AT endeavours to conclude which is roomier, faster and ultimately better in the ultimate road test.
Winnebago Vs Maerati
It’s on. Which is faster? Which is better? Which is roomier and has far more cupboards? All is revealed in AT’s ultimate road test.
Holidaying in a rented Winnebago is like taking your lounge room for a drive. Presuming your lounge room also has a shower, toilet, stove, sink, fridge, a couple of beds and gigantic wing mirrors.
You can pull over literally any time you want for a cup of tea, a sandwich and a game of Scrabble. You’ve got little windows with curtains. Gas and electricity. Couches. Annex. Foldout chairs. Cups and saucers. You may not be able to go full-on bumpy off-road, but who cares? No destination is too far when you’re already inside your comfy accommodation. Buy an empty block of land with a power point and a letterbox and your retirement problems are solved. Permanently.
Holidaying in a rented Maserati, on the other hand, is like descending from the clouds amid the blast of trumpets, the thrust of retros, and intoning “take me to your leader!” to the scurrying earthlings. This is a car that causes a commotion.
But it’s not a competition. How can it be? Extreme comfort and practicality versus extreme comfort and space age marvellousness? You could more easily compare chalk to cheese. Each vehicle has its good and bad points. For instance: in both, you will get stared at. In both, ownership alone immediately makes you a member of two distinct but exclusive clubs: the extremely useful Winnebago RV Club on the one hand, and the “look at me, I earn $350k-plus per year” club on the other. And in both you’ll have an absolute ball, whether alone or with travel companions.
For this test, I’m allowing myself only three days with each vehicle. The Winnebago gets to go to an RV Club Gathering on the NSW mid-north coast. The Maserati is going to Tassie on one of the last trips offered by the Spirit of Tasmania III (may she rest in peace), then being worked into a frenzy on the island’s northeast loop. (And that one’s with my Dad as co-pilot, as a early Fathers Day treat.)
Start your engines.
It’s just past dawn in Bridport, cute coastal town in Tasmania’s northeast, and landscape photographer Jeff Jennings is angry. Logging giant Gunns is burning off again. Huge swathes of countryside are invisible through thick smoke, roads close, it’s no way to live. Jeff’s conflicted, though, because the smoke makes his photos look unbelievable. As he’s leaving, I catch him taking a shot of the Maserati. He says he can’t help it – at this moment our Quattroporte is surely the only one of its kind on the island. It’s a reaction the car will evoke time and again over the next few days.
Heading now to the far east coast, the winding, mountainous climb to St Helens is narrow and hazardous from all the oversized rigs carrying mining equipment or freshly felled logs. The Maserati leaps from hill to hill. The phrase “she corners on rails” springs to mind, and I realise I’ve never truly understood it before now. Why would I? I’ve never driven a car that moves like a bullet train.
At Darlington Beach Resort, about 30km past Coffs Harbour, Winnebago RV Club manager Keith Smith is welcoming me to my plug-in resort parking space (with ensuite) and showing me how to work my foldout annex. It turns out to be remarkably simple, and within moments I’m relaxing on an easy chair with my ’Bago happily sucking up juice from the mains.
I was worried about reversing in, but it’s a breeze. My 18ft (5.5m) Leisure Seeker is one of the smallest put together by Winnebago and, with a little heightened care, handles no differently than anything else on the road. You don’t need a special licence. There’s never a moment when you don’t feel as though you’re just driving a slightly less manoeuvrable car: power-assisted steering, plenty of vision out the back and sides, plenty of pick-up from traffic lights – and plenty of respect on the road.
That’s one thing you’ll notice on the highways and byways: along with envy, a Winnebago commands respect. Anyone who spots you instantly knows you’re going somewhere fascinating, that you’re as widely travelled as they come, and that your lodgings are already sorted well in advance.
Out on the road, you’ll also get your fair share of startled stares if [a] you’re behind the wheel and under 55 years of age, and [b] you overtake people going 130km/h. I’m not about to tell Keith that, though. Do I really want to get kicked out of the club this early? I just got here, and happy hour is about to start.
Tasmania’s is an English patchwork countryside. Lush, like Victoria in winter, only more so. Every roadside bush houses a cloud of finches, a family of blue wrens or a fat resident robin. And what’s more, we can hear them from inside the car, which shouldn’t be possible. We’re moving now, flicking from carpeted fields to thick forest, the ferns and moss-covered million-year-old myrtles closing in. The Derby Tin Mine flashes past. The road east to Weldborough Pass is short, tight and twisting. The car loves it, but not as much as Dad, who “volunteers” to take the wheel for a stretch.
“I’ve seen tests on the Autobahn,” he says, “where two people set out at the same time, one driving foot-to-the-floor, the other sitting on the speed limit. The first guy arrives only seven minutes faster, but uses 80 percent more fuel.”
Interesting. “So you’re saying we should take it easy?”
There’s a pause while Dad adjusts his glasses. “Where’s the fun in that?” he says and floors it. A few moments later we’re miles away and gaining speed. Dozing cows look up with mild interest as we pass, but don’t know what to make of it all. The temperature changes as dramatically as the terrain. We’re climbing. Fast.
The mood beyond the Pass is sheer Scottish Highland. Wind-blasted plants huddle together for warmth. Then we’re lower, approaching sea level, where lone trees stand in shock in wide fields like frozen bolts of lightning that have shouldered aside the clouds and touched the earth. Then we’re slowing down in Pyengana, because we’ve heard – oh yes, we’ve heard – that there’s a pig here in a paddock that drinks beer. Priscilla puts away a watered-down Boag’s in under four seconds. We’re duly impressed, and move on. That’s the thing about this car: you don’t want to spend any time out of it.
After Priscilla, we stop to photograph the obligatory red tractor. As we hop the farmer’s fence we surprise a tawny frogmouth, which doesn’t fly away because he’s hurt – a broken wing, bent beak and missing eye. This close to the road, he must have been struck by something. We gather him up and deliver him to a nearby roadhouse, into a cardboard box already filled with shredded newspaper. “Graham from down the road will look after him,” we’re told. “Like he did the last one.” And the one before that, presumably.
Roadkill is a fact of life in Tassie – as it is for any place that was once beaten track and is now bitumen. The only Tassie Devils we’ve seen so far have already been picked apart by crows on the verge. But the frogmouth brings our personal road toll to minus-one in our favour. No kills, one save. Dad’s pleased. We move on.
Back at the campsite, Keith and I are lounging down the back of my motorhome. The couch and table area is great for laying out gigantic maps, giving you a fantastic sense of being able to go literally anywhere in the country on a whim. Pick a place, go there, stay there. On the drive up from Sydney, I pulled over after dark at pretty Trial Bay, just past South West Rocks, beside the ocean and in view of the Smoky Cape Lighthouse. At sunup, after tea and breakfast in the ’Bago were dispensed with, I simply rejoined the traffic.
I also noticed along the way the temptation to pick up dozens of hitchhikers. It’s a difficult urge to overcome, since you can fit a passenger up front with you and another three down the back. It seems greedy to keep all the road-tripping good times to yourself.
But right now, Keith is trying to sell me on the advantages of being a member of the Winnebago RV Club. He needn’t bother: it’s self-evident. With twilight approaching, the drivers and families of the 18 different motorhomes at this modest Gathering are drawing together for happy hour, where they’ll discuss the pros and cons of the motorhome way of life, quiz each other, play games, swap photos and share what they’ve learned about touring the country.
I can’t conceive of a more comfortable and secure way to see Australia – especially for the elderly, the infirm, people with disabilities, or even if (like me) you’re just a sucker for company on the road. A quick jaunt up the NSW north coast is one thing, but the club also arranges more substantial tours: a recent safari saw 50-odd motorhomes take on the great Birdsville Track itself. No easy task, and for many, an impossible one if not for the existence of the RV Club.
Since motorhomers also consider it vital to leave absolutely no trace after leaving a camping spot – like a badge of pride – their vehicles are astonishingly self-sufficient.
My Leisure Seeker has huge 80litre water tanks, there are 12-volt, 240-volt and gas options, and you can last several days away from a power point. Longer, if you’re clever enough to install solar panels on the roof.
Some of the other families gathered here have vehicles done out like permanent homes: kids can quite happily watch TV, play video games or draw pictures at the table while Dad’s motoring along to the next secluded fishing hole. Another favourite wrinkle is to project movies onto the side of the largest vehicle in the herd, then set out a few armchairs for a ready-made Drive In.
Later, after happy hour, I’m admiring a particularly fine specimen from the line of staked-out Winnebagos (she looks to be at least a 35-footer) and I’m puzzled. In the manner of boating enthusiasts everywhere, a lot of motorhomes have vanity names stencilled on the side. And this one, the elegant Rolls’n’Canardly, has me stumped. What on earth does it mean?
Elephant Pass, just south of St Marys, is a single-laner with a ravine on one side and warning signs at each suicidal bend that read “Large vehicles must sound their horns.” A huge, non-horn-sounding truck rounds the corner in front of us and suddenly there’s nowhere to go. My life savings flash before my eyes. Pretty soon we learn that Elephant Pass will fit both an 18-wheeler and a Maserati. But only just.
We hit the east coast, which is fast and long but somehow not as enjoyable as the close-nit mountain roads with their dense, overhanging canopies. We’ve told the onboard computer we’re aiming for Hobart, but it’s likely I’ve misprogrammed her since she keeps saying, “If possible, do a U-turn” in her sweet monotone. Perhaps she just wants to go home. Dad finds the off switch, and we pull over for a coffee in Buckland, the “town of historic churches.”
An old Tasmanian gent warily approaches and asks if he can have a look. “How big’s the engine?” he says. I have no idea. “Looks like a 400horsepower V8,” he continues. “I believe that with a car like this, the first one or two services are from an expert mechanic from the original Italian workshop, and are built into the sticker price.”
Is he serious? How does he know all this? I can barely find the hood release. When I finally do, there’s an intake of breath. The engine appears to be nine-tenths computers, and the dark lining on the underside of the bonnet is a good deal nicer than the carpet in my apartment.
The old Tasmanian gent says something highly intelligent about the configuration of the motor, to which I nod and reply, “Yep, it sure goes fast,” and as he hops into his dilapidated Ute there’s a sense that this extraordinary machine is somehow going to waste.
Shortly after, a vanload of camouflaged soldiers from the local training base pulls up. Bodies pour out the sliding doors and stare at us in astonishment. Rusty, a good-natured, redheaded motor mouth, is itching to have a go – you can tell by the way he shuffles his feet. He wants his boots clean in case we’re offering rides. We let him sit in the driver’s seat and rev the engine, but soon they have to scoot. The large military transport they’re supporting has just chugged into view. With a cheery shout, they pile back into their van and drive off.
Ten minutes later, on a long downhill stretch with a tailwind, we catch them up. With a roar and a flash of headlights, we can hear Rusty and the boys hollering encouragement as we stroll past them as though they’re going backwards. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that was hands down the highlight of the trip.
Still contemplating the Rolls’n’Canardly, it’s Bill who finally wanders up and puts me out of my misery. Bill’s a lovely bloke; a retiree and a wiry fisherman who bought his Winnebago as a Christmas present for himself and the wife. He loves the fact that you can come along on these Club Gatherings and be as involved or as reticent as suits your personality. “I like to get into the games,” he says. “I’ll give anything a go, archery, croquet, happy hour of course. Perhaps not the golf – I’m a fisherman, you see. But then you’ll see others, they’re happy to just sit quietly under their annexes and drink their tea. And that’s okay. They like that everyone’s there.”
And the name? The Rolls’n’Canardly? Bill chuckles. It’s not his Winnebago, but clearly he’s in on the joke. “That’s a good one that,” he says. “She rolls down one hill and can ’ardly get up the next.”
I had to ask.
The final verdict
Three days in a Maserati versus three in a Winnebago. Talk about a tough decision: I’d do them both again in a heartbeat. But if I was forced to choose? Does the ability to go anywhere, anytime, without leaving the comfort of your home outweigh the almost surreal satisfaction gained from the solid “thunk” of a Maserati door quietly closing and locking itself? It’s a question beyond my skills to answer.
In the final analysis, I thought it was interesting that stopping in a Winnebago to park and set up camp was where the real fun lay. Whereas the more a Maserati moves, the more you want it to. You don’t ever want to park.
On the other hand, I found it just as interesting that of the motorhome drivers I met, retirees to a fault, all said they wish only that they’d bought one sooner. That waiting for their twilight years to enjoy the best travelling of their lives was a small regret. Not that members of the RV Club have time for regrets – they’re too busy charting their next big adventure.
And for the record (if anyone asks): No, we definitely did not get the Maserati up to 220km/h on that downhill stretch outside Buckland. That would be ridiculous.
Spirit of Tasmania
The recent sale of the Spirit of Tasmania III means you’ll now have to drive to Melbourne if you wish to take your vehicle to Tassie, on either the SOTI or II. Still worth it, we reckon – especially if you want to experience Tasmania in the comfort and security of your own motorhome. It’s $69 one-way to take your average-sized motorhome on the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport – on top of the one-way passage fee, which ranges from $96 for an off-peak seat for the 11hr crossing, or $310 for a deluxe cabin. More info on 1800 634 906 or at www.spiritoftasmania.com.au.
Winnebago Industries: (02) 4735 8116, www.winnebago.com.au
Winnebago RV Club: 1800 258 278 or email email@example.com
Australian Motor Homes: (02) 4948 0433 www.australianmotorhomes.com.au
Sports Car Rentals: (02) 9599 9308, www.sportscarrentalsonline.com.au