AL-KO Best Aussie Vans 2018: Introduction

Peter Quilty — 7 January 2019

Those who picked up a copy of Caravan World's bumper December issue will recall we revealed the winners and finalists in the $100K-plus and $80K-$100K categories of AL-KO Best Aussie Vans 2018, held on the banks of the mighty Murray River.

For those who missed that edition, you can check out all the judges' comments and ratings, as well as glorious images and videos of all nine finalists competing at the event, at caravanworld.com.au. Meanwhile, here's a brief recap…

If there was a consistent theme running through the 2018 lineup, across four price categories, it was innovation. The four judges, Malcolm Street, Laura Grey, John 'Bear' Willis and yours truly agreed the 2018 lineup was easily the most innovative to date.

For true standout innovation, we had to look no further than the Sunland Phoenix MY19, which grabbed the honours in the top of the range $100K-plus division, with an impressive final judges' score of 92.125.  A truly personalised van, the Phoenix embodied innovation and advanced intellectual property. 

A truly opulent offroader. (I described it as a “palace on wheels”) it was the Phoenix’s alloy chassis, with hot-dipped galvanised steel and drawbar rails, that drew praise from veteran judge, Malcolm Street, that and the scrupulous attention to detail.  

In a split-hair decision, the Phoenix just edged out the most expensive van competing at BAV — Zone RV’s Z-21-6 Off-Road Summit Series 02, heavily up-specced with a $223,865 price tag.

A van for those who want to “keep up with the Joneses”, the Z-21-6 establishes a new benchmark in innovation, emphasised by its true carbon fibre body and unrivalled internal technology.

Dazzled by the Z-21-6,  judge Laura Gray said: “What impressed me most is the van’s 100 per cent self-sufficiency.”

Also competing in the top-end price category, was another more than worthy finalist, the Wonderland XTR 1906.

This bright red family offroad warrior carried some of the latest powered gadgets and battery management systems in the market.  John Willis remarked: “If it’s extended stays in holiday parks you want, then save your money, but if you long to take your young family on a real Aussie adventure, this may be your sweetheart.” 

In in the $80K-$100K price category, Coromal’s Pioneer Evolution 632S XC (PEX) prevailed over the Legend Kick Back.

The judges were wowed by the  ‘outside the box’ thinking behind the PEX, a van that simply screams innovation — from the chassis and suspension to its tinted automotive glass windows, weight-saving utilisation of honeycomb in much of the cabinetry, and the entire benchtop, and tabletop.  John Willis said: “This van would be a fine choice for a couple to undertake that trip of a lifetime, maybe the Big Lap or an extended adventure into the mulga…”

Placing a very respectable second, was Legend's Kick Back, a true offroader with a ‘Home Beautiful’ disposition. A quintessential home away from home, the Kick Back reveals painstaking attention to detail, typical of the Legend breed.

Malcolm Street commented: “While some offroad vans are more practical than good looking, the Legend has plenty of ‘bling’ about it. But there’s nothing wrong with its practicalities either.”

So with BAV Part 1 done and dusted, in this issue we unveil the top gongs in the $65-$80K and Under $65K price categories. 

Both brackets produced clear-cut winners: the  Crusader Excalibur Prince in the 

$65K-$80K group and Marvel Sea Breeze Sport in the budget friendly under $65K price category. 

Exuding simplicity on a grand scale, the Crusader (which vanquished Coromal’s Element Evolution RTV) is a ridgy-didge on-roader capable of venturing off-grid. But for me the standout was the wraparound rear lounge that converts to a double berth.

John Willis was taken with the centrally located ensuite, the only van in the 2018 lineup with a layout that so neatly separates the bedroom and living area.

Competing in the same class, the Element Evolution RTV was not without merit, featuring a spacious ensuite, with roomy shower, as well as winning ‘Future Teck’ construction. However, the judges found the van entered in competition was poorly finished, perhaps due to time pressures making it from the WA factory to Echuca in time for judging. 

As Laura Gray remarked: “There were at least four interior cupboards and drawers in our van on test that could not be opened, another two or three which were littered with wood shavings, and even more with edges which had never even seen a sander.”

And some of the judges were concerned about unfinished electrics and the integrity of the chassis. 

In the budget category, a bona fide offroader, the Marvel Sea Breeze Sport won in a canter, and also scooped up the coveted award for Best Value for Money across the entire lineup. In fact, I reckon it would be nigh impossible to find any caravan under 

$60K ($59,990) that matches the Sea Breeze Sport in out-of-the-box styling and structural integrity.

Incredibly, an extended A-frame, stone shield, grey water tank, front and rear work lights, and an exterior shower are all standard inclusions. It's easy to see why Laura Gray descibed the fully-warranted offroad van as “a mighty little thing that is definitely punching above its weight.”

Ultimately, the Marvel beat out the the JB Marlin which, although presenting as budget-friendly option for a first-caravan buyer with a young family, lost points for its squeezy ensuite and less than ideal towability. I must admit I experienced some harrowing moments towing this van, its low ball weight contributing to more ‘swing’ than Tommy Dorsey!


Meet the Judges:

Laura Gray

Former CW Editor Laura Gray's introduction to life in the great outdoors came at age two when she was packed into a Toyota LiteAce van by day and a brown canvas tent by night, in north WA.

But WA is a pretty hot place and tents don’t come with air-conditioning, so many years and countless camping trips later, she moved onto caravans. After eight years working as a news journalist, she now spends her days immersed in RV life, reading, writing and dreaming about travelling Australia.

Malcolm Street

Field editor Malcolm Street began caravanning in the 1970s, first in a Viscount, and later in a York, the former towed by a Holden Kingswood. He's RV’d extensively ever since, across Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

He became an RV journalist in 1999 and joined CW in 2002. 

Each year he reviews about 40 vans and motorhomes in Oz and NZ. He’s a well-travelled bloke with no shortage of campfire opinions about how a given van could be better put together.

Peter Quilty

You might call CW staff journalist Peter a late starter. He wasn't initiated into the world of carvanning and camping until his mid-40s. But almost a decade on, he’s done his utmost to make up for lost time.

His first few expeditions were in tents, but he was soon hauling a Jayco Sterling behind a 1991 Mitsubishi Pajero. Pete relishes the freedom and relaxation of the great outdoors – just the feeling of being a million miles away from the rat-race.

John 'Bear' Willis

Bear is a man on a mission. That mission is to find the best, most comfortable caravan and campsite. His goal is lifelong and has him in the outback or down by the sweet waters of an estuary with the dog and campfire as often as possible. 

A former truckie, Bear knows his way around towing while his unquenchable thirst for knowledge over the years means he is one of the better versed among the CW team.


Thanks for the Memories:

A sincere thanks must be extended to our event partners, in particular naming rights sponsor AL-KO  — a market leader in the manufacture of chassis and running gear for the caravan and motorhome markets. Emprise Group has developed a close rapport with AL-KO, and it’s a vibrant industry liaison. 

We could not have achieved such outstanding video and photography coverage without such valued support. 

During the 2018 event, AL-KO also hosted a convivial dinner and drinks for the manufacturers, judges and the entire BAV crew at the American Hotel in Echuca.

We are also delighted to express gratitude to leading caravan and RV finance provider Credit One for its generosity in hosting a two-hour scenic cruise on the Murray River, enjoying drinks and canapes, aboard the M.V. Mary Ann.  

Emprise Group also collaborated with the Echuca-Moama region and its partners to create a fantastic  ‘Showcase Event’ at the historic Port of Echuca.

We are similarly grateful for the congenial BAV locations in the Echuca Moama region: Murray Valley National Park, Cape Horn Vineyard, Morning Glory River Resort, Port of Echuca (Discovery Centre), Moama Bowling Club, Moama RSL, American Hotel, and the Echuca-Moama Visitor Centre.

We were again impressed by the passion and pride of all the manufacturers' representatives for, not only their own brands, but also the RV industry in general.  

Last, but certainly not least, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the gracious hospitality provided by the picturesque  Discovery Parks, Maidens Inn, Moama – which served as a most comfortable base camp during AL-KO BAV 2018.


The Ground Rules:

Before we could begin to tackle the daunting task of deciding on Australia's best vans, we needed to establish some ground rules. Comparing vans, even those with a similar price point, can be like comparing bananas with kiwi fruit. Our 10-point score sheet aims to ensure a level playing field right across

the board. 

If the BAV score sheet looks familiar, that's because it's the same format used in each and every review conducted by the CW team in every issue. 

The 10 criteria cover everything about a van we can realistically appraise. While we have sometimes been asked to include ratings for Customer Service and Long-term Reliability on our score sheet, it's simply not possible for us to realistically assess those criteria. 

1. Value for money

Does this van offer good value for money? How many features are included, and what are its dimensions? And does it give buyers what they’re paying for?

2. Self-sufficiency

Is this van suitable for extended periods of remote touring, or a couple of days of free camping?

3. Towability 

A van that is hard to tow is about as useless as a wooden frying pan. Does the van jerk you around like an insurance salesman? Or would you hardly know it was there? 

 4. Suitability for intended touring

How does the van perform in its intended purpose, and is it adequately fitted out and built for that use?

5. Layout 

Is the van visually appealing inside, and is the layout suitable for convenient touring? Is there enough storage, and is it designed sensibly?

 6. Quality of finish

Whether the van has a fibreglass or aluminium composite finish, or simply aluminium cladding over a timber frame, is there enough attention to detail? How does the cabinetry and upholstery rate?

7. Build quality

Will the van fall apart at the first corrugations or is it a well-built rig?

8. Creature comforts

How does the van rate in terms of mod cons?

9. Innovation

Is there anything new and exciting about the design or build? Has the manufacturer employed a feature or manufacturing technique not seen before, and is it effective?

10. X-factor

The WOW factor! If you had this van, what would make fellow vanners come for a chat?

Tags

Outback Travel Caravan Review Best Aussie Vans BAV 2018

Photographer

Matt Williams and Cam Innes