LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Being green may not be easy but going green requires a lot more effort.
Consumers, still reeling from the pain at the pump, are demanding vehicles that not only use less fuel but also that leave less of a footprint on the environment. As this desire for a greener lifestyle grows, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association sees an opportunity for its manufacturers and dealers to attract new customers and spark additional sales.
RV makers at the 46th Annual National RV Trade Show are displaying lightweight towables which can be hauled by smaller vehicles and, therefore, burn less fuel. In addition some companies are showcasing motorized RVs that get almost 20 miles per gallon while two manufacturers, Winnebago Industries and Fleetwood RV, have each unveiled a Class A electric-hybrid motorhome.
Middlebury-based Jayco Inc. is introducing 25 new models including the Precept, a Class C that averages between 16 and 18 miles per gallon and a line of lightweight travel trailers.
For these units, a crew from Jayco attended a trade show in Germany and then took a two week tour of European manufacturing facilities in order to learn how to design features for a more compact space. The team has been busy in recent months creating the new RVs.
"I can't wait until the industry picks up so I can slow down," quipped Paul Gardner, director of product development at Jayco.
A hybrid RV is an idea the engineers at Winnebago have kicked around for a couple of years, said Gregory Schulz, chassis and electrical design engineering manager. When Freightliner rolled out the ecoFRED rail chassis that is powered through a combination of diesel fuel and batteries earlier in 2008, the team moved from idea to concept vehicle.
"It's always kind of neat when you can look at new trends and move the industry forward a little bit," Schulz said.
The Adventurer Hybrid, its name prominently positioned on front of the vehicle, is a fully-equipped Class A with all the comforts of the non-hybrid models. How fuel efficient the unit has not been determined but the retail cost of the unit could be about $40,000 more, Shulz said.
Putting the word "hybrid" on any RV will sell the unit, said Bill Hawley, of Hawley Brothers dealership in Dodge City, Kan., because "green people will spend any amount necessary." But he doubts hybrid engines will conserve as much fuel in highway travel and if the higher price tags for the vehicles will still attract consumers when fuel prices settle.
With 34 years in the RV business, Hawley, sporting a cowboy hat, said every fuel crisis has invoked fears that "the sky is falling and chickens are going to fly backward." Although the industry responds with something to calm those concerns, people tend to forget their worries and revert to old buying habits when the situation returns to normal.
"Things have a way of coming and going," Hawley said.
For the Precept to get almost eight miles more per gallon than a traditional motorhome, Jayco shrank the product. The interior, with its European-inspired curved cabinetry, has a sleek appearance but the overall shorter length of the RV and the one small slideout creates a limited space. Indeed one of the corners of the double bed had to be cut off and rounded so as to make way for the entrance into the bathroom.
"You have to give something up," Gardner said.
Ralph Laurino, manager at Bill's Vacation Trailers, Inc., in Lindenhurst, N.Y., is not convinced consumers will like the RVs that have cramped interiors. People are getting bigger and rounder, Laurino said, and do not want to spend time in tight quarters.
On the other hand, Laurino acknowledged that building more fuel efficient RVs would enable customers to take more trips since they will be spending less on gasoline or diesel fuel.
After seeing its hybrid chassis for the walk-in van industry gain a solid marketshare, Freightliner is confident "green is here to stay," said Jennifer Edwards, spokeswoman. The company is planning to start producing the RV hybrid chassis during the second quarter of 2009.
Once that chassis is available, Schulz said Winnebago would then consider offering the hybrid motorhome in its product line.
The green wave sweeping the RV industry illustrates manufacturers' ability to create new product in a down market, Gardner said. The industry is flexible and can turn out products quickly.
"For Jayco this is our biggest year with new products at the show," he said. "When times get tough, what sells is innovative products."