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September 9, 2011 1:00 AM

Less is more: RV sales are up, but sizes are shrinking


The Airstream Interstate and Winnebago Via are both based off the Sprinter Van by Mercedes-Benz.


The Fleetwood Storm is a smaller option for RV buyers. (Fleetwoood)

Not noticing the usual convoy of motor homes headed for vacation spots this summer? That may be because RVs are getting smaller.

While sales of traditional motor homes have grown at a respectable 6.2 percent rate for the first six months of the year, two smaller classes encompassing large van conversions have grown nearly twice as fast, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association reports.

"The era of 'bigger is better' and more ostentatious" is over, says RVIA President Richard Coon. Now, "the trend is toned down quite a bit."

Picking an RV

The many styles, sizes and types of recreational vehicles are generally broken into two groups: motor homes and towable RVs. Some of the most common in the two categories:

  • Motor homes Class A: Often referred to as condos on wheels, these motor homes resemble buses and typically offer luxurious accommodations. Built on a specially designed motor-vehicle chassis, they range in size from 21 feet to 45 feet and can tow a vehicle. They run from about $50,000 to $750,000 or more.
  • Class B: Also known as van campers, this class includes converted Sprinter vans. These RVs are easy to drive, sleep up to four and generally range in price from $45,000 to $95,000 or more.
  • Towable RVs
    Fifth wheel: This type of travel trailer is pulled with a special hitch that sits inside the bed of a pickup. The hitch makes the trailer more stable and easier to maneuver than a traditional tow. The space over the hitch is used to offer spacious, multilevel floor plans. They can range in length from 21 feet to 45 feet, and in price from $13,000 to $100,000 or more.
  • Travel trailer: Trailers that are towed from a rear hitch can come in a multitude of sizes and layouts, and with a wide range of amenities. Depending on size, they can often be towed with an SUV or even a car. They can sleep up to 10 and run from $8,000 to $80,000.
  • Folding camping trailer: Also know as tent campers or pop-up campers, these trailers are lightweight and can be towed by almost any vehicle. Their small size makes them better for remote locations. They can sleep up to eight and average $7,000 to $14,000.

Blame the economy and gas prices, but also retirees who have decided they don't need rolling McMansions for status in otherwise hard times.

"Fuel prices are driving it, but this is a cultural shift," says Bob Wheeler, CEO of Airstream, which converts delivery-van-style Mercedes-Benz Sprinters into low-key motor homes. "There's a shift away from conspicuous consumption."

Though his units are priced upwards of $125,000, Wheeler says they typically don't have the fancy exteriors of larger homes: "No flashy paint job," he says. Rather, it's "understated elegance" -- and up to 18 mpg from its diesel engine, triple the gas mileage of some big gasoline-powered motor homes.

Even in the bigger vehicle classes, some RVers are downsizing. RV maker Fleetwood says many buyers who formerly would have opted for 36-footers or bigger are now buying its 28- to 32-foot Storm line, which starts at about $92,000, says Lenny Razo, eastern regional sales director.

Many buyers "are getting older, and they don't need as much" space, Razo says.
Winnebago, too, has introduced more lower-priced motor homes and fuel-saving diesels. "In the last couple of years, people are wanting value products, not necessarily all the bells and whistles," says spokeswoman Sheila Davis.