Tale of Two Centuries

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.

The Intent really lives up to its name – an affordable, modern RV made without compromising Winnebago’s high standards. Watch as product manager Niles Whitehouse introduces the company’s new entry-level Class A motorhome.

Read more about the Intent here.

Learn More about the Winnebago Intent

When I first heard about the notion of Winnebago developing a new entry-level Class A motorhome a while back, my first reaction was, “Oh no.  A race to the bottom.”  With the propulsive growth of RV sales for the past five years, other manufacturers wanted to broaden the base of buyers by bringing even lower-priced motorhomes to the market.  For a long time Winnebago’s popular Vista line met that demand.

For all the behind the scenes tours I’ve had at the company’s sprawling Forest City plant, I have learned that this is a company that doesn’t cut corners.  In other businesses, when people use the term “value engineering” it’s often code for “cheaper materials.”  And, for a moment or two there was a thought of switching to cheaper materials and eliminating the steel cage construction that’s been a hallmark of Winnebago for decades.

As I’ve toured through this entry tier of products at various RV shows I could see where corners were cut (literally could see the saw marks!).  The market thinking was pretty clear — build to make a good impression at a show or on a dealer’s lot, but don’t worry how long the unit will last or what its trade-in value will be. Just make the first sale and worry about the future later. That was the tar pit that Winnebago was staring into.

So I’ll admit that I was rather apprehensive when the Intent product manager, Niles Whitehouse, met me at the company’s photo studio at the far edge of the manufacturing campus.  Whitehouse has been in the RV industry for over three decades and, until recently, was the head of the company’s sales team.  When the opportunity presented itself to jump into product management, he dove in head first.  “After all these years, I’m really excited to help shape the direction of our products and really focus on the ownership experience,” he said as we admired the clean white exterior of the first Intent off the line.

In the next thirty minutes, apprehension turned into appreciation as Whitehouse gave me a detailed tour.  “Let’s start here,” he said, after lifting up a front step to reveal shoe storage underneath.  Looking up from the step I scanned the pleasing gray-toned interior.  My honest first impression was, “This is much, much nicer than I had ever expected.”

And from there, it got even better.  My eye was immediately drawn to the huge window next to the dinette.  Actually, all the windows are generously sized, giving the interior an even greater sense of spaciousness.  The well thought out decor scheme and clean lines of the cabinets, counters and seating definitely made this new coach feel very contemporary.

All good so far — but then things really amped up with some very unexpected finds.  The first, was impossible to miss:  a residential refrigerator.  That is definitely not something you find in this class of RVs.  It was the centerpiece of a very generous galley with pantry storage.

Up front in the cab area were many subtle design adjustments that first-time buyers may not initially appreciate, but experienced Class A owners will.  The dash layout placed switches in easy to access locations, the in-dash GPS/Radio/Backup camera screen easily pivoted from side to side for better driver and passenger viewing, and the “dog house,” the cover for engine access, is mercifully devoid of cup holders and shelves that can impede access in and out of the front seats.  Clearly Winnebago had been doing their homework in talking with owners.

There were no compromises in sleeping accommodations either.  An optional electric studio loft bed quickly lowered from the roof above the cab seats.  And for the master bedroom, a full walk around queen bed with unique headboard treatment left a very positive impression.

Wrapping it all was Winnebago’s standard steel cage construction, cool-white solar reflective roof, and industry-best driver sight lines with narrow A-pillars.  No shortcuts there, either.

Outside brought two other impressive revelations.  The first was a complete re-think on LP gas.  In the “why didn’t someone think of this sooner” category, Winnebago has come up with an LP system that uses two 20-pound standard LP tanks (like what you use for an outdoor grill).  You can swap them out with ease and it opens up many different options for buying LP fuel.  It’s really quite brilliant.

Then the other feature that shocked me was an outside galley complete with a compact refrigerator and fully operable sink.  I thought to myself, “Uh, and this is an entry level RV?”

I pressed Whitehouse hard on how Winnebago could profitably build such a full-featured RV and remain price competitive.  His answer was as impressive as the rig he was proudly showing off.  “We started with a clean sheet of paper,” he began, “and put down all the things we wouldn’t compromise on.  From there we looked at how we could design and then build each coach more efficiently.  We streamlined the design process, made our floorplans more modular, and completely retooled one of our assembly lines to make every step more efficient without cutting quality.”

While it’s not rocket science, anyone with a manufacturing background will tell you that this kind of change is hard to do. And the result speaks for itself.  The Intent really lives up to its name of Winnebago wanting to reinvent old-line thinking and create a modern, highly affordable Class A motorhome without compromise.

Learn More about the Winnebago Intent

A million dollar look for a fraction of the price. Watch as product manager Ryan Roske introduces Winnebago’s new Class A, which boasts a sleek, contemporary style.

Read more about the Horizon here.

Learn More about the Winnebago Horizon

Several years ago, when we attended the annual California RV show in Pomona, we found ourselves at a restaurant dining table with platters of sushi, tuna rolls, edamame and seaweed salads all neatly arranged.  Around the table was a collection of RVers including then super-bloggers Jason and Nikki Wynn.

Jason and Nikki have now traded their RV life for one of sailing, but over a period of a few years we got to know this winning and taste-setting couple.  It doesn’t take long when RVers get together before rig talk and road tales begin.  That night’s spirited and laughter-filled conversation still remains memorable, especially with the talk about the depressing state of RV interior design.

To their credit, Jason and Nikki tried mightily with their sponsoring manufacturer to update that company’s interiors.  They even made a video about it, but sadly the manufacturer’s idea of contemporary design was little more than changing out the fabrics and countertops.

Owning a couple of Winnebago Navions, we were used to a much more contemporary interior style that is found throughout all European RV designs.  These euro-styled compact coaches are top sellers for Winnebago and the modern, clean interior is one important reason why.  Everyone that evening lamented that there were absolutely no true contemporary decor choices in Class A motorhomes – from any manufacturer, including Winnebago.

A year later we were in Tampa at a large dealer walking through a collection of custom rigs built on Prevost chassis.  Several interiors took a stab at modernity that was cringingly laughable.  Why an under-lighted bathroom sink was supposed to be classy was beyond me.  Couldn’t anybody come up with something better?

Well Winnebago just did.  And boy did they ever.  Working exclusively with their same Italian cabinet designer and putting a special internal team together, the company embarked on a complex two year design process that is, mark my words, going to precipitate a major change in American RV design thinking.

As part of introducing this sleek new design approach, the company returns to one of their most cherished model names with the Horizon.  And here’s the real stunner:  these sophisticated interiors are in a mid-luxury product that sells for a third to one-quarter less than premium coaches like Foretravel or Newell.  Now granted, million dollar plus coaches have unique features and refinements that you won’t find in the Horizon.  But if you want an excellent motorhome that looks like a million bucks, but for the fraction of the cost, your Horizon awaits.

The company is going to start out with two floorplans.  The largest is 42′ long with a TAG axle and a smaller 40 footer without.  Both are built on Winnebago’s Maxum Freightliner chassis with 400-450 HP Cummins diesel engines and Allison transmissions.  All standard stuff for a good Class A pusher.  And while other manufacturers use Freightliner chassis, Winnebago’s custom designed Maxum gives the coach a better sense of centering in weight and offers huge, pass-through basement storage.

But it is upstairs where you live, and honestly, there’s no photo, video or VR tour that prepares you for the sense of tailored sophistication that hits you when you physically step into these coaches.  The linear expanses of the the windows, the graceful molded arcs of the cabinetry, and the color palettes that, for all their conservative tones, seem to glow brightly.  It’s like stepping onto a yacht anchored off St. Tropez. And it should feel that way, as Winnebago’s exclusive cabinetmaker located in Italy has lots of nautical design experience.

A couple of years ago, in a nondescript workshop at the Forest City campus, I saw a full mockup of the 40A.  What stunned me was that, two years later, they actually built it.  Usually when you see a concept or mockup the final result somehow seems to be a close, but compromised product.  Not the Horizon.  Of all the interior architectural details your eye will be drawn to, I encourage you to look up.  What do you normally see in most RV ceilings?  For lower-cost Class A’s, it is the air conditioner and maybe a low-profile ceiling fan.

For more expensive coaches it’s usually a drop-panel that is trimmed with lacquered crown molding.  And what is it about some super-expensive coaches where they love to use mirrors on the ceiling?  The Horizon ceiling panel, with its thin backlit LED light dividers looks like something that you’d see in Starfleet.

The 42Q felt like the more traditional of the two floorplans with the extra length being put to use in a larger master suite.  The 40A’s dual entry bath (from the master suite and the hall) is cleverly designed to make you forget that this floorplan doesn’t have a half bath.  However, what you do get is a double vanity that would be very much the equal of what you’d expect to find in a high-end modern urban hotel.

Beyond Winnebago’s well honed floorplan designs, other key features for a coach in this class won’t disappoint: a residential refrigerator, dishwasher, stacked washer/dryer, induction cooktop, and full multiplex wiring.  Up front, the slim A-pillars offer the most unrestricted driver’s view in this class, adjustable pedal heights, easy reach controls, and the 10.5″ Xite infotainment, GPS and camera monitor system – the largest available.

While the laser focus of the Winnebago design team was to bring an RV interior truly into the 21st century, the exterior design team added many subtle styling cues that maintains Winnebago’s famed broad sightlines for the driver.  And in an act of near heresy, you can actually buy a motorhome that doesn’t have big swirls painted on it.  Yes, there are more traditional exterior paint schemes to choose from, but the relaxed simplicity of a dark wraparound band on a clean white base speaks to the signature elegance this coach will have going across the Interstate.

And finally, the maraschino cherry on top of the icing on the cake:  Winnebago has now extended a three-year or 100,000 mile coach warranty on all their diesel pusher products.

Success favors the bold, and as the Horizon shakes off the design dust of the past it’s about to shake up the industry, and bring a lot more new owners into the Winnebago family.

Learn More about the Winnebago Horizon

We gave the keys of our brand new 4×4 Revel to Winnebago owner, and full-time nomadic adventurer, Kyle Kesterson and his faithful dog Bean. They took it to 12,000ft in the Buena Vista range in Colorado to show us where they’d push life in an RV, and met some friends along the way.


Credits:

Executive Producer: Don Cohen
Written by Kyle Kesterson
Production Company: Armosa Studios
Produced by Heath and Alyssa Padgett
Director: Wes Wages
Director of Photography: Eric Herron
Editor: Lee Taylor
Audio Editor: Lee Taylor
Color: Jackson Townsend
Composer: Least of Creatures
Talent: Kyle Kesterson, Kathleen Morton, Will McKay, Bean
Art Director: DKY

Learn More about the Winnebago Revel

Finally, a 4×4 sprinter-based motorhome. Watch product manager Russ Garfin explain why this adventure vehicle will change how you use your RV.

Read more about the Revel here.

Learn More about the Winnebago Revel