Downside of SMBs?

cobblecrazy

Adventurer
I figured I'd put my 2 cents worth in on this one.

My background is with Volkswagen campers, and, accordingly, I found the SMB very interesting. I visited the factory in Fresno, and I got to crawl around a few on the showroom floor for a few hours. A walk through the factory with Alan Feld and needless to say I was more than interested.

We did a fair amount of research on any site we could find that even mentioned a SMB. On one occasion I "staked out" (a term my wife used) a SMB at a local REI until the owners came out and we talked about their van, both good and bad. I too went to BadgerTrek.com and read each entry. One thing which was not mentioned in one other post here is they said although they had some issues they did not regret their decision to purchase the van, and some of their issues were because they were living in the van full time. I noticed some of the things they mentioned had already been addressed by SMB, and, yes, SMB also cruises the websites to see what people are saying.

A full sized 4X4 w/a cabover camper was ruled out because we do use our van as a daily driver (5,000 miles in the first 3 months), and it was really no cheaper than the SMB. We sold our popup cabover and Tundra, saved some money, and paid for the van. We did not go out of control on the spec sheet, but we got what we wanted. I will say that during the build we did see some used for sale, but most went fairly quick (anything under 30,000 miles went within days). We even kept an eye on the SMB website to see if someone backed out on a design and color we could live with, but that did not happen.

We have gotten an average of 16 to 17 mpg on highway trips fully loaded, and not much less around town; however, most of the time I commute to work on 2 wheels. As a side note, our Tundra/Camper got about 12 fully loaded on the highway, and within 1 to 2 mpg of that in the city.

We have had the SMB in almost every type of weather, several type of terrain (no I'm not skilled enough to try the rockcrawling), and I have no regrets on our decision. I can compare the interior build quality with travel trailers, cabovers (fixed and popup), boats w/cabins, and I have yet to see a failure. We could have gone with a custom truck camper w/custom handbuilt cabinets and the works, but I was missing the other $100,000 to $150,000 in my bank account.

I go back to the time when I was working on my 1970 VW camper and looking at all the upgrades I could think of. I was going through some of the upgrades with a VW guy I respected, and he said this was fine, '...but in the end its still going to be a VW, you won't make a ton of money, so whatever you do is for the love of driving a van...' I did research on the SMB, and I knew I was buying a Ford van with what I wanted inside - no fantasy (well maybe some) and no regrets.
 
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geodasher

Observer
Re: 2 cents worth

cobblecrazy said:
One thing which was not mentioned in one other post here is they said although they had some issues they did not regret their decision to purchase the van, and some of their issues were because they were living in the van full time.
It would probably take most owners many years to experience what these folks saw in a much shorter time. But isn't extended living in the vehicle what expedition travel is partly about? Perhaps the SMB is not really built as an expedition rig but is fine for short trips where its choice of materials and construction are more cost effective.

cobblecrazy said:
A full sized 4X4 w/a cabover camper was ruled out because we do use our van as a daily driver (5,000 miles in the first 3 months), and it was really no cheaper than the SMB.
As far as initial cost goes, I've found that a heavy-duty 4x4 pickup with a high-end trim level and hard-sided popup can be had for under $70k, whereas it is hard to spec out a similarly equipped 4x4 Sportsmobile for under $80k (without the high-end trim which is not offered in vans). The difference is primarily the specialized 4x4 van conversion. Each choice has its advantages so it depends on the buyer. Financing and insurance can be different on a truck camper versus a Class B, too.

cobblecrazy said:
We have gotten an average of 16 to 17 mpg on highway trips fully loaded, and not much less around town; however, most of the time I commute to work on 2 wheels. As a side note, our Tundra/Camper got about 12 fully loaded on the highway, and within 1 to 2 mpg of that in the city.
Aren't you comparing diesel to gas? Also, mileage is heavily influenced by load, gearing, tires and driving style. The Tundra may have been overloaded as it's just a half-ton pickup.

cobblecrazy said:
We have had the SMB in almost every type of weather, several type of terrain (no I'm not skilled enough to try the rockcrawling), and I have no regrets on our decision. I can compare the interior build quality with travel trailers, cabovers (fixed and popup), boats w/cabins, and I have yet to see a failure. We could have gone with a custom truck camper w/custom handbuilt cabinets and the works, but I was missing the other $100,000 to $150,000 in my bank account.
That's the rub most of us face. It sounds like most SMB owners are happy with the value. Thanks for sharing your owner insights.
 

cobblecrazy

Adventurer
geodasher said:
It would probably take most owners many years to experience what these folks saw in a much shorter time. But isn't extended living in the vehicle what expedition travel is partly about? Perhaps the SMB is not really built as an expedition rig but is fine for short trips where its choice of materials and construction are more cost effective.
geodasher said:
While I would agree extended living and expedition travel could go hand in hand, I also think they could be viewed as having very different criteria. I would certainly disagree with a SMB not being an expedition capable rig. I have seen some of the craziest modes of travel out there, and, while scratching my head to figure out how they got there, I would notice they seemed to be the happiest people around. The great thing about this passion is you get to personalize what you have. What works for me, may not work for others - a bed that feels hard may be a feather bed to someone else.

As far as initial cost goes, I've found that a heavy-duty 4x4 pickup with a high-end trim level and hard-sided popup can be had for under $70k, whereas it is hard to spec out a similarly equipped 4x4 Sportsmobile for under $80k

Believe me we looked. A F350 4X4 was running in the neighborhood of $56,000.00 to $59,000, and while we could haggle down a little we came to the realization it would be in the 50k's. The cabover camper we really liked was in the 20k's, but we could have settled for mid teens for one that we could have lived with. Performance upgrades could go from here to the moon..., but we mostly directed our attention to the stock $$. All that said we really came to the realization we did not want the truck/cabover combo. I've been around them throughout my life, and I just wasn't happy with some of the aspects. I've always been happy with vans, but that's just me.

Aren't you comparing diesel to gas? Also, mileage is heavily influenced by load, gearing, tires and driving style.

Absolutely...I'm simply saying we have been able to take the van on some of the same paths taken with the Tundra/camper, and the mileage difference was what I saw. I'll tell you I would certainly like to see the price go back under $3, but I don't know if that will ever happen. I have been intrigued by biodiesel, but I think there are still some things to be ironed out before I can take a serious look at it.

The Tundra may have been overloaded as it's just a half-ton pickup.

Again I agree. I had the camper originally on a Tacoma. It actually fit better on the Tundra, but the suspension (here is where I made an error in not going with the TRD - which my Tacoma had been) was soft - even with airbags - and I had to make that decision about improving the suspension on a rig I was not happy with, or look at something else. I chose to venture elsewhere...
 

geodasher

Observer
Re: SMB vs. camper

cobblecrazy said:
A F350 4X4 was running in the neighborhood of $56,000.00 to $59,000, and while we could haggle down a little we came to the realization it would be in the 50k's. The cabover camper we really liked was in the 20k's, but we could have settled for mid teens for one that we could have lived with. Performance upgrades could go from here to the moon..., but we mostly directed our attention to the stock $$. All that said we really came to the realization we did not want the truck/cabover combo. I've been around them throughout my life, and I just wasn't happy with some of the aspects. I've always been happy with vans, but that's just me.
I wonder if the prices have come down because I recently shopped for 2008 F-350 and 3500HD trucks with 4x4, off-road package, camper package, diesel, extended cab, long bed, single rear axle, and many options and the cost was below $50k in both cases. This would be a nice package with a $20k hard-sided, pop-up, cab-over camper. What turns you off most about truck campers assuming you had the best possible setup?

I have little experience with vans but the idea of a Sportsmobile is attractive. A big problem for me is the cramped seating position in most of the Class B conversions I have sat in including the E-350 Sportsmobile. I'm 6'2" with long legs and the seat does not go back far enough. The spec sheets show only 1" different leg room in a pickup versus a van but in real life it seems much greater.
 

cobblecrazy

Adventurer
geodasher said:
What turns you off most about truck campers assuming you had the best possible setup?

I have little experience with vans but the idea of a Sportsmobile is attractive. A big problem for me is the cramped seating position in most of the Class B conversions I have sat in including the E-350 Sportsmobile. I'm 6'2" with long legs and the seat does not go back far enough. The spec sheets show only 1" different leg room in a pickup versus a van but in real life it seems much greater.
I think to answer the first question I would have to go back to our 4X4 Toyota Tacoma. We had a shell and a Yakima top box/rack system. This was one of the most mobile camping rigs I think I've had in a long time. I had some boxes set up with the camping equipment, bike stuff, etc., and we could be out the door in no time. The 4wheel drive and ground clearance made access to just about anywhere possible (it was a TRD model, but really no other upgrades to stock). This was simplicity. I thought the addition of the popup camper would be a plus, and in some ways it was, but mostly things just got complicated.

The cabover was somewhat unwieldy off road (we did make some upgrades). We originally looked at the Fourwheel campers which were really light, but spartan at best, and my wife had some requirements on her list which were not available on the model which fit the Tacoma at the time. We finally found the Northstar campers and it seemed to meet our needs. After the purchase we were happy, but the one thing I started to notice was the lack of storage. When the popup was up we couldn't get to the top box, or anything on the rack without a long ladder, but that would also take up space we didn't have in the first place. It was a continuous movement of bags/stuff everytime we went from one thing to another.

My original thought was to always have the camper on the truck, mostly because I don't have a place to drop it, but also I don't want to pay someone to store my camper. This also goes away from being able to take off at the drop of a hat (my job allows me a flexible schedule on most occasions). Also, as a 2nd vehicle the truck/camper was not easy for driving around towns, both at home and in other cities (the SMB is tall, but we went with the regular body and it is amazing how easy it is to find a place to park).

My wife did not enjoy driving the truck and camper for a variety of reasons, but on our first off road trip in the SMB she was so comfortable she even asked to drive and she had a smile on her face the whole time.

I really like being able to pull over to the side of the road and all access to food/stuff is right there. No getting out in the snow/rain unless you want to or have to. And even driving down the highway my wife can reach the refrigerator, and if we think ahead, some snacks. I know you can do some of this in a truck, but there again its moving things around and around....

In our experience so far with the SMB, our storage issues have been eliminated. We did a trip where we specifically planned many activities just to bring just about everything we could think of to see what the van could hold. The SMB seemed to suck the equipment up "like a hoover in heat" (that quote came from a description offered by the manufacturer of my model of backpack), and no more moving bags here and there. It almost seems as if the simplicity of the old Tacoma has returned.

To finally get around to the second part. I'm fairly lucky because I'm about 5'10" and medium build. Most things fit, but I too notice the seat does not go back to the extent of any other vehicle I have been in. What I would say in response to this is the SMB is unique in the design phase. If you look at new you have the ability to design the interior almost any way you want. Even one of their stock designs can be altered with maybe a slightly smaller cabinet which would give you more space to move that seat a little farther back. Get one of their brochures w/the design packages and take a look at what you might be able to do.
 

geodasher

Observer
Re: SMB vs. camper

Good points, thanks! Storage and "coach" accessibility are a big plus with a Class B or C design. The SMB has the added advantage of big rear and side doors, plus the optional storage box that can go on the back. I was hoping a bigger pop-up like the 8' Oregon Camper combined with an extended cab pickup would minimize the gear shuffling, although that would never be as convenient as the SMB's pass-thru.

The part about your wife liking to drive the van got my attention. A big pickup is a bear to maneuver and park and I'm sure my wife would not like driving it, so the shorter RB van is attractive.

I have SMB's design book. Their on-line studio is fun to play with, too. I just don't see good options for seats and when I visited the factory the sales person didn't know of any. Even if they could do a custom seat mount with a few more inches of movement, the van has shorter doors and windows than a pickup so there is a practical limit to how far the seat can go back without blocking driver sight-lines. Leg room seems to be a common problem with vans although the Ford may be the worst. Unfortunately, the Chevy SMB is not the off-road animal that the Ford is (although I see they have a rare 4x4 Chevy for sale on their website).
 

cobblecrazy

Adventurer
geodasher said:
the Chevy SMB is not the off-road animal that the Ford is (although I see they have a rare 4x4 Chevy for sale on their website).
The grey Chevy you see on their website is not a 4X4, but I'm not sure why. It has a lift, but it was 2 wheel drive. Its been there for a while. It was nice to look in because it gave us ideas on the "50" floorplan.
 

geodasher

Observer
Re: Chevy SMB

cobblecrazy said:
The grey Chevy you see on their website is not a 4X4, but I'm not sure why. It has a lift, but it was 2 wheel drive. Its been there for a while. It was nice to look in because it gave us ideas on the "50" floorplan.
How right you are--wishful thinking on my part, I guess! Actually, 2WD would be fine for 95% of back roads but a 4x4 is needed to get to those special places.

I found out that Sportsmobile Inc. will not modify the seats because of safety regulations but shops that do adaptive modifications may. Worth further research if I decide to get serious about a 4x4 van.
 

Railvan

Adventurer
"Who here owns, or has owned, one and is willing to share shortcomings and/or needs that went unmet with the ownership of one?"

We have owned our 2006 Ford 4x4 SMB for two years now. We have 23,000 miles on it. We love it. It's not perfect, but overall I think it is worth what you pay for one. I know it's a lot of money, but it's hard to beat the overall package.

We got the SMB 4x4 conversion, and the tighter-than-two-wheel-drive turning radius is very nice to have. It rides nice on most roads. It does have limited up travel on the front axle. Rarely do I notice it. Even on some hard hits I don't feel it like it is harsh, metal to metal contact, more like just a firm bump. We went with the upgrade for the full floater Dynatrac rear axle, and ARB air lockers front and rear. That added quite a bit to the cost, but I'd rather have these as insurance. I can add other little things myself later, but changing these later would have a lot more money.

When I first drove it, I had the seat all the way back. I am 6' tall. I thought it was a little short on seat travel. Then, after driving it for a while, I noticed my back felt better with the seat forward just a little more. It gave me better lower back support. So, it may not work for others taller than me, but I found it to have room to spare for my height.

We got the smaller electric fridge. It works well most of the time. On a trip to the southwest when it was maybe 108 degrees in the afternoons, it didn't keep up with the outside temp very well. It wasn't hot in the fridge, just not as cold as it should have been. I added more holes around the fridge for better air flow for cooling, and added Reflectix and Dynamat insulation too. It seems to help so it doesn't work so hard.

We have a manual lift pop top. When we got it my wife could easily push it up. After we added solar panels, she has a hard time pushing it up. The panels only weight 8 pounds each, but two of them and the wiring seem to be just enough to make a difference.

We have the Ford 6.0 diesel. The check engine light has come on three times so far. The first time was at 6,000 miles, and the dealer said the turbo was bad and changed it under warranty. Turns out the upper limit of boost is supposed to be (if I recall correctly) 25psi, and mine was making 26psi... It drove fine, as I couldn't tell it was over boosted. Second time the light came on we were on a trip and stopped by a Ford dealer in Olympia, WA. They were not interested in even looking at it. Just said they were busy, and did we have an appointment?... They suggested the Lincoln dealer across town. Knowing Lincoln doesn't sell diesels, we headed south to the next Ford dealer in Centralia. Even though there were busy, this dealer offered to have a look between their other clients. It was a code related to the fuel tank. After much looking on the Ford inter-dealer network, they decided it was likely nothing serious and cleared the code. We have the aftermarket fuel tank that SMB installs, and the dealer said it was common to get codes tripped when anything is changed with the fuel system.

Third time I got a trouble code was again on a trip... It was central Oregon and hours from the nearest town with a dealer, and it was late in the day. We camped over night, and detoured to Burns, OR. Even though it was Saturday, and the city/county parade and rodeo was that day, and they were planning to close early, the guys took the time to read the code to make sure it wasn't anything really bad. It was a turbo code again, but they cleared it and it has not come back since. I asked them if they have this happen a lot with the 6.0 and they said yes. 75 percent of their business is trucks, and most of them are diesel. The mechanics are never out of work...

If you ever need help at a Ford dealer, just hope you are in a small town... The dealers in larger cities have never impressed me.

We average about 16mpg. That includes city driving and trips and some 4x4 time too. We own only one other car, a Toyota Rav4, and my wife uses the bus or walks or rides a bike as much as she can. I use the Rav4 to get to work, unless my wife needs it, so I drive the van the two miles to work maybe once every two weeks on average.

We had a 1990 4x4 Suburban before the van. The only reason we had a vehicle that large just for the two of us was because we wanted a dry place to sleep at night. It can rain any night of the year where we live in western Washington. We were both tired of wet tents and sleeping bags. I thought traveling in the Sub was pretty cushy, as we could sleep in the back and it had lots of room for all our stuff, but the van really spoiled us fast. Having a PortiPotty means no trips outside in the middle of the night. We didn't get a built in stove so we can cook inside or out as we choose. The diesel furnace is REALLY nice on cold mornings.

Anyway, it's not perfect, but we love it. Sorry for the long ramble, but we like to share our love for the van with others. We have lots of photos of the van at: www.pbase.com/railbat.

Brian Rutherford
www.pbase.com/railbat
 
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4x4VAN

New member
I've been to Sportsmobile

I was toured around, looked at some awesome vans. I saw the best work and fabrication at every turn. The buyer picks the options: and the quality of those options.

No one does it better. I have a 2007 Quigley 4x4. I would rather have the suspension SMB offers. The generator, fuel tank, transfer case, leaf spring front end, all the systems that come with it stock are all worth the price.

I bought my van empty because I have a lot of gear to go in from another van. If I was starting out fresh, a custom SMB is the way to go.

Properly maintained, any truck with a deisel will get 300k miles.
 

T.Low

Expedition Leader
a view from the other side

A view from the perspective of the sales guy. I've been in sales for about 20 years. Mostly in the kayak industry, or outdoor industry in general.

Its easy to spot the guy who will buy based on his dreams and fantasies, but will never engage in the realities and effort of the sport after he brings the new item home. It happens all the time. Guy comes in and drools over a $3000 kevlar kayak. He's been surfing the net and now he's sold on the dream. Finally he comes in and buys it, along with the $400 paddle, the $900 Gore Tex drysuit, the $150 pfd, and he's finally out the door for $6000.

In the middle of the summer I see the boat in the local craigslist, all included for $2450. Way too often.

Kayaking is a bit of work. Camping is a bit of work for a lot of people. The SMB is the type of package that will draw this guys attention. They put the SMB in the drive way. Hose it off, want to get out, but are afraid. Try it once or twice, not quite what they thought it was and they come up with a bunch of excuses on why they are getting rid of it.

Last year I looked at a GTRV Westy in Vancouver, '96 with 350,000 kilometers on it. Basically the rb50 floor plan, including pop top. The camping gear had never been used. The top had never been slept in, the cook top never used, nothing , ever. Well, atleast he drove the thing.

A customer named Vic did this so often he earned the nickname "Buy high, sell low Vic".

I suspect a certain percentage of the SMB's for sale are these guys.

Just my 2 cents from the other side of the counter.
 
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