How To Choose the Right Small RV For You
Whether you're downsizing from a large motorcoach or stepping into RVing for the first time, buying a small RV can be a bit overwhelming. Almost every RV manufacturer offers a smaller RV in their product lineup. These range from the size of a van to a Class C and can present a dizzying array of options. So, how do you find the one that's right for you? Where do you start?
We spent three years looking for the "right" RV for us and we know how challenging the decision process can be. We flip-flopped several times between classes before we finally made our decision. So, let's begin your decision process by defining the differences between class B, B+, and C RVs.
(basically a conversion van)
The class B is the smallest class of motorhome-type RV. It's built on a van chassis and modified by adding sleeping, cooking and bathing accommodations. Though some owners travel extensively in their class B vans, most people use them as short-stay RVs due to their limited space and even more limited storage.
Compact and easy to drive, the Class B is simply a modified van chassis. If you've driven a van you're ready to go and, a big plus, parking is easy to find since it fits in any regular parking space.
A class B van is usually the least expensive option for a motorhome.
Most have gasoline engines, though there are diesel units too, and fuel economy is very good in either one. Since they are small, it's easy to use them as your transportation while camping. No need to tow an extra vehicle!
You can expect to find what you need for an overnight trip for two people including a sofa/bed combination, a one or two burner cooktop, a small sink and a mini fridge. The bath area is typically the "wet bath" style (basically a closet-sized room with toilet, a tiny sink and a shower head that washes you and the bathroom at the same time!) You can also expect to find a television and sound system in most models. For dining, there is a table that either folds up or is dismantled and stored when not in use. Most of these units are self-contained with a fresh water tank, a gray water tank, and a black (waste) tank. Air conditioning and heat are pretty standard and some units offer solar panels and generator options for off-grid travel.
The same small size that makes these units so easy to drive also make for very tight interior quarters. There is not much space to move around.
Storage in these tiny units is minimal at best. There is very little space for groceries, sports equipment or clothing storage.
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(24-26 feet in length)
This is a relatively new category that falls between the small vans of Class B and the larger Class C units. The class B+ is built on a larger cargo van chassis with all the amenities of home in a compact form.
Size is the advantage over their smaller class B siblings. Within this class are the 24'-26' units that function more like a motorhome and less like a van. Their larger size also offers more storage space both on the exterior as well as the interior.
Less expensive than a class C, but more than a class B, the B+ manufacturers offer a range of options, finishes, and floor plans to suit any travel-style.
Class B+ are available in either gasoline or diesel engines. Their fuel consumption is closer to a class B, with many clocking in at 15 (or more) miles per gallon of fuel and most are powerful enough to tow a small car.
Space is the big difference with the class B+ with much more space in the living area. Manufacturers offer many floor plans in this class but there seem to be two main floor plan groups: A studio-style space with a dry bath, kitchen/dining/living area and a murphy bed that folds up out of the way. Or, a kitchen/dining/living area, a separate bedroom, and dry bath. These units can sleep from two to four people and have some storage for groceries, clothing, and travel accessories.
There are so many options for the B+ that they often feel like a class A motorhome. Options can range from generators and solar panels to high end finishes, sound/TV systems and so much more. Of course, they are self contained with fresh water, gray and black holding tanks.
Although the size offers much more space on the interior than a class B van, the B+ is still a tight fit if you are traveling with more than two people.
Though class B+ is easy to drive and handles well, they may take a bit of practice if you're not accustomed to using side mirrors as your primary visual. This is a must-have skill since you have limited visibility through the coach (if any!). They fit in a parking spot width-wise but don't quite fit in a parking space length-wise. If you back into a spot you can overhang a sidewalk to fit into a typical parking space - but you will block most of the sidewalk! And backing up using only your side mirrors takes some practice.
These are more expensive units than class B vans, but less than most class Cs. Add to that, they are not as fuel efficient as their smaller siblings, and their range of options can quickly drive up their price.
You may need another vehicle for transportation at your destination. Since you can drive the class B+ almost anywhere, many owners simply use it for local transportation. But if you have to do a lot of trips away from camp, towing a car may be a good option. Consider how often your will actually use a car before towing, since it impacts fuel economy. You might also consider using a service like Uber or just renting a car where you know you will need additional transportation.
There is something of an identity crisis with class B+. We found some manufacturers list them as class C and other manufacturers list them as class B+. When you are doing your research you might want to look at both C and B+ even if you think you are settled on a class B+. You don't want to miss a good candidate just because it is labeled a class C! The big differences between B+ and small Cs are the chassis it's built on and whether or not it has a over-cab sleeping area. The B+ is built on a Mercedes Sprinter or similar-sized chassis while a true class C is built on a truck chassis. (I know, mincing words, right? Aren't they BOTH trucks?!). To confuse things further, some class Cs have over-cab sleeping and some don't.
(25 - 30+ feet in length, some with an over-cab sleeping area)
The Class C RV is the largest of the small RV family and can easily drift into the larger motorhome class as the size increases. For our discussion, we will only consider Class Cs that are 25-30 feet in length.
Space. It's all about the living space. The larger frames edging up to 30 feet in length offer more living area, often sleeping from four to six people (some up to 8!). At the smaller end of the spectrum they are much like the class B+ in size with one difference - the class Cs typically have an over-the-cab sleeping area in addition to a bedroom or dinette/bed conversion.
Built on either a truck chassis or a large cargo van chassis (depending on size) the class C offers either a gasoline or diesel engine and can handle towing a car.
More expensive than either of its smaller counterparts, many class Cs are well below the cost of a class A motorhome with many of the same amenities in a smaller footprint.
The class C offers all the amenities of home, with floor plans similar to a class B+ or larger. They offer separate sleeping areas, kitchen/dining/living area, dry bathroom, and good storage space. The larger end of the class - in the 30 foot range, can also offer more storage inside and outside.
Like their class B+ siblings, there are lots of optional accessories and upgrades that will make even the smallest class C feel like a class A.
Cost is sometimes a factor here. The larger class Cs can approach the cost of a class A. But there are economies to be had in the smaller versions. Optional accessories and upgrades make a difference in the price as well as comfort.
Fuel mileage can decrease with the size and weight of the unit. The ones most similar to the class B+ will get better fuel mileage than the larger units which sometimes get as little as 8 miles per gallon of fuel.
Driving ease begins to slip in the larger end of this class. The more limited visibility of the cab overhang, the longer chassis, and the heavier unit all contribute to a more challenging driving experience. That is not to say they are a "bear" to drive! Simply, in their larger versions they are more challenging than their smaller counterparts. On the small end of class C, the driving is similar to a B+.
Identity crisis again: There is some confusion with the smaller class Cs. In our opinion, they are basically the same as the B+ unless the C has a cab overhang and really all that means is more sleeping accommodations.
Now that we have the basic definitions out of the way, let's look at your situation and figure out which type is best for you. There are really just a few major decisions, and a bunch of minor ones. The big decisions will help you narrow down the class, the engine type, and your budget. The minor decisions amount to the options you choose.
How will you use your small RV?
Begin with the easiest question, why do you want a small RV? Maybe you're intimidated by the size of a larger unit, maybe you've heard the small RVs get better fuel mileage, or maybe you like the idea of its compact convenience. Having an idea of why a small unit appeals to you is an important factor that leads to the next question: how do you plan to use your small RV?
There are lots of options for using an RV. If you're a sports fan, you might be thinking of using it as a tailgating vehicle. Or, to get away into the mountains or camp close to a lake where larger units can't easily go. Maybe you're thinking of visiting friends and family spread all over the country or exploring the National Parks, or taking longer vacations more economically. These are all valid reasons for choosing a small RV.
Class B, B+, or C?
Once you articulate why you want a small RV and how you will use it, the class of RV may be easier to choose. If you really just want a camping, or short-stay vehicle that can go anywhere, is less expensive and fuel efficient the class B van chassis is hard to beat. If you want a little more comfort and want to travel further for longer, then it makes sense to consider the B+ and C class vehicles.
When it comes to a decision between B+ and C it's important to define what length your are considering. If you prefer the 24-26-foot length then the small Cs and a B+ are virtually the same, so there's not much of a decision there. But the larger class Cs are built for comfort and can accommodate more people. If you want to use the RV for family travel and camping for days at a time, the larger class Cs may be your preference. If you prefer a more agile and fuel efficient vehicle, and you are traveling with just two to three people the small class C or B+ would be fine.
Think about how you will travel MOST of the time. For instance, we wanted to take the grand kids along for a few short stays, but most of the time it's just Jim and I. That meant we only needed more space when we took the grand kids along - and that wasn't very often. We really didn't need a larger class C, so we narrowed it down to the 25-foot class B+ and Cs. Buy the unit that best fits the way you will use your RV most of the time.
Gas or Diesel?
Knowing the kind of travel you will be doing in your RV will help you decide the next big choice: gas or diesel. Most RVs come in both gasoline or diesel engines. There are lots of great articles on all the technical pros and cons of each and I encourage to read them to help with your decision. For us, it came down to the question of power and fuel economy. If you are going to be doing a lot of mountain driving or towing a car the diesel provides more torque and better fuel mileage. The down side of diesel is being mindful of regular maintenance and keeping up with fuel quality. You will also need to add DEF, a fuel additive to reduce emissions. Diesel engines have a long life and, if properly maintained, have fewer issues.
The benefit of a gasoline engine RV, is that it's typically less expensive than a diesel RV. The fuel economy is not as good as a diesel engine but good fuel is more readily available. On the other hand, you won't get the torque/power for towing or climbing those mountain inclines. A gasoline engine is simpler to work on and service centers are easy to find. That isn't always the case with diesels.
Budget: Economy or Comfort?
Economy often looms large in the decision process. This may be where many people begin their search. If traveling comfortably with the conveniences of home is important, then the interior finishes, layout, and convenience options will rise to the top of your checklist. If your primary reason for looking at small RVs is to travel economically, then the initial price, cost of maintenance, and fuel consumption will dominate your evaluation criteria.
But the way you will use your small RV determines which features are important and which are just "nice to have". Your budget needs to include the most important features for the primary use of your RV. What will make you comfortable? Do you want a home-away-from-home, a luxury hotel-room atmosphere, or is economy the way you like to go with no frills and more money to travel.
There are luxury units in all three classes, so if it's comfort and convenience you want, you can find it in all three sizes. Conversely, there are economical versions of each size unit. Perhaps surprisingly, each manufacturer has its "high-end" small RVs and each has its "low-end" small RVs. A "low-end" RV from a good manufacturer may be better than a "high-end" unit from a lesser manufacturer even if it includes lots of bells and whistles.
It's important to point out here that manufacturers have a base price, and perhaps that's a good place to begin your price comparisons. The options are added to that price. So choose the unit that best fits your needs and add the options that make the most sense for your budget. Consider options carefully: Some options are easily added as aftermarket and some are far better factory-installed. With the right combination of options, any size RV can give you a comfortable and luxurious experience.
So Many Manufacturers!
When we were researching RVs we read reviews, visited dealers, and went to dozens of RV shows before deciding on our unit. What we learned was important to our decision process. Not all manufacturers are equal in the quality and reliability of their builds, and though no RV or manufacturer is perfect, you want to conduct your due diligence before laying down your hard-earned cash.
Even when they use the same chassis, each manufacturer decides on where it spends its "build" dollars. Look for quality differences first in the chassis and engine. Those are the high-priced/maintenance areas. And though the interior finishes can be changed and upgraded, it's nice to have quality basics like metal faucets, stainless steel sinks, day-night shades, and a china toilet rather than plastic fixtures.
The systems in the "house" end of the RV differ as well from brand to brand. Though many RV manufacturers use the same appliance and system vendors there are differences in the models used. You'll want to know about the big systems like heating and air conditioning but also pay attention to the quality of the cook top, refrigerator, and microwave oven. You'll use those all the time! Where there is a big question mark is in the "hidden" systems - like plumbing and electrical. These are more difficult to assess and you may have to rely on reviews from owners about a particular manufacturer.
This is when talking with other RV owners can be so helpful. By all means, read reviews and tour as many different brands as you can. Go to the shows and walk through lots of vehicles to get an idea of what items are standard and what options are available. You'll also begin to notice which brands have higher quality finishes and which seem cheaply made. (If the "visible" things are cheaply made, what does that imply about the things you can't see?)
Check out the customer service reviews for each manufacturer you're considering and visit their website to assess how easy it is to access their customer service department. Probably not the best idea to rely on the RV dealer for advice on quality issues - they are paid to sell RVs not to knock them!
On the other hand, finding a good dealer is important. When you need work done on your RV it will be through a dealer. You don't have to take it back to your original dealer, but you'll need to know which service departments do quality work. We found the best place to find these dealers is from satisfied customers. Facebook groups, forums, and searching through Google will give you lots to consider.
For those who already own a motorhome, you might begin with your current RV's manufacturer. If you're accustomed to the brand and satisfied with its quality and reliability it makes sense to begin with what you know. If you're new to RVing, you have a bit of a learning curve to overcome! But don't despair, just take it one step at a time. We have included a brief checklist below to help you sort through the decisions. (Watch for our Small RV Ninja workbook soon to be published)
Either way, whether you're downsizing or just starting your RV adventure, figuring out which RV is best for you just takes a little detective work.
Choosing a Small RV: Decision Checklist
Why do you want a small RV?
How will you use your small RV MOST of the time?
Which class of RV is the best fit for you?
Gasoline or diesel engine?
What is your baseline budget for your RV purchase?
What options are most important to you?
Which options could be easily added after market?
Which options are best factory-installed?
Which manufacturers offer what you need and want?
Which manufacturers produce a better quality product?
Which manufacturers have good customer service reviews?
Which manufacturers do other RV owners recommend and why?
Which manufacturer, model, and options are the right small RV for you?