Forza/Solei: Anatomy of a Revolution

In the fall of 2001 Steve Jobs strode across the stage with a device the size of a card deck and proclaimed to the world that Apple was introducing a revolution in digital media: the iPod. It was a typical Jobsian boast that, in many ways, was true. But, few recall there were other MP3 players already in the marketplace. The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, however it became quickly apparent that it was instantly the best.

In its own way there is a strong parallel with the new Forza (and Itasca Solei) to Apple's iPod. This isn't the first product in the entry level diesel pusher category, but it's representative of a new level of engineering innovation and a different way of thinking about building motorhomes.

From the 1970's into the mid 1990's diesel powered motorhomes were confined to an exclusive and tiny segment of bus-derived products. When RV specific chassis from manufacturers like Spartan and Freightliner entered the marketplace Winnebago quickly embraced the diesel platform and put its engineers to work in developing several successful classes of vehicles. The diesel chassis platform offered improvements in power, handling, storage and mileage. Today, the rear engine diesel pusher chassis is at the heart of all mid-range and upscale Class A motorhomes.

In 2005 the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act forced manufacturers to almost eliminate all smoke and fumes from diesel engines. And to look at murky sunless photos of Chinese cities today, no one in America will argue against preserving good air quality. Nonetheless when you squeeze a balloon on one side, it expands on the other. And so it is that with new diesel pollution reduction technology: the air is clearer, but that improvement came with an increase of $20-25,000 dollars per chassis which pushed the purchase out of reach for a good number of potential customers.

Coming out of the great recession the product development team at Winnebago sensed an opportunity to fill the diesel price gap in their product line with a more affordable design. Like Apple, Winnebago wouldn't be the first to market, but they were determined to make sure, that when they arrived, they'd be the best. Early on, 17 year Winnebago veteran, Ryan Roske became the Forza/Solei's product manager. Roske had worked his way up the corporate ladder by spending the early part of his career as a district sales rep. That put him on the front lines with both dealers and customers and he knew, firsthand, the challenges the company would face in developing a feature-leading coach in a very competitive product space.

"We knew, after the recession that a big segment of our potential customers were going to be a lot more price conscious," explains Roske. "And we knew there were just some things we were absolutely not going to compromise on, like our SuperStructure construction, one-piece fiberglass roofs, or eliminating our in-depth documentation or Fast Track warranty parts ordering. Winnebago buyers expect that in all our products so there was no way we weren't going to keep them."

The company has designed a new product to meet an aggressive price point, but perhaps the biggest innovation is one you'll never see and, as far as the industry goes, it's a radical rethink in motorhome manufacturing. Instead of stopping the assembly line and retooling coaches for each model year, a new process of continual product improvement has been put into place. As dealer and owner feedback of the models is gathered, design adjustments will periodically be made throughout the year. It's a business model more like software with 1.1 and 1.2 incremental improvements and a bigger 2.0 refresh happening on a longer interval basis. This change has two distinct benefits. First, it keeps Winnebago at the head of the pack in being able to continually introduce improvements and innovations to the product line. Second, it provides an uninterrupted flow of coaches to dealer's lots to insure that buyers have plenty of choice in floorplans and decor schemes.

"When you buy a motor home it's all about floorplans," Roske continues. "Floorplan optimization has always been one of Winnebago's hallmarks and the two plans we're introducing reflect that decades of experience."

Differences in floorplans can be subtle, and whether you're on the Internet or looking at a brochure, sometimes you really need to stand inside a coach to see and feel the difference. However, when you take a few minutes to study and compare the new 34T and 38R floorplans to other manufacturers, the differences become immediately apparent.

The 34T is a rare mid-entry floorplan for a Class A coach. Mid-entry designs are often problematical in interrupting valuable wall space. However, the Winnebago designers seemed to have found the sweet spot between the living area and galley that doesn't waste any precious space and provides a refreshing sense of arrival into the coach.

The 38R is notable for its incredibly family friendly design. This is the perfect family coach that can easily accommodate seven people. With its twin bunk beds, 1/2 bath, and private master suite, this plan offers some very comfortable separation for mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa).

The interior design scheme reflects a growing trend of cleaner lines on the outside and a liberal use of high end finishes such as hardwood cabinetry and a Corian topped galley on inside.

Under the floor there's the growl of a Cummins turbo diesel which, at 340 HP, is larger than many others in this class. And larger also applies to the 153 (34T) and 228 (38R) cubic feet of storage, much of which is pass through.

In the real estate development business the term "value engineering" often is the code phrase for taking things out. In the case of the Forza/Solei it's more like adding in features and quality details that you'd expect to see in much more expensive coaches.

With a rethink of manufacturing processes and innovative engineering, early sales of the Forza and Solei models are clearly indicating that these coaches have just raised the bar for the affordable diesel pusher market. In this case the revolution has arrived on six wheels, weighing in at a svelte 30,000 pounds.

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To learn more about the Winnebago Forza click here.