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A Beginner's Guide to Motorhomes

A Beginner's Guide to Motorhomes

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

A motorhome is an all-inclusive way to travel with your bed, living room, kitchen—even bathroom. You can tour the country and park overnight with all the conveniences of home right with you.

For many drivers, a motorhome can even be easier to drive than a truck with a travel trailer, especially when it comes to backing up and parking.

It takes some research to understand the different types of motorhomes that are available and choose the right one for your budget and plans.

The smallest ones aren't much bigger than a minivan; large diesel coaches can be as big as an interstate bus. Indeed, some companies that make buses, like Prevost, also make motorhomes.

Crashes and especially rollovers are a particular concern with motorhomes due to their size and sometimes limited occupant protection. The most common causes for rollovers include underinflated tires, tire blowouts, overcorrection or oversteering, and inexperienced drivers. (Key lesson here: Buy quality tires and inspect them regularly.)

Even though motorhomes have seats for several passengers, you don't have the same level of protection that you'd get in a pickup truck being used as a tow vehicle for a travel trailer. This is especially a concern when traveling with children, who need to be secured in car seats.

Advanced safety features are becoming commonplace in cars, but they're rare among motorhomes. That will soon change.

Ford, the primary supplier of powertrains and platforms for popular Class C motorhomes, announced that its next-generation chassis will be available with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and more for 2020, following the trend seen in cars and increasingly with commercial trucks. Class C motorhomes have a traditional van cab.

Mercedes-Benz has several advanced safety systems available on its chassis cab, the barebones chassis with the driving compartment that's supplied to RV and truck companies for conversion into motorhomes and other vehicles. And some RV makers are installing aftermarket systems. Rearview cameras are now common, and there are some models with side-view cameras to reduce blind spots.

Look for an RV with these advances, especially if you plan to own it for many years.

There are three core types of motorhomes, and each class is signified with a letter. Within each class is a wide range of sizes and prices.

The class designation describes the vehicle structure used for the motorhome's construction. While there are always variations within a theme, each class has typical accommodation and design trade-offs. Here's the most common breakdown:

Class A: Medium to large RVs. These are the bus-shaped models. The class spans from alternatives to Class C all the way to extremely luxurious and large coaches. 
Class B: Camper vans that are based on a van. These RVs are typically the most expensive per foot. They pack a lot into a small space and often are based on a Mercedes-Benz platform.
Class C: These often have a cutaway chassis with a van cab front, with an RV shell that typically includes an over-the-cab sleeping area. Class C can be the most affordable all-in-one models.

A few major RV brands dominate, such as Coachmen, Forester River, Jayco, Thor, Tiffin, and Winnebago, but there are many smaller brands to choose from.

There are some clever niche models, like Advanced RV's one-off Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van-based creations that never need to be plugged in for power. Others, like Lazy Daze, follow a traditional heritage-inspired design.

Choices aren't limited to just a brand and model of motorhome, though. A model can come in a variety of floor plans and lengths. And often there's a choice of interior décor, along with seating, entertainment, and other options.

This guide below will help you make the key decisions on the road to RV ownership.

Class A Motorhomes

Class A motorhomes offer the widest variation in size and price. They excel at providing a lot of space for their size. Many have slides, sections that can extend out when the motorhome is parked to create a wider interior.

The variety of lengths and floor plans can make choosing a Class A nearly overwhelming. Interior furnishings can range from basic to resembling a gilded yacht cabin.

A vast majority of moderately priced motorhomes are built on a Ford chassis using a gas-powered V10 engine; RV companies build out the living quarters. Larger motorhomes often use a large, commercial chassis built by Freightliner or Spartan.

A few smaller Class A motorhomes use the same chassis as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. Other companies, including the relatively affordable Tiffin brand and the top-end custom bus builders Newell and Prevost, build their own frame and use an engine from manufacturers such as Cummins or Volvo.

Motorhomes come with either gasoline or diesel engines. Gasoline engines require less expensive maintenance; you don't have to hassle with the advanced emissions systems needed to keep modern diesel engines clean. Still, diesels tend to get better fuel-economy and have more torque, which is helpful for moving that big box down the road.

The engine can be mounted in the front or the rear. A front-mounted Ford V10 is a common configuration among modestly priced Class A models. 

A rear-engined motorhome is called a "pusher" because the engine basically propels it. Pushers are almost always diesels. Generally speaking, diesel pushers are the most expensive and luxurious models. They tend to be much quieter to drive and have impressive towing capabilities.

Safety varies based on the RV design and features. The driver's portion of a Class A motorhome isn't designed to meet the same crash safety standards as the van cab found in other motorhome types. The front two seats have shoulder and lap belts, but most of the other seats in the coach only have lap belts—and can face various directions.

And advanced safety features remain uncommon in Class A motorhomes. Electronic stability control is relatively rare, and forward collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB) are recent innovations with limited availability. Motorhome buyers may want to add an aftermarket FCW system.

How are they built? They're a box on wheels. The motorhome company builds the entire body and upper structure, which is mounted atop a frame and drivetrain components from another manufacturer.

How big are they? Sizes can range from about 25 feet long up to nearly 50 feet long, but they are typically around 30 to 36 feet long. (Some national parks have limits for an acceptable RV length.)

How many can they sleep? Typically six to eight people.

How much do they cost? Prices start around $90,000 and go up to $400,000 or more for large, premium models. (Some, such as the Newmar King Aire, approach a million dollars.)



Class B Motorhomes

While Class A and Class C motorhomes cover a wide variety of designs, Class B motorhomes are rather homogeneous. That's because they're built fully within a commercial van's bodywork.

That structure strictly limits how much space you have to work with. These vans are usually less than 7.5 feet wide—a foot less than many RVs—and they're much shorter. Accommodations are more purposeful than plush; you won't find fake fireplaces or big recliners here.

But being built within that structure helps a lot with quality. After all, the exterior is completely painted metal, just as it came from Ford, Mercedes, or Ram. This reduces the chance of leaks and deterioration.

Class B vans are the safest choice for motorhomes. All of the vans have stability control and front airbags; the Mercedes is available with FCW, AEB, blind spot warning (BSW), and lane keeping assist (LKA). Class B vans can be equipped with full seat belts for multiple passengers—up to seven people, and they have front and side airbags. Given the small size, they can sometimes seat more passengers than can they can sleep.

Class B vans aren't the most generous RVs for camping, but they excel at touring. That's why they're sometimes called "traveling coaches."

In fact, some affluent families use them to shepherd kids to soccer games, and they make the ultimate tailgate party van. Driving one isn't much harder than driving a regular minivan. They just about fit in normal-sized parking spots, and you can find a suitable spot in almost every campground.

How are they built? Based on a van body shipped from the vehicle manufacturer (Ford, Mercedes-Benz, or Ram).

How big are they? Between 20 and 26 feet long, but not much wider than a minivan.

How many can they sleep? Usually only two people comfortably; sometimes four will fit.

How much do they cost? They're expensive for their size (between $85,000 and $150,000), but they hold their value better than most RVs.



Once you choose to go with a Class B, you can pick from one of three vans. Over the last decade, a vast majority of Class B motorhomes have been built with Mercedes-Benz Sprinters. But in recent years, the front-wheel-drive Ram Promaster has entered this market, and the Ford Transit is also used by some motorhome manufacturers.

There are pros and cons to each:

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter offers the longest available body length, available four-wheel-drive, a diesel engine, and a long list of available automotive-grade safety features. Most motorhome manufacturers are familiar with the van, so you'll find a wide variety of brands and floor plans. The diesel emissions system can be finicky. Because it's a Mercedes, service can be expensive, and in rural areas it can be tough to find dealers. Freightliner dealers also sell and service Sprinters. 

The Ram Promaster is considerably less expensive. It sits lower to the ground, thanks to its front-wheel-drive layout, which makes getting in and out easier. Dealers are plentiful, and service for the familiar Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine, found in hundreds of thousands of Chrysler vehicles, is relatively inexpensive. Its typically shorter length makes the Promaster easier to park, and it's wider inside than the Sprinter. The diesel engine uses an unrefined dual-clutch transmission.

The Ford Transit drives particularly well. The 3.5-liter gas-powered EcoBoost V6 engine is a powerhouse; a five-cylinder diesel is also available. Advanced safety features, such as AEB and FCW, are available on new models. A vast Ford dealer network is available in rural areas. The Transit is the best-selling van in the U.S. Relatively few motorhome builders have taken to outfitting this design.

Class C Motorhomes

Class C motorhomes are the least expensive option. They're built on a "cutaway" chassis; the front of the van remains to the end of the front doors, with only exposed framework past that point. RV manufacturers build the remaining structure and interior atop that frame.

Many Class C motorhomes have a "cab over" sleeping area, which is a bed over the front seats. That's the rooftop bulge that sticks out front. Class C motorhomes without this bed (or bulge) are increasingly common. For marketing purposes, they're often called "Class B+" motorhomes, although structurally they're in Class C.

A vast majority of Class C motorhomes are built on a Ford E-Series cutaway chassis; it's been an RV staple for very long time. A handful of Class C motorhomes are built with the front end of a pickup truck. This creates more room in the cab because the truck's engine is fully out front under the long hood.

Luxury compact Class Cs are often built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis; these are increasingly popular among Class A owners looking to downsize. A handful of Class C motorhomes are built on the Ram Promaster chassis, but its low payload capacity limits it to smaller coaches. Some manufacturers use the Ford Transit chassis, but because it has a lower payload capacity than the Ford E-Series, it too is limited to smaller coaches. Again, the next-generation Ford Transit chassis used for Class C RVs promises to offer advanced safety features.

Going the other way, "Super C" motorhomes are built on medium-duty truck platforms, just like larger moving trucks. These have beefier frames, commercial-grade engines, and much higher payload and towing ratings than other Class C motorhomes. But they're large and expensive.

The range of available lengths means that there's plenty of variety in available floor plans. And while there are a few high-end Class C builders such as Coach House, most Class C motorhomes stop short of the decadence shoppers can get in Class A coaches.

How are they built? The front and frame are from a van or truck, and the rest of the body is built by the RV manufacturer. Most use a Ford cutaway chassis with a V10 engine.

How big are they? Usually 22 to 35 feet long.

How many can they sleep? Typically four to eight people.

How much do they cost? $70,000 to $200,000.



Bottom Line

A motorhome combines the mechanics of a truck with the infrastructure and furnishings of a house. Conduct a thorough investigation of any motorhome you're considering—including whether it's new—to make sure everything works before you leave the lot. And be prepared for the demands of maintaining a motorhome.

Unlike passenger vehicles, rear seats in motorhomes aren't held to federal motor vehicle safety standards for occupant protection. Rear bench seats may have available seat belts, and these are anchored to the chassis, but they can offer a false sense of security because their wooden bench supports can collapse in a crash.

Additionally, the different configurations of the bench seats (rear- or side-facing) aren't recommended for car seats or seating passengers. The safest option for additional passengers is to ride separately in a passenger vehicle or opt for a truck and travel trailer instead.

Finally, if you buy a used motorhome, you'll find that many have surprisingly few miles on them. That doesn't mean you can relax when purchasing. Time also takes a toll on components; replacing a set of six motorhome tires because of dry rot can be costly. (And this is not an area where you'll want to scrimp.) A thorough mechanical inspection, as well as making sure that everything in the "house" part of the coach works, is important. Consider hiring an independent RV mechanic or inspector to help.

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  • Most space per foot of any motorhome type, thanks to their width and shape.
  • Variety of sizes, prices, and finish levels.
  • Diesel pusher models typically have a long life if properly maintained.
  • Can have generous storage space.
  • Typically large and bulky to drive and park.
  • Owners may want to tow a car to make getting around locally easier, but that erases the advantage of not having to tow anything.
  • May not fit in smaller campsites.
  • Relatively low fuel economy.
  • Often few seats with full seat belts (shoulder and lap belts).
  • Diesel pushers, with their commercial bus-level components, can be expensive to purchase and maintain.
  • The wide variety of chassis options means that hunting down parts for some models can become a hobby as they age. Buying a popular model from a long-established company can have its advantages.
  • Very easy to drive and park.
  • Best fuel economy of any RV; can get up to 20 mpg.
  • Full metal body construction, right from the automaker, helps durability.
  • Advanced safety equipment is available.
  • Best resale value of any RV type.
  • Not much room inside; usually only sleeps two people comfortably.
  • Short on amenities, including small bathrooms, no ovens, etc.
  • Expensive for their size.
  • Relatively few floor-plan choices.
  • Least expensive way to get a motorhome.
  • Overhead bed adds sleeping space while keeping length down.
  • Wide variety of floor plans.
  • Shorter Class C motorhomes (under 25 feet long or so) are relatively easy to drive and park.
  • Cab area can be relatively cramped due to the "doghouse" engine cover that intrudes into the space on van-based models.
  • Moderately priced cab/engine options are relatively limited.

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