World Class Requires World Vision
More than any other motorhome manufacturer in America, Winnebago has aggressively pursued the compact, fuel efficient segment of the market. "It's in our DNA," laughs Russ Garfin who is the company's product manager for their B and C Class products.
An important component of Garfin's job description is to travel to industry shows across the United States. He gathers inspiration and information from housing industry and design trade shows. And while North American components are the main ingredient in Winnebago products, a little spice is always added by mixing in new products and uncovering emerging design trends across the Atlantic. This fall Garfin, along with other Winnebago managers and executives made their annual trip to Dusseldorf, Germany to walk the display floor of the world's largest RV show. And you thought that would have been in the US, didn't you?
The trade show, known as the Caravan Salon, offers both contrast and ideas to the Winnebago team. Not surprisingly, RVing in Europe, while massively popular, takes on a different feel with smaller roads, high fuel prices and unimproved campgrounds.
European motorhomes generally don't have generators, microwaves or TV's. But while their market may not share the same accessories of their American counterparts, their interior designs reflect a laser-like focus on maximizing space and using interesting materials.
A good example of this are screen doors. Garfin explains that, "Putting screen doors on B-Class touring coaches isn't something anyone in the states has done. There's a lot of areas where you'd like to stop or camp where it would be nice to have fresh air, but without the bugs. Last year I found a company in the Netherlands that makes a great retractable screen door product. We've been working closely with them to adapt their product which we'll be adding to our new Travato Touring Coach and some of our other models too."
When looking at the interiors of many European coaches you're struck by the similarity of the sleek rounded cabinets found in the company's Sprinter based View/Navion models. "We have our cabinets made by a company in Italy," says Garfin. "It costs a little more, but the cabinets are strong and lightweight, which is something that's very important on a smaller chassis like the Sprinter." And are there any new trends in interior design that you'll be looking at? "We're seeing more and more high gloss finishes, contrasting colors and glass countertops" says Garfin.
For Winnebago, the most closely watched area of interest has always been products on a fuel efficient platform. Over the years the company has built products on Renault, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Mercedes chassis. Now they add Fiat to that line up which is coming to America as the new Ram ProMaster chassis.
"Over 50,000 motorhomes a year are built on the Fiat Ducato chassis." Garfin continues, "And about 80% of European motorhomes are on the Fiat." Garfin's been tracking the Ducato long before the Fiat-Chrysler merger. What bodes well for this new marriage is that the Ducato (being built as the ProMaster for the North American market) is a strategically important van product for Chrysler and the company has made a $1.2 Billion dollar commitment with two new plants in Saltillo, Mexico.
The new Winnebago Trend/Itasca Viva! and Travato are a perfect example of the company's long term experience in finding and developing innovative solutions in a world of increasing globalization. With an off-hand humility Garfin makes the point that "we're first to the market with products built on the ProMaster chassis.
Of course, in the future, other RV manufacturers will probably develop products on the ProMaster, but that may be easier said than done. Garfin explains, "US regulations are pretty stiff for vehicles under 10,000 pounds GVW. That meant we had to build and then crash test multiple prototypes to make sure that all the coach modifications and additions we made did not interfere with the safety or performance features on the ProMaster chassis."
Yet, with a multi-year R&D effort, Winnebago's engineers have quietly figured out how to build an advanced design motorhome and keep it at an affordable entry-level price. Garfin observes that "We're seeing more movement in the RV market than we have in the past. People with larger coaches are buying small ones and owners of smaller coaches are looking at getting a little more space and trading up for larger models. Either way, we've got a broad product line that covers all the bases."
And who knows, there may be a few changes in the galley after Russ Garfin returns from the annual kitchen and bath show in Las Vegas. It's all part of bringing the best ideas from across North America and Europe to the motorhome on your driveway.