As the glorious days of autumn rolled into Victoria's beautiful Yarra Valley, so too did an exciting line-up of caravans — all of them ready for their chance to shine at Caravan of the Year 2023 presented by MSA 4x4 Accessories. But before we get into the testing, we’ll take a peek behind the curtain of this five-day event, and all the people that contribute to making it happen.
Caravan of the Year 2023 presented by MSA 4x4 Accessories returned with all pistons firing this year — the sheer determination of every manufacturer was clearly visible, with some of the best of our local industry proudly on display. This year’s competition attracted 12 vans from 10 manufacturers, all vying for the ultimate title of ‘Caravan of the Year’ under the close consideration of our judges.
The Big4 Yarra Valley Park Lane Holiday Park in Healesville was the proud host of COTY 2023, and our four judges, photographers and organisers rested comfortably in the park’s modern cabins and glamping tents, surrounded by the lush Yarra Valley surrounds.
This is where the magic happened — from the judges casting their eyes and strict criteria over the line-up of vans to the entire COTY team all playing their integral parts in bringing the event together.
Over the course of the five-day event, the judges reviewed each caravan carefully, both on ground and in a varied terrain tow test, inspecting everything from the build, design and accessories to how they handled on the road. All to help understand the unique qualities and experiences each van offers the market.
What COTY is all about
At its heart, the main purpose of COTY is to provide experienced and objective assessments of the caravans on display. When asked about the importance of the event, Emprise Group Chief Executive Officer, Rob Gallagher, said: “We believe that the Caravan of the Year event is a vital part of Caravan World's charter to help consumers find the best products for their touring adventure, through credible and authoritative testing.
“This year, like the competitions before them, credit must go to the manufacturers who present their vans for testing. Not everyone can win, but the fact they are willing to put their products through the rigorous testing process is testament to their confidence in their brand and their product.
“It is also important to acknowledge and thank our loyal sponsors including presenting partner MSA 4x4 Accessories, REDARC and A247. These partners and our dedicated team provided great support to the many programs needed to run an event of this size and without their help, activities such as the Showcase Day would not have enjoyed such heightened success.”
Returning for a second year, MSA 4x4 Accessories was proud to be the major sponsor of the entire event. A respected household name within the 4WD industry, MSA 4x4’s innovative products include the Drop Slide, SEMA award winning towing mirrors, the original Water Bra and an extensive range of 4WD accessories available throughout Australia.
Other sponsors included REDARC, which hosted a wonderful dinner on the Friday night for the COTY team as well as the entrants, and A247 which sponsored the well-attended public Showcase Day on the Saturday.
Meeting up with the team
There is a mountain of preparation and organisation that goes into each of these annual events, and when I had the chance to join in on the action during the final day of judging, you can be sure I jumped at the opportunity.
Arriving at Big4 Park Lane, I enjoyed a self-guided driving tour through the park, appreciating the beauty of the site, including the fun renovated tram carriage that greets you at the entrance and the newly constructed modern cabins. After meandering my way through the park, I located the spot where the COTY team had set up their domain for the five-day event.
Sleek, picture-ready caravans were parked on the grass with a backdrop of beautiful, towering trees. While all was serenely quiet, it wasn’t long before the team rolled up in convoy, returning from their latest round of tow-testing and photography.
The names of the four judges will not be unfamiliar to many readers. Malcolm Street, John Ford and Tim van Duyl are all COTY veterans, each having participated as judges in the 2022 event and at prior Best Aussie Vans (as COTY was previously known), and their astounding level of knowledge and expertise cannot be disputed. The newcomer to the scene this year was Caravan World Deputy Editor, Allison Watt. A journalist by trade who cut her teeth in suburban newspapers in Melbourne’s western suburbs before the days of the internet, Allison spent 25 years in corporate communications and other roles in the local government sector before returning to her writing roots in 2022.
“When our son was very young, my partner and I pledged to give him a childhood full of travelling adventures and memories,” Allison said. “We purchased our first Jayco Swan camper 18 years ago and have been caravanning to all corners of the country ever since in various iterations of makes and models. We absolutely love caravanning — it’s the best way to explore those fascinating and sometimes forgotten little pockets of Australia and it’s a great education for kids.
“Our son is now an adult so we have purchased our first ‘couples’ van and can’t wait to do a lot more exploring. We are very excited about joining this year’s migration north and escaping the Melbourne winter.
“I was very excited to be a judge at this year’s COTY and I was blown away at the quality of the entries — caravans have certainly come a long way in a very short space of time.”
Meeting up with the team, they were all quick to share how impressed they had been by the standard of vans, and how each year the manufacturers are raising the bar even higher.
“Caravan of the Year 2023 presented by MSA 4x4 Accessories was a ripper and not only in terms of location and the people involved but also in the vans entered in this year’s event. The level of build quality and professionalism shown by the brand preps has been increasing year on year, but it feels like the industry took a massive leap forward in 2023,” said Carvan World Creative Director and COTY judge, Tim van Duyl.
So began my crash course on all the different activities that were tackled during a day at COTY, and first up there was one of the last few caravans to put to the test.
Listening to the judges review a van, I was quick to see how each of their skills, expertise and background brought a unique perspective to the process and aided in creating a comprehensive and objective review of each van.
Tim, Caravan World Creative Director and COTY organiser, was quick to ask the big questions, targeting everything from the size of the fridge and how the water tanks were configured, to querying the warranty’s stance on beach travel.
Editor-At-Large John Ford is a regular caravan guru, took in all the details and hit home with his questions and savvy insight every time.
Meanwhile, despite the damp terrain, Malcolm was quick to get down and take a look at the underside of the chassis and pull out his measuring tape and camera to record and check all the specs.
Allison, who only recently underwent the process of buying her latest caravan, was in her element when it came to pointing out any practical elements of liveability.
The reviewing process
Comparing the vans is no easy task, for while all entrants are the cream of the crop, they are by no means the same kind of caravans and cannot be judged as like for like.
For almost a decade, the vans have been judged on the same nine categories seen throughout Caravan World reviews, covering all the realistic areas of a van that can be reviewed.
With each criterion, the judges take into account the van’s intended purpose, which could be anything from extreme offroading to blacktop touring, and consider it not only against similar COTY entrants but also against vans of a similar class available on the market.
The four judges score the vans according to the nine criteria and provide their comments and feedback on those categories, as visible in the following reviews.
Value for Money
In this category, the judges consider the van’s overall cost and balance this against what the van offers in terms of features, quality, durability and overall experience compared to similar vans.
After taking the van out for a test drive the judges assess how the van performed on the road, its weight and feel when driving and what kind of tow vehicle is necessary.
Suitability for Intended Touring
This criterion takes into account the van’s intended target market, and how it fulfills the needs and requirements those prospective buyers are expecting. For example, if it is marked as an extreme offroad van, does it have the power, solar and water capacities to stay offroad for an extended period and is the build up to the task?
Build quality is somewhat self-explanatory. Here the judges look at the construction of the van from the ground up, looking at the chassis, body, interior and more and keeping an eye out for anything that might impress or be cause for concern.
When it comes to liveability, the judges look at the practicality of the van for its intended purpose. This includes if the layout is both functional and comfortable, the available storage and appliances.
This criterion refers to any warranty and after-sale care the van manufacturer offers to buyers and compares these to others within the market.
The judges consider how self-sufficient the van is for its intended purpose, considering water, power, solar and gas capacities, as well as the ensuite and cooking facilities.
When it comes to innovation, the judges assess how the manufacturers have brought something different or new to the van. This might be the construction methodology, a unique design feature or van layout. Innovation is a broad consideration, looking at everything from solving problems, increasing efficiency to exciting changes in interior design or aesthetic that have not been seen on the market before.
In this category, the judges consider what makes the van stand out in its class — what is most impressive and will give potential buyers that ‘wow’ moment. This could be anything from a bold exterior design to the inclusion of a specific accessory or feature, and how well these inclusions were executed.
For the second half of the day, I split away from our judges and joined one of the talented photographer and videographer teams, Cam Inniss and Phil Cerbu, as they hit the road with a manufacturer and van entrant in tow. When flicking (or scrolling) through the pages of Caravan World, it’s easy to appreciate a terrific action shot, but seeing it in person was even more impressive. Cam and Phil had gotten their routine down to a fine art by the time I joined them, with our car and the manufacturer’s using a two-way radio to smoothly leapfrog each other up and down the winding road through the Yarra Valley. Cam and Phil pulled over at memorised safe spots to perfectly capture the van as it was driven around the chosen picturesque corner, before parking safely to do it all again.
Among the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley, Punt Road Wines was kind enough to let us use its driveway as a backdrop. It was here I got to first watch Cam in his element, drone in hand as he captured some of the footage that goes into each van’s review video that can be viewed on the official Caravan World YouTube channel.
Cam and Phil were only a couple of the many photographers and videographers that were working nonstop throughout the week alongside our judges and organisers, and after seeing what goes into it — whether it was patiently waiting for a curious local to get out of the shot or jumping into the bushes for a perfect angle — my hats off to the entire team for their work.
It was a great experience at the end of the Friday to join all the manufacturers, photographers and videographers as they travelled in convoy along the picturesque Black Spur between Healesville and Marysville for the event dinner sponsored by REDARC. It was a great night for all the people involved in COTY to have a chance to kickback and share their experiences of how the event had gone.
The manufacturers are based in various locations across Australia, with some, such as Wonderland making the pleasant trip over from Melbourne for the duration of the event, while others had completed the hard drive down from Queensland.
“It’s been a really good experience so far — COTY is not something we’ve done before, so thank you,” said Ethan from My Dream RV, a new manufacturer on the caravan market.
But it was not over yet. One of the main highlights every year is the public Showcase Day, which gives the prospective buyers the opportunity to get up close and personal with that year’s caravans and the manufacturers that created them. Held at Don Road Recreation Reserve in Healesville, blue skies and cool weather prevailed, and the day was a resounding success for all.
A247, which sponsored the Showcase, had a fantastic stand that drew a lot of attention throughout the day, featuring a wide range of brands including Cgear, Mukmat, Navigator, Barebones and Tembo Tusk.
And the locals also had the exciting opportunity to see the INEOS Grenadier in person — an exciting new SUV that has sold more than 1000 units without even being launched in Australia yet. For more information on this tow vehicle, check out Tim’s first drive at the INEOS global launch in Scotland.
The Yarra Valley, with its stunningly lush natural surrounds, was the perfect location for this year’s COTY event. And a big thanks to everyone involved, the judges, photographers, writers, organisers, sponsors and contestants, for all helping ensure this year’s COTY was such a resounding and special event.
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