How to tell your A-Class from your Van Conversion…
By Richard Robertson
Even if you're not new to the wonderful world of RVs, it's still easy to be confused by the jargon used to classify the different types. Added to that is the fact this jargon varies country to country. Australia has traditionally taken its RV design cues from America, but European influence is on the rise and its design terms are creeping into our vernacular.
This guide is intended as a relatively simple explanation of which apples are apples and which are oranges, depending on where the tree grows (if you catch my drift). It's also worth remembering there are no absolutes and you can refer to any RV by any name you like. However, to avoid confusion when talking to others, especially when on the lookout for a new vehicle, it's best to stick to these terms…
As mentioned, we’ve traditionally used American classifications to describe our motorhomes. That was fine until about a decade ago, when European manufacturers began making their presence felt across the Atlantic. Until then, American – and therefore Australian – motorhomes were usually classified like this:
A-Class: Bus-style motorhomes that represent the last word in size, luxury and prestige – think Meet the Fockers. However, within this general classification are two main sub-divisions: Diesel Pushers and ‘Gassers’:
- Diesel Pushers are the pinnacle of A-Class motorhoming and have a diesel engine at the rear. This means that when you were driving it's very quiet up-front and, being a diesel, you’re getting the best fuel economy for the vehicle’s size. Just like an interstate touring coach, these A-Classes ride on air suspension, and you sit ahead of the front axle for a comfortable, air-cushioned ride. Very nice!
- Gassers are petrol-powered A-Classes with the engine up-front and the occupants sitting over it and the front axle (which has traditional steel spring suspension). Whilst looking almost identical to a Diesel Pusher, Gassers are very much the poor cousin in the A-Class world and therefore cheaper. Not so nice – except on your bank balance!
Inside, however, Diesel Pushers and Gassers can be virtually identical, so if the driving and travelling experience isn't a priority, a Gasser can certainly be the affordable way to go. Both are usually very good at towing cars on an A-Frame (such cars are called Toads), boats or trailers. Occasionally you might come across a front-engined diesel A-Class, but these are pretty rare. Like a Gasser their ride quality is pretty ordinary while engine noise is even louder, but a least the diesel’s economy helps compensate. Think of them as a bridge between worlds and a slight improvement over the Gasser.
While Australians and Americans agree on what an A-Class motorhome is, in Europe the design is usually known an Integrated (meaning the body and chassis appear to be one unit). It’s a pretty good definition and removes any concept that an A-Class is best and a C-Class is worst, because A is better than C. Very egalitarian!
C-Class: In America – and therefore Australia – traditionally, if you didn't drive an A-Class you drove a C-Class motorhome. C-Class motorhomes look like a truck with a motorhome body built on the back that has a piece over the cab as a bedroom (this extension is known as a Luton Peak in the UK, but that's another story!). An easy way to remember what a C-Class is, is to think of C for cab-over bed.
Cheaper but not always much smaller than an A-Class, C-Class motorhomes form the backbone of both American and Australian RV fleets, and can be just as luxurious inside. In America, C-Class motorhomes have traditionally been built on big Ford F-Series cab-chassis, but smaller and much more fuel-efficient and technically advanced European cab-chassis from Mercedes-Benz, Fiat and others are making significant inroads.
Again, Europeans usually refer differently to this style of motorhome, calling them Semi-Integrated. Fiat’s Ducato is the most popular cab-chassis (along with badge-engineered versions called the Citroen Jumper and Peugeot Boxer). Mercedes-Benz’ Sprinter sits in second place, with a scattering of other makes and models in distant places beyond…
B-Class: The majority of European motorhomes are built on one of the light-truck cab-chassis mentioned above, but don’t have over-cab sleeping. Instead, the body blends smoothly with the cab to create a more streamlined and, arguably, attractive motorhome.
In Australia we call such vehicles B-Class motorhomes. However, Americans still call them C-Class and the Europeans still call them Semi-Integrated. To further complicate matters, in American a B-Class motorhome is what we call a Van Conversion, which we’re coming to. So much for international harmony...
Van Conversions: When is a Campervan a Motorhome? When it has a bathroom! That’s the distinction between a Campervan and a Van Conversion motorhome. At least, that’s what we use in Australia. In America, Van Conversions are usually called B-Class Motorhomes, but can also be referred to as Campervans, whether they have a bathroom or not. Meanwhile in Europe, such vehicles are usually just called Campervans – bathroom or no bathroom. Got it?
This ‘cross-pollination’ of terms in this class is also evident in Australia, with some manufacturers calling their van conversions Motorhomes, while others use Campervan. In Australia, Fiat’s Ducato van is the most popular for a motorhome conversion, followed by Mercedes-Benz’ Sprinter, with Renault’s Master in third place.
Campervans: A van to complement the camping lifestyle, Campervans are generally the smallest RVs on the road – think Toyota HiAce and VW Transporter. Most have elevating roofs of some style (pop-top, hinged at one end or even along the side) for stand-up headroom and while many are designed to carry a Porta-Potti and have an outdoor shower, there’s no privacy for the user.
Fixed high-roofs are common amongst rental campervans, but not so popular with private buyers. Campervans are occasionally referred to as Camping Cars, although this can also be a sub-category specifically meaning a people mover or station wagon adapted to camping, and this term is rare in Australia.
The advantage of a Campervan is it can usually be used as a daily driver and fits a standard six-metre car space (as do some smaller Van Conversions). They can also double as a small van for carrying bulky goods and some also work as a people mover for smaller families. While many people travel around Australia in them, most are used for weekend getaways and shorter holidays. The disadvantage of a Campervan is having limited internal room for sitting-out bad weather, little insulation and comparatively little storage or room for wet/muddy clothes.
So there you have it: A semi-definitive guide to the classification of motorised RVs in Australia, America and Europe. Like language, terms evolve over time and will continue to do so. For now, however, you can feel pretty confident ‘talking the talk’ with RV manufacturers, dealers and fellow enthusiasts. Enjoy!