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Behind the Wheel

From Winnebago, via Volkswagen, It's the Motel V-6

May 27, 1999|PAUL DEAN

In gear, as we pulled into downtown traffic, the clatter at the back sounded like a kitchen imploding. Echoes, unmistakably, of Northridge '94. Or being rear-ended by a roach coach.

Then again, there was a kitchen back there. Also a living room, den, bedroom, potty, shower, dining room, TV room, computer station and breakfast nook. Open a drawer beneath the foldaway sofa, and you'd swear it could expand into a sauna one way, a doghouse the other.

And all these rooms and purposes were jammed and crammed like a magician's sleeves into a 1999 Rialta RV by Winnebago Industries, a 22-foot, overfed motor home built on the platform and 2.8-liter powertrain of a 16-foot, less residentially endowed EuroVan by Volkswagen.

The Rialta 22HD is new to this year's offerings, distinct from three older layouts in the line because it is equipped and configured specifically for loners or one couple. That means no fixed double bed, just convertible couches, and only a pair of captain's chairs on the bridge, instead of the classic four seats for driver and crew. There's also a 35% larger refrigerator-freezer in the 22HD, a mute suggestion that single persons and childless pairs are more into chilled martinis and a good coq au vin than Cheez Whiz sandwiches and cocoa.

It's also full recognition of changing demographics and the bulging popularity of RVs, no longer the transportation of snowbirds fleeing Wisconsin in November, or family trees with grandchildren shuttling between Knott's Berry Farm and Dollywood. Nearly 40% of the nation's 9 million RV owners are in the 35-to-54 age range. And with last year's sales of travel trailers, fifth wheels and self-propelled motor homes climbing 14.5%--from 220,000 units in 1997 to 252,000 in 1998--the buyer profile is growing younger by the long weekend.

Recreational transportation is not inexpensive compared with buying a $20,000 Buick Century to travel across country. Prices range from $45,000 to more than $110,000. Or to $750,000 for a converted and customized Greyhound bus if you happen to be Garth Brooks on tour.

The Rialta by Winnebago of Forest City, Iowa, currently second in motorized RV sales behind Fleetwood Industries of Riverside, costs $52,708, rising to $56,948 if you add a gas generator, shower package, roof air conditioner, air springs and TV antenna. Most motor homes burn more fuel than a high-speed pursuit in a Hummer, and even the stingy Rialta averaged less than 15 miles per gallon during our week of temporary ownership that included one night's camping and 800 miles on interstates.

But as any turtle will tell you, all costs are counterbalanced by the delightful convenience of carrying home and stuff with you. No more midnight frets about finding a Pine-Sol Motel when you and three whining kids are still 82 miles from Jellystone National Park. Nor having to pay $115, plus tax, for a Winston-stinky room with gray sheets, gum under the night stand and a paper strip across the toilet to make sure you don't catch anything really serious.

No matter rising gas prices, a motor home is still cheaper family travel than flying Southwest. Broil your own burgers. Go wherever interesting roads beckon. And if your recall reaches back to cracked concrete slabs and knee-high weeds at a campsite without hookups, know there are now 16,000 public and private campgrounds nationwide. Some even have golf courses, HBO outlets, spas and tennis courts.

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The Rialta is a darling. Despite a floor plan tuned to singles, it is large enough for half a dozen day campers. It's also small enough to run into Yucaipa for some antique hunting without running over fire hydrants. But it is a perfect slab-sided rectangle, close to 8 feet tall, that delivers all the aerodynamic efficiency of a billboard. Best to always keep one ear tuned to KFWB and wind advisories.

Fully loaded, with groceries in the pantry, 21 gallons of fuel, propane tanks and blue stuff in the loo, this RV weighs close to 4 tons.

It goes without saying, Rialta remains a chunk, and certainly no subcompact in the performance and handling department.

There's only a 140-horsepower V-6 putting power to the front wheels, and that engine was designed for the VW EuroVan, which weighs 1,500 pounds less. So initial acceleration is sleepy enough to make one question the vehicle's ability to arrive anywhere.

But once underway, with a mile or so of highway--preferably downhill--to build kinetic energy, the Rialta cruises easily at speeds guaranteed to excite. Especially if you try maneuvering or braking suddenly at those speeds, because the rack-and-pinion steering and anti-lock disc brakes were built for a smaller, much lighter vehicle with less superstructure.

Yet even under such stresses, the Rialta, with its welded tubular aluminum framework and interlocking joints connecting roof to the walls, is remarkably quiet, tight and relatively rattle-free. Unless you're on an old stagecoach trail with a couple of pots and pans adrift back there.

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