed to sip LP gas.  It only uses gas when hot water is demanded (or the outside temps drop below freezing). And, when it does come on, it’s very efficient, so gas-only became a total non-issue.

While we haven’t tried it yet, a couple of years ago I shot a video showing how easy it is to winterize the Truma.  Unlike having to go buy a large 1” socket to open the drain of my old hot water tank and wait for a few minutes as the thing drained out on the drive, you pull a small lever-like chute down and a small amount of water spills out in seconds.  Done!

But, I’ve saved the best for last.  The most amazing thing about the Truma AquaGo is the consistent quality of 120-degree hot water it puts out.  Starting with the 2016 View/Navion models, Winnebago changed the shower piping that allows you to get hot water more quickly without wasting water waiting for it to come up to temp.  But even without that feature, I know our shower water use has become significantly more efficient.  Here’s why:  old style tank water heaters push warm water out first and then you’re hit with near scalding 140+ degree water.  You waste a lot of water waiting for the super-hot temperature flow and then you’re fussing with the hot-cold balance.  All of this means water waste, and in compact coaches when you’re boondocking, that’s not good.  If you’re hooked up to city water, you’ll get never-ending hot water which will allow you to easily sing the entire first act of Madama Butterfly without interruption.

Now there are two schools on water temp.  Some people like very, very hot – near scalding – water.  For years I ran our home hot tubs at 104 degrees which is pretty hot to ease into (most hotels set their tubs at 102).  Even if you tolerate hot water well, most people will not shower hotter than 110 degrees.  The Truma’s 120 degree output did require a bit of cold to temper it.  And while 140 degree water can scald, it doesn’t disinfect.  Typical of German precision, the folks at Truma have pretty much figured all this out (in centigrade, of course).

It always comes as a shock to North Americans that Europe is a larger RV market.  And who is the largest dominant supplier of water heaters in the European market?  I can see by a show of hands that most of the class has deduced that it’s Truma.  Righty, right.  Like many technologies and ideas, Winnebago has looked to proven products like the AquaGo to add into their coaches which provide a better overall ownership experience.

Truma products have proven to be very trouble free and as part of their growing presence in the U.S. market, the company has made significant investments in national parts and service.  Maintenance of the AquaGo is minimal.  Occasionally you need to put some water descaling tablets (available from Truma) and run a cleaning cycle to keep the heater at peak efficiency, but that’s pretty much it.

If you find that you need to replace an existing water heater, take a long hard look at doing so with a Truma AquaGo.  It costs more, but I think you get what you pay for.  And if you’re looking at a coach on the lot, or planning on ordering one, definitely include the AquaGo on your “must have” list. It’s the kind of hot water worth getting into.

Learn More about the Winnebago Navion

Winnebago owners Peter and Kathy Holcombe had a new Winnebago Revel for a week of touring in Western Colorado and Southeastern Utah. In this video, they take us on a deep tour to learn about all the features of this exciting adventure vehicle.

Learn More about the Winnebago Revel

On a Monday morning on September 18th, Winnebago CEO Mike Happe stood in a warehouse-like event center in Elkhart, Indiana.  Around him a crew of drivers, technicians, and product experts had just finished placing the company’s newest models.  He watched as the motorhome division’s general manager, Brian Hazleton, was having his mic adjusted. by the video crew with cameras set like a traditional broadcast, but ready to wirelessly go live on the company’s Facebook page.

It was a uniquely high-tech moment in the heart of American RV country, which by its nature has a much more button-down vibe than the tech centers of the West Coast.

Twenty months earlier, the Winnebago board of directors made a big bet to bring in a non-RV executive to lead the company.  True to his thoughtful midwestern roots, Happe arrived not with grand proclamations or corporate platitudes but started listening, watching, and devouring a deluge of information about a company he’d just been handed the keys to.

In less than two years, Happe has methodically and very deliberately reset the company’s compass point.  He engineered the largest, industry-stunning acquisition in Winnebago’s history by buying the meteoric Grand Design company.  All the while, he has never taken his eye off the ball on the company’s core business – motorhomes.  It’s one thing to come into a six-decade old culture and identify inefficiencies and opportunities.  It’s another thing to turn the battleship in a new direction.

Now, twenty months in, Happe stands in the midst of the first wave of new products that have been developed under his watch.  While exciting, he sees them as a start, a bridge between the company’s storied history and the promise of bringing modern design and manufacturing processes to an industry that lags behind its automotive cousin.

What’s unusual about Winnebago’s introduction is that it signifies product advances across the board. Each model represents a different product class.  From a compact van to a gas powered Class A, and to a luxury diesel pusher Class A, these Winnebago products represent a new way of thinking within the company.  It’s a more customer-centric approach that puts a great deal of emphasis on the experience and applications that RV owners have in mind when they purchase and use a coach.

The Intent: maximizing value.  A few years ago, a couple of Winnebago’s competitors introduced lower-priced Class A motorhomes that were well under the $90,000 dollar price point.  These units were popular, but as Winnebago engineers and product managers assessed these competitive units, they stubbornly resisted the apparent trade-offs in fewer features and lower build quality it seemed to take to create a lower-priced motorhome.  Their intent, and the namesake coach they created, was to design a more affordable motorhome without stripping out the core quality that makes Winnebagos more durable for long years of service.

The Horizon: design matters.  In the world of luxury Class A motorhomes, just like regular homes, interior design features such as tile floors, solid surface counters, and handcrafted wood cabinets are expected.  For years, Winnebago’s Sprinter-based View and Navion Class C motorhomes have been the top sellers in the industry.  And a big part of that success is the sleeker modern interiors with precision-manufactured cabinet components from Italy.  This led to a highly complex initiative to create the first modern Euro-inspired interiors in the industry.  The result was remarkable, an interior that rivals that of a $1 million dollar custom coach, for a third of the cost.

The Revel: an RV for non-RVers.  Where the Intent and Horizon are poised to disrupt the categories they’re in, the four-wheel drive Revel was designed to open up a completely new category in the B-Van market.  Built on a rugged Mercedes Sprinter 4X4 chassis, the Revel may look too utilitarian to many RV owners, but to trail runners, kayakers, rock climbers, bikers, and backcountry enthusiasts it’s a Ritz Carlton suite on the edge of the wilderness or along a riverbank.  Until the Revel, aggressive outdoor adventurers had to buy and customize their own van shell, or wait for months while expensive custom up-fitters would build a backcountry capable vehicle.

It’s been an eventful twenty months for Mike Happe and Winnebago’s re-charted course.  The hard effort of change is starting to bear fruit and the star exhibits have been unveiled. Eager buyers won’t have to wait long until all of these models begin to appear at Winnebago dealers.

For nearly sixty years Winnebago has been “America’s RV.” This short video celebrates the company’s legacy and new generation of Winnebago owners.