- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Many recreational vehicles are thought of as pure highway cruisers fit only to drive into a paved, developed campground. That’s an accurate assessment, but the Sportsmobile company breaks the mold with 4WD Class B (van conversion) motorhomes.

Sportsmobile developed its own 4WD conversion for the Ford E350 vans on which the motorhome is based. The Ford has a power train that can tackle any trail the conversion van owner wishes to take on.

Sportsmobile offers general design starter packages, but most models are custom from the ground up to match the customer’s desires. Sportsmobile’s proprietary 4WD system is so well designed that law enforcement and government agencies needing a Ford van-based 4WD unit are regular customers.

Virtually any power train, body style, comfort or convenience option available on Ford vans can be ordered to start with. Our test rig, the RB-50 model, used Ford’s 6.0-L PowerStroke turbo diesel backed by the 4-speed automatic transmission in the standard-length van body. The manual-shift 2-speed transfer case controls are located next to the driver’s seat for convenient access.

Our coach was fitted with a fold-down roof that lifts to provide extra interior head space when parked and folds flat for good aerodynamics when traveling. The fiberglass roof is surrounded by a fabric sidewall section that includes large zip-open screened plastic windows with privacy shades.

With the top up, removable padded panels fit into place at the van’s original roof level and provide a luxurious, albeit narrow, penthouse sleeping space. Zip open the windows and it’s the next best thing to sleeping outdoors.

Buyers can choose any number of electric, propane or diesel-fuel appliances. Our rig had a 2.7 cubic-foot electric refrigerator that operated on 12 volts DC, a diesel-fueled Espar Airtronic furnace that’s expensive at about $2,674 but very effective and quiet, and is used as a water heater that employs a heat-exchanger with the engine coolant.

Self-containment features included a 16-gallon freshwater tank, solar panels with a charger and a Tripp-Lite 2kW inverter and a heavy-duty absorption glass mat battery. A built-in propane tank provides fuel for the removable propane stove via quick-connect fittings. A Porta Potti storage area is standard, but you can choose a freshwater flusher with black tank as desired, depending on the floor plan details.

The modest kitchen array inside featured a decent range of storage spaces and a clear countertop area, but we did most of our cooking outdoors on the fire or using the door-mounted storage unit. Flip-down work surfaces and built-in storage make the door unit handy and practical.

Users won’t lack for electronic amusement in the Sportsmobile. A full-featured GPS unit, CB radio and DVD player with surround sound are among the van’s accessories.

Making comfortable use of a smaller RV like this one takes some practice. By a judicious use of duffel bags and packing no more than was needed, and shuffling items back and forth as needed during meals or sleep time, we found the Sportsmobile comfortable and cozy during our five-day excursion.

Driving the 4WD rig isn’t as bad as you might think. Yes, the front leaf springs and solid axle provide a firm, crisp, truck-like ride, but it’s not rough. When the rig is made for serious off-pavement travel you need to expect that it will not be Cadillac-smooth. Steering is tight and stable, and the brakes draw the rig down in short order with the pavement grip provided by the optional BF Goodrich 315-series 18-inch tires.

If things get out of hand off the pavement, the optional Warn M12,000 winch helps drag the coach back to solid ground. Hella 500 fog lamps and auxiliary back lamps ensure the driver can see what’s out there.

It’s tough to pin down a price on a typical Sportsmobile because each one is usually custom. The one featured here is stickered at $100,147 and was equipped with about every option in the book. If an adventure-oriented RV sounds better than a pavement cruiser, this may be the ticket.

Photo courtesy Jeff Johnston.

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