After 10,000 miles of driving the Free Spirit SS, I no longer feel like a motorhome novice. From a driver’s point of view, everything about the van -- acceleration, braking, noise, stability -- is now predictable. And from a camper’s point of view, it’s easy to see both the advantages and limitations of this particular Class B motorhome. My early thoughts on these issues appeared in “The 60 day review,” and now we’ve got another four months of traveling/camping experience.
As I've mentioned previously, Leisure Travel Vans (LTV) had recently made a decision to suspend production of all their Class B vans (the three models in the Free Spirit line). The rationale was not based on sales; in fact, the Free Spirit SS was so popular that it had a 10-month backlog. However, the LTV Unity, a larger (Class C) motorhome, is their most popular model and had many more customers on a waiting list. Rather than expanding their factory, which is located in an isolated small town in Canada, LTV moved workers from the Free Spirit assembly line to the Unity assembly line to meet that demand. Construction of the Unity is also a more efficient process, since it is built on top of a cutaway Sprinter chassis and enclosed with an oversized fiberglass shell.
I certainly understand why Class C motorhomes like the Unity are popular: that larger shell creates additional interior space that eases traffic flow; the floor plans allow for different bed/bedroom arrangements and a full bathroom; and most can accommodate additional passengers. The Free Spirit SS only has seatbelts and sleeping for two people. However, the slide-out creates additional interior room when parked, and that expandable living space allows a full bathroom -- including a separate shower stall -- without losing the form factor and safety of driving a steel-shelled van. If you combine that with the usual Class B advantages of maneuverability and greater cargo weight capacity, you can understand the appeal of the Free Spirit SS. But currently it’s unavailable, at least until the enormous Unity backlog is resolved.
Let’s assume that LTV decides to restart production of the Free Spirit line sometime next year. In all of their models, the basic floor plan undergoes very little modification from year-to-year, but there are many other design and feature set changes that take place. So if you’re listening, LTV, here’s my wish list of what I would like to see changed or offered in a 2017 Free Spirit SS:
• Ducted air conditioning. The noise of the current air conditioner is my primary criticism of this motorhome; if you are standing in the galley preparing food while the A/C unit is running, you truly cannot hear anything besides the roar of the fan directly overhead. Many larger motorhomes (including the Unity) solve this problem by hiding the A/C unit behind a panel and moving the air through ducted intake and exhaust vents. Though this is a rather rare design feature on Class B motorhomes, I am sure it would significantly reduce the fan and compressor noise, and it should also will help speed up cooling of the front and rear of the coach.
• Audio/video improvements. Most of the elements of a good entertainment system are in place, but they are not properly integrated. For example, sound from FM radio, CDs, and DVDs is channeled through a very nice amplifier and speaker system, but sound from any live video broadcast (cable or over-the-air TV) can only be heard through the tiny speakers in the TV itself. There’s an HDMI switcher installed for adding in other content delivery devices, like an Apple TV or a Roku box, but it is an awkward setup: the ports for connecting devices to the switcher are hidden behind a screwed-in cabinet panel, and the audio is sent to the TV rather than to the amplifier. Fortunately, these are all very fixable problems. Even using the current components, there just needs to be more thought and planning devoted to where the audio and video should be routed, the positioning of the HDMI switcher, and the addition of an HDMI audio splitter.
• Slide-out stabilizer. The slide-out operates beautifully and has been nicely engineered, with one exception: before you start driving, you must remember to manually install a “travel lock.” This is an adjustable bar that is placed on top of the slide, wedging it so that it won’t wobble out of place while the vehicle is in motion. It requires that you stand up on the sofa, raise your head inside the skylight dome to see what you’re doing, and then position and tighten the bar into place. Really? This looks like a design afterthought, and I have to believe there’s a better way to do this without all the acrobatics. I’m sure LTV can come up with a lever or even automatic activation of a mechanism to secure the slide-out.
• Kitchen countertop extension. This is a common feature on many other small motorhomes. A pop-up extension on the door entry side of the countertop would provide more workspace and would not interfere at all with traffic flow.
• Sewer hose and storage. I’ve mentioned previously that I replaced the flimsy LTV sewer hose with a sturdier hose kit that has secure connectors on both ends as well as an adapter for tight connection to the dump station drain. LTV needs to upgrade to a system like that (it only costs about $30) and then adapt the existing hose storage compartment to accommodate these better kit components.
• Quick connect propane tap. LTV counts on propane for the water heater, the furnace, the 3-way refrigerator, the rangetop, and the generator. It would be simple for the factory to add a quick connect on the outside so that a portable grill can take advantage of the on-board propane tank.
• Built-in energy management system (EMS). I purchased a portable EMS and have plugged it in at every campsite where we need 110 V AC power. However, this should be a standard built-in feature to protect the motorhome electronics from power surges and other voltage irregularities at campgrounds.
• A quieter generator. With new electrical technology (such as lithium iron phosphate batteries) still in development and quite expensive, a generator remains the most affordable solution for operating high wattage appliances like the air conditioner and microwave oven when external power is not available. But running the Onan LP generator, like most motorhome generators, is noisy and annoying for neighboring campers. Most of the noise is being transmitted through the exhaust pipe, and I think this could be significantly reduced by installing a muffler or resonator in the generator's exhaust system.
• Suspension system improvements. I've previously reviewed the driving experience in the Free Spirit SS, and I'm still quite pleased with the overall handling, stability, and comfort level. The only aspect that could use some improvement is the side-to-side rocking that occurs when traveling over valleys or bumps at an angle. This is a common criticism of Sprinter vans and is typically solved by some combination of modified sway bars and springs.
• Seat belts for the sofa. I've put this last on the list because I am not sure this is even possible, since this is a sofa that folds out into a bed. But if it can be engineered into the sofa design, it would be great to be able to transport a couple of extra passengers (especially kids) for a day trip, and even the placement of the TV is perfect for their entertainment while traveling.