· A well-appointed caravan
· Excellent value for money
· Quality and support of a major manufacturer
When it comes to new products, today's buyers want a 'hamburger with the lot', even if all they really need is the Bunnings Saturday morning offering of a thin beef pattie slapped between two slices of bread. And they don't want to pay a hefty price for it, which is why the over-supplied Australian caravan market has seen the starting price for 19-21ft touring vans fall from the $70,000-plus mark to closer to $55,000 in recent years.
So for manufacturers such as Melbourne's Concept Caravans - which has risen from a 30-van-a-year, single-model producer in 2004 to one of Australia's top six caravan builders in 2012 - the question is: how to cut the cloth differently for the new market?
At one end, Concept has gone high-tech with its new European-inspired Vision range. It has invested heavily in the latest CNC machinery to build the van's interior from imported European lightweight plywood rather than particle board. This means easier assembly, greater strength, better fit and higher quality, without any weight penalty.
At the other end, it has taken traditional Concept vans, such the Ascot and the Belmont, and built them cleverly to deliver a well-equipped 19ft couples' caravan for a very competitive $51,990.
So what's missing? Nothing in terms of basic build integrity and quality, but the choice is limited. There are only four models in the new entry-level Innovation range: two with shower and toilet and two without (from $48,990), all with a choice of mid or rear-entry.
The Innovation uses a similar 100x50mm Preston galvanised steel chassis (a larger 150x50mm chassis is available as an option) as the top-of-the-rage Ascot, the same tandem Rocker-Roller suspension, meranti timber frame construction, lightweight ribbed aluminium outer cladding and 'stick' furniture construction, but Concept has saved money in other areas that most buyers won't lose sleep over.
For example, there's no separate front boot, which allows the van to claim the same internal dimensions as a 21ft model without the extra weight and length. There's a large, full-width tunnel boot to accommodate all those outdoor items such as hoses, jockey wheel and the toolkit that you won't want to store under the queen-sized bed. And the twin 9kg gas cylinders live out in the breeze on the A-frame.
Yes, it can be a nuisance to reach items that always migrate to the centre of the tunnel, but you could live with this for the price saving.
FLAT FLOOR ENTRY
On the 590M (5.9m, middle door entry) model that we tested, there is no cut-away entry as on other Concept models, so you arrive in the Innovation at floor height, via the slide-away aluminium step. This is not only a safety feature, given that the entry is at the foot of the north-south queen-sized bed, but a flat floor is also cheaper to manufacture.
The Innovation is also available in an alternative rear-entry model (590R, also with a flat floor) for those that prefer this layout - and my hand is firmly in the air here.
It's a good-looking van, if a little plain, but if you want more 'bling' for your buck, you'll need to spend more at Concept.
There's little else lacking on the outside. The full-length Dometic awning is standard, as are the fold-down picnic table, checkerplate (fashionable black at the front and silver at the side) stone protection, smart 14in alloy wheels, solid Al-Ko drop corner jacks, a mains pressure tap on the A-frame, flywire door and rear bumper.
Inside there's little evidence of cost-cutting until you notice the 'picture frame' cupboard doors that feature in the Ascot and Belmont models have been replaced by a modern (and cheaper) flat door design.
There's a skylight above the entry and one over the kitchen/wet areas at the rear of the van, plus a vent hatch above the toilet and a reverse-cycle air-conditioner amidships on the ceiling. The van's five windows are all double-glazed and have built-in flyscreens and block-out blinds.
In the kitchen is a combo four-burner stove and a full-height, easy-to-clean splashback. There are plenty of cupboards with two-stage push-button locks, but bench space is a little skimpy.
The dinette is a little squeezy for four, but the tri-fold table is a good design which makes it easier to move around in-between meal times.
CHOICE OF COLOURS
Our review Innovation had smart off-white walls with contrasting charcoal cupboards and red cloth upholstery - a colour scheme that is currently in vogue in the caravan industry - but I saw another Innovation with a maple timber finish and fawn upholstery that I thought looked more upmarket. But it's totally up to you, as there's a wide range of decor choices.
Moving to the rear of the caravan takes us past the standard 22in LED/DVD TV and sound system, and large 184L Dometic fridge/freezer. Through a sliding door is the nicely-segregated ensuite. The shower, in its own spacious fibreglass cubicle was, in our van, to the right; the toilet was to the left and, in between, was a cupboard topped by a china washbasin. The optional top-loading washing machine sat to the left, out of the way and out of sight when not in use. There are plenty of cupboards for towels, linen and other bits and pieces. So, while the price has been pared down, there's nothing really missing here.
Hooking up the Innovation is made easy with the location of the 8in jockey wheel between the A-frame rails, so it is simple to fit and remove the load-sharing hitches that most vanners have.
On the road, the Innovation tows well, as you would expect for a fairly light 19ft caravan with a Tare weight of 2001kg and a modest 174kg ball weight. It sat comfortably behind our Land-Rover Discovery through winding and undulating roads in Victoria's Yarra Glen and Christmas Hills area. But with these specs, the Innovation will be a very comfortable fit for less-muscled tow cars, including most medium-sized 4WDs and even large sedans.
With its many comfort features and layout, I could easily see owners venturing much further afield in their Innovation. Add the optional larger chassis, solar panels and a second deep-cycle battery and you'll still have a keenly priced Aussie traveller.
THE BOTTOM LINE
'Honest' and 'value for money' are words that come to mind with the Concept Innovation.
Lacking some of the 'bling' of its more expensive stablemates and eschewing the new laser-cut furniture of Concept's Vision, the Innovation is not really true to its name. Rather than breaking new ground, except for the price barrier, the caravan is a combination of solid, well-packaged features and values that will appeal to many budget-conscious travellers.
They will be rewarded with a very comfortable and capable travelling companion.
· Value for money
· Good layout
· Good fit and finish
I WOULD HAVE LIKED...
· More kitchen bench space
· Better access to the centre of the tunnel boot