SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
After testing autos and trucks for nearly three years, it was time to do something different, evaluate an RV. But not just an ordinary RV, but one that makes sense for those who already own the platform, a heavy duty pickup truck. The answer was a cab over "camper". After researching several different brands and models, the one that always seemed to be at the top of the charts was the Alpenlite Limited Series. I arranged with the factory to spend some quality time to examine the virtues of what many consider, the finest camper in production.
When thinking about a camper (which is actually a misnomer, as it turns a pickup into a small motor home), one would never expect that such a unit could offer so much room in so little space. When I picked up the rig at the factory in Yakima, Washington, I was immediately impressed by the appearance. This is no ordinary camper. It was placed on a 2000 Ford SuperDuty F-350 SuperCab 4X2 and when combined with the Alpenlite, it turned the pickup into that virtual motor home. It was magnificent.
The shape is helped by the slightly raised roof in the cab over section. The rounded and curved shape of the side view and sleek looking front cap makes the Alpenlite stand out in a crowd. But the shape tells you that it not only is different on the outside, but the manufacturing process itself is unique.
Nearly every part is built from scratch at the factory. The outside walls are made from a special process and are finished in exquisite gleaming gelcoat exactly like a top quality fiberglass boat or yacht. Internal components like the wiring harness are all designed and built at the factory. Quality control is enhanced, specifications are never compromised and maintenance becomes easier.
The frame structure, which is exclusive to the Alpenlite Limited Series, is not wood framed. There is no rotting of this camper. Instead, the Alpenlite Limited uses as its backbone for all structural members completely welded aircraft quality 6005 T-5 aluminum tube framing. It's 17% stronger than a comparable wood structure while maintaining higher mechanical properties. There are no screws, staples or glue to work loose over time. The walls are vacuum bonded, laminated with polystyrene block foam and fiberglass. It feels like the door to Fort Knox.
The windows are all SolarCool mirror reflective glass that is 33% thicker than other models. It blocks 63% of infrared radiation meaning lower interior temps on sunny days and 94% of ultraviolet radiation. The roof is nearly three inches thick and is crowned to shed water rapidly. Leaking is out of the question with a special Brite-Ply seamless rubber roof membrane that is installed without staples and is warranted for 12 years. It sure beats a tent in a rainstorm. It actually beats a tent in any weather or a motel "whatever" for that matter.
At 19 feet 7 inches in length, the nomenclature of Pendleton 11 needs some explaining. Actually the 11 comes from the interior floor length of 11 feet 10 inches. Western Recreational Vehicles Alpenlite Laredo 10 model has an interior floor length of 10 feet 11 inches. Dry weight of the Pendleton is 2,933 pounds but when you add water, and it takes plenty of it, and household items, you could easily be at 3,500 pounds. When you combine that with a 5,300 pound pickup and then add fuel and passengers, you are a tad over 9,000 pounds which is still well under the gross vehicle weight rating of 9,900 pounds.
The first benefit of this rig is the performance. It was powered by Ford's 6.8L V-10 which puts out 310 hp at 4.250 rpm and 425 pounds of torque at 3,250 rpm. Without one of the biggest of campers being saddled on its back, the big Ford will do 0-60 in about 9 seconds flat with a 4.30 axle. With the Alpenlite aboard, that time only slows to 13.3 seconds. It feels anything but lethargic. Passing times are also quite reasonable, with 50-70 coming up in 9.6 seconds and doing that up a grade will slow the time to 13.2 seconds.
I timed an actual pass starting at about 50 mph and was able to pull out, pass and pull safely back into traffic in just 7.4 seconds. Acceleration from 40-60 required only 8.1 seconds. There are some minivans out there that can't match that performance. And this is a motor home. No need to floor the accelerator to ascend grades, and when cruising at 70 mph, you forget that you are driving a motor home that doubles as a pickup for the majority of the time. In one stretch while ascending a six percent grade, the unit easily maintained 70 mph.
If you compare that to a $75,000, 32 foot, 16,000 pound motor home with the same powerplant, 0-60 times will run a tick or two over 20 seconds, passing times will be twice as long and ascending a long grade will slow you to well under 50 mph. Expect fuel economy in the 6 mpg range. Although the 32 footer may be bigger, it has the same size water heater, a slightly bigger refrigerator (2 cubic feet more) and carries only about 20 gallons more freshwater.
Fuel economy for the Alpenlite set up averaged 10.1 mpg for the 1,000 miles that this rig covered over a variety of roads ranging from the super slab to narrow two lanes twisties. The Ford was helped by the installation of rear air bags but you can feel the camper if you push it hard in the corners. It will never be mistaken for a birdcage Maserati, but it doesn't hold up traffic either. Most twisties could be comfortably handled at speeds that were 5-10 mph over the yellow warning signs. Impressive.
I would expect similar performance from a C3500 Chevrolet with the 290 hp 7.4L V-8 (or the new for 2001 340 hp 8.1L V-8) or a heavy duty Dodge 8.0L V-10 which also puts out 310 hp.
It's what's inside that makes this rig so special. The layout or floor plan of the Pendleton offers room for a family of four easily. It can actually sleep six. Entry is through the rear with a flip down step making that task a cinch. Just operating the door handle lets you know immediately of the quality that awaits. Once inside, it is hard to believe you are standing in the rear of a pickup truck. With nearly 8 feet of interior width and over 19 feet in length, it is anything but small. The interior of my test unit was done in solid oak and raised panel doors, with fit and finish that would rival the best of kitchens. Door frames are all screwed and glued. Yes, they are manufactured from scratch in Western RV's Yakima, Washington factory by master craftsmen to exacting specifications. It's that nice. Even the door hardware has a rich feel. Just a side note, for 2001, ash and alder will be used. It has a lighter, smoother look. It is a nice change.
There is a large wardrobe to the left of the entry door and to the right is a dry bath, meaning there is a separate stall shower, commode and vanity. The shower stall is manufactured from scratch in-house and the fit and finish is perfect. With a six gallon water heater, my wife and I were able to take showers one after the other. No hot water shortage and it only takes about ten minutes to heat it.
Forward of this area to the left is the kitchen complete with an overhead microwave ($211 option), three burner propane cook top, Wedgewood oven, a pantry and plenty of storage in cabinets. Counter tops were Wilson Art laminate. But the best wasn't evidently good enough for Alpenlite, because in 2001 the company is switching to a Corian-like material called GraniteCoat. It has the look of granite with the durability of iron and it is another industry first.
The kitchen sink was a large dual porcelain unit with quality plumbing fixtures and plenty of counter space for making meals.
On the other side is a four place dinette that makes into a double bed in a nanno second. It's called a rollover and it works by simply pulling the seatback from the wall and it literally rolls over to fit perfectly next to the lower seat cushion. The operating hardware and Flexsteel mechanism is bullet proof. I can attest to its comfort and sleeping quality. I spent eight nights and awoke every morning rested and refreshed, ready for another day of exploring. And it sleeps two.
Ahead of the dinette/sofa is the 6-cubic-foot Domestic refrigerator with top freezer, a three way unit that works off DC, AC or LPG. It switches automatically between gas and AC, but while on gas mode, it used only about a cubic foot of gas (it comes with two 7.5 gallons LPG tanks) for the week and it nearly froze the milk in the refrigerator section. I had it on maximum cold.
In the cab over section is the "master bedroom". There is enough headroom to fully sit up as long as your are not Michael Jordan. The Bodyrest innerspring queen size mattress is as good as anything I have slept on. There is enough wardrobe and storage behind all those beautiful cabinets to keep any clothes horse happy.
Between the "master bedroom" and "living room is a cabinet on the upper left side that holds your television. There is a built in co-axial cable fitting and with an optional amplified rotatable Winngard antenna on the roof, it can really pull in the signal. There is even a built-in tiedown for the TV when your on the road. A Kenwood AM/FM stereo with cassette is standard and CD optional. There are speakers everywhere.
Living in this unit for eight straight days was as good if not better than any motel. With only one or two people inside, the room is plentiful. It feels big. Alpenlite has done everything right. Nothing feels cheap. The light fixtures, the miniblinds, the window treatments, the upholstery, the cabinet hardware and even the walls are all what you would expect in your own home. This unit exudes quality.
When you add my two kids to the mix, everyone has to watch their step, but the answer is to send the kids upstairs to the master bedroom. But the benefits are many.
Camp sites are very inexpensive. At the state parks in Washington, it averaged about $17 a day with full hookups. that means you can connect your camper to electricity, water and sewer. Once hooked up, your camper becomes a regular home. But even without a hookup, it operates like a home. The holding tanks and freshwater supply are good for at least three days and the two deep cycle batteries provide plenty of power even for the TV for several hours (the TV could operate on 12V DC as well as 110AC). If the batteries run low, there is the option of starting you vehicle to charge them back up. They charge whenever you are on the road or plugged into up to 110AC.
When you camp you are not cooped up in a hotel room and never have to carry your bags from the car to the room. How many times have you dreaded that? And most state parks and KOAs have some of the best real estate in the country. Your balcony is the forest or the seashore. I know it only gets 10 mpg, but Al Gore gotta love the convenience and ability to commune so closely and directly with nature.
Setting up at a campsite takes about two minutes. First you should park the unit as level as possible. Then the four electric jacks at each corner are lowered via a remote control unit to steady the camper while parked. It's so easy to use, my 6-year old and 9-year old would fight over who got to operate the jacks. If there are hook ups, plug in and attach to the water supply at the camp site (the hose unit is standard). I kept the sewer hose packed until I was ready to leave at which time it would take about five minutes to empty the holding tanks.
But Alpenlite makes camping or traveling easy. First you can always keep it stocked with utensils and necessities. So when you are ready to go, just pack your clothes and some food and then attach the camper which is much easy than one would think. Simply back the truck under the camper, raise the electric jacks, attach four turnbuckles and plug it in to the truck electrical. The whole process takes about 15 minutes. And you have just turned your pickup truck into an Alpenlite RV.
With a camper, you are not limited on the highway to any speed restrictions as with a trailer. Maneuverability is much greater as the turning circle of the unit is about 50 feet and parking on the street or in parking lots proved to be no problem with an overall length of about 23 feet. You can also tow your boat, jet skis, horse trailer or motorcycles with a hitch extender.
When I begrudgingly returned the unit to the factory, I had used only about a fourth of the natural gas (about 4 gallons) and that includes running the refrigerator, using the stove, making hot water every day and using the heater in the camper on a couple of chilly nights. I only had to dump the black holding tank once at the end of the trip and dump gray water (shower, sink usage) three times. Three days without any hookup for a family of four should be easy. With an optional generator, it would be easier.
One nice feature for that day at the beach or before letting your dirty kids into the living room is the outside shower for $90. It is stowed in its own outside locking compartment with a flush door and it has hot water.
Alpenlite offers a 2.5kw Onan LPG generator for $3,017 or a 3.4kw Generac LPG generator for $2,866, both built into the lower right side of the unit. But if you really need to carry extra independent electrical power, you could buy a small Honda 600 watt unit for well under a $1,000 just for back up, but it won't run the roof AC which is a $618 option. But even when the temp was warm, the optional ($201) Fantastic Fan located in the center roof vent did a great job, just like a whole house fan on a summer night. But those big generator units could be useful when PG&E has another power outage, because 2.5kw or a 3.4 kw unit could power your house in a pinch. Something to think about for emergencies.
Prices start for the Limited Series at $17,834 for the Odessa 9 (which has a floor length of 9'10"). A Deluxe Series Alpenlite Tahoe 8DX (floor length 8'6") starts at $13,516. An entry level "L" series starts at $11,038.
But the big Pendleton 11 only lists for $18,389 or about $650 more than the Odessa 9. In fact the Laredo 10 lists for $18,580 which is more than the bigger Pendleton because it has more cabinetry.
My unit came with 15 optional items totaling only $2,249. I have listed those items in the specifications and would recommend every one, except maybe the 25,000 btu furnace. The way it performed (it took about five minutes to get the place reasonably warm), the 18,000 btu unit should be plenty powerful, but its only an $81 issue.
If you have never considered a camper, but thought about a small RV, this unit will change your mind and leave you with change in your pocket. It is a great way to get reacquainted with your family.
Specifications Price Range $13,516 to about $25,000 Pendleton 11 $18,389 Platform-not included in price Ford F 350 4X2 SuperDuty SuperCab Pickup Engine 6.8L SOHC V-10 310 hp @ 4,250 rpm 425 lbs-ft of torque @ 3,250 rpm Transmission 4 speed electronically controlled automatic Truck dimensions Wheelbase 158 inches Length 243.2 inches Width 79.9 inches Weight 5,300 pounds Alpenlite Pendleton 11 Dimensions Length 19'7" Width 7'11" Height 7'3" Interior Headroom 6'6" Interior Floor Length 11'10" Center of Gravity 51.5" Dry Weight 2,933 pounds LPG capacity 10 gallons std, 15 gallons optional Water heater capacity 6 gallons Fresh water 38 gallons Gray water 23 gallons Black water 24 gallons Performance, Ford F350 0-60 13.3 seconds 40-60 8.1 seconds 50-70 9.6 seconds 50-70 uphill 13.2 seconds Top Speed The rev limiter interrupts such foolishness at about 97 mph. Fuel Economy About 10-11 mpg. Manufacturer-Alpenlite Western Recreational Vehicles Yakima, Washington 800-777-4133 Manufacturer-Ford Truck Ford Motor Company Dearborn, Michigan Options with test unit Generator ready $413 Rear Awning 234 6 Cu Ft Refrig (5 cu ft std) 215 Microwave 211 Fan-Tastic Fan with Thermostat 201 Remote electric jacks 194 6 gal auto ign dsi wtr heater 152 Enclosed & heated hold tanks 140 TV Antenna 134 Outside shower 90 25,000 BTU heater 81 Solid waste tank flush 61 Rvia Seal surcharge 44 Water heater by-pass 35 Sleeper Ext vent cover 32 Washington Code tag 12 Total options $2,249