Taking delivery of a US-built fifth wheeler is usually done in one of two ways. A direct purchase from the States is the cheapest option but comes with the most problems, notably in the form of compliance and warranty matters. The alternative is to buy one from an importer/dealer in Australia. This does limit choice somewhat but a reputable dealer minimises the compliance traps and gives much greater peace of mind.
But there is also a third way. You can deal with a company like Spectrum RV in Burleigh Heads, Qld, run by Dave and Jennifer Thorley. Their business model is to offer a wide range of fifth wheelers from the US, which customers choose from before the RV arrives in Australia. They handle all compliance and warranty matters for the customer, too. This approach takes much of the stress out of the transaction but it does mean you will miss out on the hands-on style of shopping that many people prefer. Buyers will also need to be at least a little familiar with the US RV market.
I recently had an opportunity to take a close look at one of the latest rigs from Spectrum RV, an ElkRidge 35 DSRL.
Given the way today's RV industry, particularly fifth wheelers, is staying the course with grey nomads, there are relatively few family-orientated designs available. But that doesn't mean they are not available. Indeed, the ElkRidge is not only designed for more people, but also comes with an imaginative loft in the rear for the younger members of the family.
Although quite a few US manufacturers are now building their rigs to suit right-hand-drive countries, the ElkRidge still has its main entry door and awning on the offside. It should be pointed out, however, that there is also a legal and fully usable door on the nearside.
With an ATM of more than 4500kg, the ElkRidge is fitted with air brakes and requires a larger tow vehicle in the Chevy Silverado/Ford F250/Iveco category, but that is a consideration with any of the larger fifth wheelers.
Like many US rigs, the ElkRidge's chassis has 254mm (10in) I-beams with dipped rust proofing and a painted finish, and is actually a little different to most Australian versions in that it is mostly enclosed. The oft-maligned weak point of such a chassis, the suspension, is fully rebuilt with slipper leaf springs gusset welded to the I-beams. The brakes are custom, and the electrics and gas fitout was all done by Spectrum.
Above the chassis, the frame is aluminium and the walls are made from laminated fibreglass. Somewhat differently, the roof is seamless EPDM rubber, and with its 130mm trusses and 10mm roof decking, is designed to be walked on - very useful for cleaning roof hatches and solar panels. According to Spectrum's Dave Thorley, the nose cone and corners all feature built-in strengthening features.
Two nearside slide-outs are incorporated into the body design. The rear slide-out (lounge) offers an extension of 900mm and the front (bedroom) gives an extra 600mm of floor space. The sliding windows are all tinted and both entry doors have a separate (non-security) insect screen.
As you would expect, this large fifth wheeler has plenty of external bins and substantial fresh (220L), grey (310L) and black (160L) water tanks. Easy and reliable Slam Latches are fitted to all of the bins.
The ElkRidge is split into three distinct areas, with entry doors on both sides at opposite ends. In keeping with the design of most fifth wheelers, the main bedroom, along with the bathroom, is built into the overhang. The larger of the slide-outs contains a dining table and sideways-facing lounge. This makes for a very generous living area that also has the kitchen along the offside.
The third area at the rear is a lounge/office, but also features one of the rig's surprises: a loft bedroom. And in a very nice touch, this extra sleeping spot is accessed by a real staircase rather than an unwieldy, and far less attractive, step ladder.
Less surprising is the ElkRidge's decidedly American-flavoured interior, which covers everything from the cherry hardwood to the patterned upholstery. However, the pseudo fireplace that I have seen once or twice in similar units is thankfully not included.
Ceiling heights vary throughout. The living room measures 2.74m (9ft), the front bedroom 1.9m (6ft 3in) and the split office/loft is 1.74m (5ft 9in) and 1m (3ft 3in) respectively.
Given its relatively limited size, the front bedroom impressively fits just about everything, including a 1.81x5m (6ft x 5ft) innerspring mattress, wardrobes along the front wall (including washing machine connection), offside chest of drawers and a TV shelf. However, bedside cabinets and windows for cross ventilation are noticeably lacking.
The two-door bathroom is on the same level as the bed. I mention the two-door setup because while opening up the narrow bedside space, it somewhat restricts the size of the vanity cabinet. There is still adequate space for the separate shower cubicle and toilet, but it goes to show that even in a rig of this size, there are compromises.
Moving down the stairs brings us to the kitchen and lounge. Designed in a (sort of) L-shape, the kitchen bench comes with a twin tub sink, four burner cooktop/grill, microwave and a 225L three-way fridge.
There's no sink drainer and bench space is a little limited, although the sinks do come with flush-top lids. Set at an angle, the bench is quite user friendly from several sides. There is also plenty of storage space, although some of the taller cupboards can be a little difficult to reach.
While four people can sit around the table, the lounge really only seats two in comfort. Viewing the wall-mounted TV is quite easy, but both people will have to sit sideways. Interestingly, the individual chairs and the lounge have storage space underneath the cushions.
The rear loft design is undoubtedly the unique selling point of this rig. The low ceiling height for the loft probably isn't going to bother most children - some may even like the "cubby house" effect - and a window and large roof hatch help to ensure the space doesn't feel too cramped. There is also a powerpoint and antenna connection for TV/DVD player.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While certainly not as common as caravans and motorhomes, fifth wheelers are carving out their place in the Australian RV market and the idea of a family friendly design is a welcome one. The loft bedroom is a great feature that doesn't take up too much space and means kids will also be comfortable.
Not everyone will like the idea of buying an overseas RV from an Australian dealer sight unseen, but if a US-built fifth wheeler is your vehicle of choice, the team at Spectrum RV helps matters by taking care of all incoming compliance issues. And if you really want to get your hands on the rig and have a good look before you buy, a holiday across to the ol' US of A will take care of that.
Source: Caravan World Aug 2011.