How to choose the best caravan for you

By: Bill Savidan

In the market for a new caravan? Bill Savidan has the practical low-down on how to choose the best caravan for you.

When I was asked to provide a comparative review of a number of caravans on display at the recent Covi Show in Auckland, I was reminded of my dear old mum. I could hear her voice enunciating very clearly so the message was not lost: ‘comparisons are odorous’.

She was referring to comparisons, one person with another rather than one caravan with a group of others, but the expression struck a chord with me because it is not an easy task, comparing caravans. So I am not going to try to compare design, styling, colours, ambiance; matters where personal taste and even personal emotion have the final say. That’s the job of sales people.

Putting aside aspects such as aesthetics, there are other important factors to consider when selecting a caravan; the internal layout, the physical size, the overall weight loaded ready to go on holiday and the payload it can carry. After all, if your caravan-to-be won’t accommodate you, fit down your driveway or carry all your holiday equipment it is not the caravan for you.

There are five caravans under consideration. They are the New Zealand built single-axle Zephyr 560 from Leisureline and the twin-axle Kea 600 from Kea Karavans. For Leisureline the Zephyr range provides a smaller lighter weight caravan that can be towed by a family car or SUV. The Kea 600 is the latest development by Kea Karavans of a product originally created by Kea Campervans before they merged with Tourism Holdings Ltd.

From Australia we have the twin-axle Jurgens Lunagazer J2405 and the twin-axle Bailey Rangefinder Astro. Now built in Australia, Jurgens (South Africa) and the Bailey (UK) originate from countries where lightweight caravans are the norm. Both companies have adapted their products to suit the Australian market, incorporating manufacturing techniques that offer a lighter weight caravan than the traditional Australian built product.

From the UK is the single-axle Elddis Avante 550 High Country. Elddis has adapted an existing model sold on the UK market, making it more robust and better suited for the rigours of the Australian market. The ‘High Country’ version is a further refinement with subtle changes for the New Zealand market.

On their own, body length and tare weight are just numbers, but taken together they give an insight into the way the caravan manufacturer approaches the task of building caravans to meet the demands of the marketplace.

The Zephyr 560 caravan (5600mm long /1450kgs tare) is the shortest of the group with the second lightest tare weight. The Elddis Avante 550 High Country (6300mm long/1480kgs tare) is one of the longer caravans in the group and it is also the second lightest. How can that be?

Elddis has made a mission out of building lighter caravans that improve on the strength of previous models. For example, it doesn’t use bolts and screws anymore; it uses adhesives instead, as they’re lighter and stronger.

Zephyr builders, Leisureline, while incorporating traditional methods proven and refined over the past 30 years, has introduced a newly designed lighter weight chassis as well as other changes to achieve the Zephyr’s lighter tare weight.

The Jurgens Lunagazer J2405 (6325mm long/1745kgs tare) and the Bailey Rangefinder Astro (6350mm long/1800kgs tare) have similar design philosophies for the Australian market and have produced products very similar in length and tare weight.

The Kea 600 (6000mm long/1900kg tare) is the second shortest in the group but, surprisingly, has the heaviest tare of all five caravans. Kea uses a number of fibreglass mouldings in its products and this produces a heavier end-product than one of predominantly aluminium construction. However, while it is heavier, it is also very strong.

So there is a relationship between length and tare weight and it is worth exploring this aspect when choosing which caravan to buy.

Width has a bearing on how effective a layout will be and affects the three layouts on offer differently. Shortest and second widest in the group, the Zephyr 560 has twin facing settees at the front, a table between for dining, kitchen opposite the entry door and a double bed against the side wall allowing access to the rear bathroom. The maximum width means the passage to the bathroom is wider and does not become a ‘choke-point’.

The Elddis has a typical English layout with twin facing settees at the front, kitchen setup the same as the Zephyr but with an island double bed at the rear and a separate toilet stall one side, shower the other separating the bedroom from the kitchen. At 2250mm, it has the narrowest body – its ‘choke-point’ being the gap between the shower and toilet. However, this is not a high traffic area so lack of width is not an issue.

The Jurgens, Bailey and Kea have a distinctly Australian layout that has a bathroom across the rear, a kitchen bench opposite a dinette amidships and an island double bed at the front. The Bailey, the Jurgens and the Kea all have this layout. This layout works well in all of these caravans because it is not width sensitive.

Two caravan weights, the GVW and the tow ball weight, determine what size vehicle you need to tow your caravan-to-be. GVW stands for the Gross Vehicle Weight and represents the manufacturer’s maximum loaded weight for the caravan. The tow-ball weight, often referred to as the nose weight, is the downward pressure in kilograms the caravan hitch exerts on the tow-ball of the tow vehicle. Travelling with an incorrect nose weight can greatly affect the handling of your caravan when being towed.

So before buying a caravan, you need to know if the vehicle you propose to tow it with can handle it. The safest way to find out is to contact the local agent for your brand of vehicle and provide him with your vehicles VIN number so he can check and let you know the maximum weight it can tow and the maximum nose weight it can bear.

Using my own car as an example, a 2008 Passat two-litre turbo diesel auto, the only one of the five caravans in the group I could consider is the Elddis Avante 550 High Country. Its GVW of 1800kg is the maximum the Passat can tow and the 70kg nose weight is 10kg below the maximum the Passat can handle.

GVW minus Tare weight equals payload. In general terms this statement is correct, however some manufacturers include in the tare weight items other manufacturers regard as payload. For example the Elddis includes in its tare weight of the Avanti 550 High Country a host of items other retailers may say are part of the payload, including a roof mounted aircon, a solar panel, a satellite dish, a 19-inch TV and a full 9kg LPG bottle.

So, to get a precise payload figure for the model you are buying you need to clarify this aspect with the salesperson you are dealing with. Two caravans, the Zephyr and the Jurgens have the same payload; 400kgs each. The Bailey and the Kea each have a 500kg payload and the Elddis, as described above, has a (residual) payload of 320kg. Most buyers will find these payloads more than adequate.

Comparisons are difficult if not ‘odorous’ but they have to be done if you want to be sure you buy the caravan that best suits your purpose.

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