Friday, February 17, 2017


Searching for a Class B RV, also known as a campervan?  RV shows are one method by which you can view multiple models simultaneously for comparison purposes, but this approach is not without significant challenges - as with everything in life, there are pros and cons.  In this post, I cover the 2017 Houston RV Show from a Class B perspective, pulling no punches and reviewing individual models.  At the end of this post, I present our picks for Best Class B Fit and Finish, Best Overall Class B, Best in Show, and Most Improved.
Post edited 20170219 to include my Instagram collage above, because I like it!!
Here's the first challenge that any Class B shopper needs to face at such a venue.
I felt like I was a human quantum packet in a double slit experiment.  Notice the two stars at photo left that say "You are here"?  I was neither a wave nor a particle in this respect.  I ended up being in two places at once.  
As the map above clearly shows, it's not really an "RV Show".  It's an "RV Dealer Show".  Why does that make such a big difference to a Class B shopper?
Because it becomes almost impossible to even find the Class Bs in an infinite sea of swoopy-doopy RV graphic'd plywood boxes.  This entire arena was packed solid with As, Cs, and mostly trailers, literally sitting within one inch of each other - I was amazed that they could even pack them in that tightly and presumably not violate fire code.  There were no sight lines at all.  
Because of this, I spent the entire time asking random customers and dealer reps how to locate different models.  I asked numerous people if they'd seen a Travato anywhere in the show.  I knew that they should be there, somewhere in that crushing morass. Questions such as, "Excuse me sir, did you notice any Travatos anywhere on this floor?" and "Hey, I see that you guys are a Winnebago dealer - if you don't sell the Travato, do you happen to know who does?"  All inquires met with "no" answers.  We were two hours into our tour before we were able to find a Travato by accident.  But let me not get ahead of myself.

First, let me review the two 2017 Airstream Interstates that were on hand, because that's our brand.

2017 Interstate Lounge EXT.  
If you follow my blog or comments on any of the forums, you may already know that I believe Airstream is making a big mistake with any design that is this hyper-masculine.  I don't see any appeal in "all black, all the time".  I'm not even remotely a girly-girl, but I do like a bit of balance in my designs.  I never look at this particular rig model without being reminded of the Star Trek TNG episode titled "Skin of Evil".
See the design resemblance?

Seriously, this is exactly how that black-on-black scheme makes me feel when I enter the rig.

Thanks to Memory Alpha for the screengrab. 
The new Airstream Interstate offering in the show was this one.

I spent some time inside this unit, contemplating both the design and the market research that apparently led to the conclusion that it's a good idea.  I couldn't make any sense out of the latter, and here's the first of two reasons why.
Who the hell would buy an Interstate and proceed to take 13 bottles of wine and/or spirits with them?!  I myself enjoy a nice glass now and again, but I usually take a whopping 750 ml in a GSI Wine Carafe.
And I went to great pains to downside my wine glasses as well.  Pics from this post on small space living tips.
Such a focus on alcohol subculture is not representative of the Interstate demographic that is known to my husband and I from the past several years of online forum participation.  Interstate buyers are typically fairly conservative, at least in economic terms.  They tend to be well-educated and highly successful in their careers (they have to be, to afford such a purchase), and in buying an Interstate, they intend to further open themselves to authentic life experience.  These people are focused and driven (pun intended) and they ain't got time for tippling.
How much wasting away in Margaritaville can a person do, and still afford the likes of this?
Unfortunately I couldn't get "Margaritaville" out of my head as I was evaluating this rig's interior.
It's definitely a departure from Skin of Evil. 
I did not like the quality of this cabinetry, which felt too plastic-y to me.  This was a surprise given that Airstream has for years been the undisputed Class B market leader in the fit and finish department.  And that imitation louvered shutter on the wet bath door?  Downright cheesy.

Which is to say that, secondly, the rig seemed to have an incongruously-youthful focus.  Wikipedia describes the Tommy Bahama brand as "a lifestyle of never leaving the beach".  There's an energy and a casualness that doesn't describe older, more sophisticated buyers outside the realm of temporary mid-life crisis.  Maybe the market research pointed to this as a good idea, but I personally don't get it.

The other big annoyance here is that the TV sticks way out into the aisle, but in fairness, many Class B producers are now making this same mistake in the name of bigger-is-better.  Especially with a rig that seems intent on getting its owners drunk, how long do you reckon before someone runs into that thing and smashes it??  How long do you think that owners are going to put up with the likes of that needless obstruction?  Guys, if you insist on fitting your rigs with huge TVs, get off your butts and re-design the mounting arm so that they can be rotated out of the path of travel, which in a Class B is extremely tight to begin with.

There were some upsides to these two Interstates, namely these.
Good execution on the work table behind the driver's seat in the Margaritaville.  Not optimal, but good. 
 And at long last, Airstream has done a good job of solving the screen problem.
Rear door screen on the Skin of Evil.  Very nice.  

Slider screen on the Margaritaville.  I liked the design and the feel of it.  I would pay for it if I were ordering a new rig, not that I would order this model.  
However, Airstream's real coup was not any of its current Interstate offerings - what won the hearts of both my husband and I was this baby.  OMG, it's superb.
The Basecamp, with the two afore-described Airstream Interstates in the background.  
It has everything it needs and nothing it does not.  I wouldn't change a single thing about the execution.
Bigger is not necessarily better.  This thing felt like the Goldilocks trailer to me. 
If we were intending to buy a trailer, there would be no competition. 
Show sticker for reference.  
OK, now on to the other Class B models that we found.

We were dismayed to find only one Roadtrek on the show floor.  There may have been others, but we searched and searched and could not find any.
Not only was there only one, it was an Agile, which are built on shorty Sprinters.  And notice how it was shoved all the way over to the far wall.  It was very difficult to even locate it. 
See the aforesaid tightness?  Its nose is virtually touching the Class A in front of it. 
It was an acceptable Class B, and some buyers have a definite preference for a smaller rig (I know this from reading the forums), so there is a market for it.  But I really wish I could have seen one of the larger Sprinter-based Roadtrek models so that I could make an apples-to-apples comparison with the other Class Bs.
This protector was a nice design touch - it's made with the same upholstery fabric as is used elsewhere in the coach.  I used coroplast to create a TV screen protector (held in place with a Velcro strap) because in the limited space of a Class B, the TV does tend to get bumped and the screen scratches easily.  
Here is something that the dealer DeMontrond offered that I didn't see anywhere else:
This will appeal to a LOT of buyers. 
I would ask questions about how this deal actually works.  Specifically, if your generator goes out, who fixes it?  Does DeMontrond handle it in house, or do you need to drive to north Houston and leave your rig in a high-crime area where our local Onan servicer is located?  Warranties need to be investigated fully in terms of the fine print, but it's interesting that they provide this.

OK, next in the assessment is the brand new Regency line, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas.

This is the first of two that were on the floor. 

Limited ability to properly climate-control Class Bs has long been the bane of the industry, and this past week, Regency sparked this lively discussion on Class B Forum with its claim that it achieves an R32 insulation value.  Many of us flatly disbelieve this, on the grounds that we suspect it is physically impossible using today's technology.

As for the interior, it's not my style, but I've seen worse.

I absolutely detest the idea of having the bathroom sitting at the back doors, but there is a market segment to whom that appeals, so this was not necessarily a terrible decision on the producer's part.
Rather than spanning the width, the toilet is to photo right, and sink to photo left.  It is possible to have one back door open without baring the toilet for the whole world to see, so this seemed to be a compromise of sorts where accessibility and view are concerned. However, I absolutely cannot stand two sinks in a Class B.  The downside of putting this sink where it is?  No closet.  I'd rather have a closet and wash my hands in the kitchen sink. 
Thumbs way down on the kitchen in this Regency model.
That is just absurdly small.  Get rid of the second sink and build a functional galley or storage.  
Here is another thing that concerned me, and I over-exposed the photo to emphasize it.
Fit and finish = not ideal.  Look at the way that door is gapping at the top.  
Every 2017 Class B we saw utterly failed in one fundamental respect, and this photo is one of several that does a good job of illustrating it.
How can you use that bed as a couch if there is no back part to lean against?  These fixtures are situated where your spinal column might want to be. 
This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed - no Class B manufacturer has yet to properly resolve the seating-sleeping conundrum, and there is a backstory to that, which I will describe in the briefest possible terms in this next section.

For years, many manufacturers optimized the couch capacity at the expense of the bed.  But in response to consumers' well-known feedback, for example this survey by The Fit RV...
Graphic courtesy of The Fit RV in this post of theirs. And we thank them because they did a great deal of work to gather those data and to communicate with industry regarding this issue. is readily apparent that half the prospective buyers want a comfortable bed more than they want any other feature.  Class B manufacturers would ignore that fact at their own peril.  But at the same time, if optimizing the bed means that customers are left with no workable seating, that's almost as bad.

What is the solution for this?  I think the best of both worlds is achievable and I think it is to be found in a newer version of this, which is what we have in our 2007 Airstream Interstate.
It's one of the old jack-knife couches and it provides us with unparalleled versatility in both seating and sleeping.  We often travel with at least one side down so that the non-driver can take naps and also so that our dog can elevate herself off the floor, which is clearly more comfortable for her.  My non-morning-person husband often sleeps in, so we leave his side down while I drink my tea and read the entire internet on my side, which I restore to a couch immediately after I wake up.  It's the best of both worlds.  
My husband and I absolutely love this couch bed - we would not have anything else on the market in our rig.  But we may not be representative of the average Class B buyer in that respect, and perhaps these old Atwoods are a bit too spartan for today's market.  No problem - the Class B producers should go back to Atwood or a similar manufacturer, and request that they re-engineer something that is a little more posh, in order to meet this need in a reasonable way.

OK, onward from that essential digression.  This was the second Regency on the floor.
As I mentioned on Class B Forum, I think they're making a huge mistake with those RV graphics.  They're making their rig visually resemble units that are 50% less in cost.  That cannot be an advantage.  
No swoopy-doopy graphics with my premium price, please. 
BTW, you'll notice that I'm limiting my assessment to design and finish only.  My husband and I are more interested in the mechanicals, but there simply wasn't time during the show to assess each rig in those more complex terms.
There's an interesting mechanicals cabinet in the Regency where some of the workings are found.  We took pics for future reference so that we could parse the details as time permits.  
Here's another huge problem that we saw on multiple units, not just the Regencies.  There seems to be a trend away from steps that extend electrically, because the gears tend to jam (from small pebbles and such) and the motors tend to malfunction.  So several manufacturers are adding something akin to an old-fashioned running board step, but they are mostly too narrow.  Especially on egress, you need to turn sideways to step out of the rig, and that creates a slipping hazard.
See what I mean?  It might accommodate a 3-year-old's foot but not much more. Compare this lower ground effects step to the width of the original Sprinter footwell above it.  
OK, now for our biggest surprise of this show.
This Sprinter-based Pleasure Way Plateau FL

Wow.  This is not a flashy or pretentious interior, but the fit and finish are superb.  
Someone was an absolute slave, in the best possible way, to the color wheel on this design.  Normally if a builder were to put that much yellow in a Class B, they'd make a dog's breakfast out of the result.  But this is expertly balanced with opposing tones.
Color wheel image courtesy of Sessions College for Professional Design.  See how the yellow and yellow-orange are opposite blue?  This kind of balance is essential if the result is to be pleasing to the eye.    
It gets even better.
This is the work station behind the driver's seat.  It beats Airstream's version hands down.  
Look at this finish.
This is Pleasure Way thumbing its nose at Airstream and saying, "We don't have to build a cabinet this nice, but we're doing it just because we can."  
Man, they nailed it.  That's where my day pack, my purse and my camera would all live - right in there, where they're supposed to be.

Pleasure Way's design finesse extended well beyond this woodwork.  It's obvious that they worked hard to integrate every component, including the electrical inverter, in creative unobtrusive ways.
Again we see the problem with the TV sticking out into the aisle, though. 
There was also a Promaster-based unit on display, a Lexor.  It was nice but very little stood out for me in the way of distinction.

It did have one hell of a refrigerator.  
Next we found the long-sought Travato.

It's also built on a Promaster.

It had some positives but again, some of the same limitations were glaringly apparent.  They optimized the bedding, but now where do you sit?  The owner who claims the right bed could prop up their feet and lean against that back wall.  But the left-side owner is screwed because they can't really slouch against their wall - the mechanical controls are mounted there.

Here are two different interpretations of how to leverage those precious rear Sprinter (or Promaster) double doors.
Winnebago's Travato-related interpretation - it's all about a place for the toilet, ugh. 
InterBlog's 2007 Airstream Interstate-related interpretation - it's all about the view, ladies and gentlemen. Location, location, location.   We know it's the real estate mantra, so why can't the manufacturers understand that it has to be the Class B mantra as well?!  
The million-dollar-view aspect is something that most manufacturers are currently ignoring the full potential of.  The #Vanlife community should be steering (pun intended) them toward, rather than away from, this aspect, but for some reason, it's not being properly communicated right now.  All they need to do to gauge the market's affinity for this feature is to look on Instagram, and they will be met with an unending stream of million-dollar back-door van views.  Why do we, the owners, go out there in the wild world?  Why do we spend *many* thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles in our rigs?  So that we can experience that view and everything that comes with it.  So that we can immerse ourselves in it.  And we can't do that if there's a toilet blocking the focal point of the experience.
An image quilt selection of Instagram's spectacular back door views, made using the Tufte - Schwartz widget
Last but not least on our review list, the Winnebago Era 170X.  I don't find it on their website yet, but here's some paperwork.

Thank God for a slightly wider running board.  Good grief. 
This unit had one remarkable stand-out feature - the best galley I've ever seen in any Class B.

But here's the thing buyers need to weigh:  Is it really necessary to have a 3-burner stove in a rig that only sleeps 2 people?  It's nice, and if cooking on the road is your big deal, then you just hit the jackpot with this rig.  But personally, this is not where I'd want my rig's focus to be.

I did like the cabinetry in this one.
Close-up.  Very different and appealing. 
For the most part, I was so mesmerized by the stove-sink combination and by this solar charge controller which is a brand we hadn't seen before, that I forgot to take general interior pics!
*   *   *

OK, before I break the internet with the world's longest blog post, here are my 2017 Houston RV Show picks:

2017 CLASS B BEST FIT AND FINISH - Pleasure Way Plateau FL.  Congrats, guys.  You are the dark horse and if you keep pursuing Airstream on this selling point, you're going to kick their can all the way down the road.

2017 CLASS B MOST IMPROVED - Pleasure Way.  Before we bought our Airstream Interstate two years ago, we looked at a few Pleasure Way models and, although they had potential, the execution was too blah for us.  Boy, has Pleasure Way turned that shortcoming around.

2017 CLASS B BEST ALL-AROUND - No winner.  Irrespective of whether a rear door view is important to many buyers, every single manufacturer is still screwing up the bed - sofa execution.  Until someone surmounts this challenge, I will remain noncommittal on who I think is really poised to increase their share in that market by virtue of all-around excellence.

2017 BEST-IN-SHOW - It's not a Class B at all.  It's the Airstream Basecamp, which was the only truly innovative new product that we saw, and we looked at everything from Class A's (they all look the same) to trailers to toy haulers to toppers.   We did it all, and nothing held a candle to the Basecamp.

Thanks for reading!