VISITING SA'S AUSSIE By Design to check out its Humpback Smart Vans always makes for a memorable trip. Based in Port Wakefield, an hour north of Adelaide, the company is headed by Ian Dutschke, a straight-talking caravan builder proud of his products, each packed with features for self-containment while on the road.
These distinctive Humpback caravans are so named because of the rear hump built into their design. According to Ian, the hump helps the van stay stable by generating downforce in much the same way a race car's rear wing does, while limiting the 'suck-in' sensation when passing trucks on the highways.
Having sampled units ranging from 7.16m (23ft 6in) to 9.15m (30ft), I've come to think of the Humpbacks as massive homes on wheels. These larger rigs often require a tow vehicle along the lines of Ian's US-imported Ford F250. However, you can also opt for a more bite-size Humpback if preferred, with the Smart Van range starting at just 5.8m (19ft), making them more relevant to 4WDs sold in Australian showrooms.
My test van was an attractive 6.4m (21ft - internal length) rig featuring all the standard features (and there are many) common across the Smart Van range, no matter which length you decide on.
With a Tare of 2430kg and ATM of 3070kg, this Humpback is not the lightest of caravans, but the trade-off is decent ability on rough tracks, and toughness combined with a well stocked interior.
Built on a 6in DuraGal chassis, the Smart Van features a meranti timber frame and attractive aluminium cladding for the sides, rounded off with checkerplate all-round.
The van rides on Aussie Easy Ride independent suspension. The wheels are 15in Allied alloys, shod with 235/75 Doublestar offroad tyres, while electric drum brakes service each wheel.
One aspect of the Humpback Smart Vans that always appeals to me is their excellent use of space. Inside, the van feels much larger than its actual dimensions.
While caravanners usually get the choice of either a front or tunnel boot with external access, this Smart Van gives both. The tunnel can also be accessed from under the queen-size bed. There are another two lockable toolboxes and a rear boot, with access doors covered in checkerplate.
Other external features include LED lighting, galvanised rear bumper, external shower and Manutec drop-down jacks. The two 95L water tanks, four batteries and two 80W solar panels on the roof go a long way towards making this a genuinely self-contained rig. Throw in an extended A-frame and you have space for an outboard motor mount alongside twin 8.5kg gas cylinders, Anderson plugs and a satellite pole bracket.
All these goodies are naturally built into this van's price - $77,500 as tested - but there's little extra you'll need, and this trend continues on the inside.
ROOM WITH A VIEW
Ignoring the interior spec momentarily, the first thing that grabbed me when entering the Smart Van was the rather cleverly elongated central window. Let's not forget that one of the main reasons we go caravanning is to sit back, relax and enjoy the view. And I couldn't help but take a break from the photos, perch myself on one of the office chairs and take in the panorama of our rural SA location. The dining table neatly folds back to rest a book on - the side ledge is perfect for resting your glass - and you're all set for a sundowner.
Relaxation aside, this van would more typically come with cafe-style seating, but its owners specified two office chairs instead. This won't be ideal for everyone, but doing away with cafe seating actually makes it feel roomier inside, with the benefit of a few more storage cupboards.
Having guests around for dinner won't be easy, however, since this setup makes it strictly a two-person unit.
As mentioned above, storage is excellent for a van of this size. Three hanging wardrobes and lots of well-divided overhead cupboards are superb. From the bedroom to the living area to the bathroom, you get the sense the interior designer knew exactly what long-term travellers wanted from their caravans. There are a number of simple aspects, such as separate drawers for pants and socks, and super-deep bathroom cupboards for linen, that are very much appreciated.
Your dollars also get you a 150L Dometic fridge, 19in flatscreen TV, Dometic air-conditioner, radio/CD/DVD player, Swift four-burner cooktop with oven and grill, and an LG microwave mounted at a sensible height. The interior feel is quite modern thanks to the dark wood and leather chairs, and it's well illuminated by a mix of fluoro and LED. In general, you get all you'd expect (and arguably more) from a van of this price.
The ensuite is an example of necessary design compromises, but it does well to fit everything in that it does. For example, the sink is a good size and there is ample room for toiletries around it, and drawer and cupboard space is plentiful.
There is also a (standard) Haier 5kg washing machine squeezed in, good for extended travels, but you do feel a little penned in when using the Thetford cassette toilet.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Aussie By Design is not like many other caravan manufacturers. The company refuses to use dealers to sell its Humpback Smart Vans, meaning you can only buy a new one from its SA premises.
Ian Dutschke also refuses to build a rig that he wouldn't put his name to and believes the way he options his vans ensures customers gets a quality product with the complete wish list.
Cutting out a dealer's margin does help keeps the price down somewhat, but some may still be put off by this van's tag of $77,500. But when you take into account the massive spec as standard - washing machine, satellite TV system, offroad chassis, solar panels - it looks like good value for those who want a fully loaded caravan for extended travelling.
To fit all the usual Aussie By Design goodies into this van is an achievement. Yes, the ensuite may be a little cramped, but the general living area is roomy thanks to the office chairs, and there's the usual fit, finish and intelligent storage space that have become the company's trademarks.
The larger Humpbacks may be out of range for many due to their mighty towing weights, but this is a Smart Van in name and nature, ready to be hauled by large Australian-sold 4WDs.
Source: Caravan World Nov 2011.