The Ultimate Guide
When our friends at Motorhomes, Caravans and Destinations magazine tackled the topic of front or rear wheel drive motorhomes back in 2015, they noted that most buyers choose a front wheel drive model purely on the basis of supply and price. The majority of new motorhomes for sale in New Zealand then were European imports built on a Fiat Ducato. Buyers who were intent on a rear wheel drive model were limited to custom built motorhomes.
Since then, the dominance of European imports has only grown and custom builds make up an even smaller share of the market. A few off-the-shelf rear wheel drive motorhomes are now available. However, these are heavier and substantially more expensive than a similar front wheel drive motorhome.
Even if your budget can cover the price tag of a rear wheel drive motorhome, it’s a good idea to understand the whole picture so that you purchase the motorhome that best fits your driving and travel style as well as your other preferences. A rear wheel drive motorhome isn’t simply a carbon copy of a front wheel drive motorhome with the rear wheels providing the power. The different chassis design impacts on the design of both the front cab and the habitation unit. So as with any motorhome purchase decision, there’s trade offs to be made.
In this guide, we take a look at the backstory of front and rear wheel drive motorhomes, examine the differences in performance, consider the other design features that impact on your enjoyment of your motorhome and offer some tips on how to avoid getting stuck!
Thirty years ago, it was hard to find a front wheel drive motorhome in New Zealand or even in Europe. Motorhomes were typically built on truck chassis or converted from a bus. The introduction of the Fiat Ducato in 1981 revolutionized the world of motorhomes. Fiat committed to the campervan market and invested heavily in designs which would make the Ducato the market leader for comfort, performance and value. Over the following decades, even the Mercedes Sprinter and VW Crafter, traditionally cast iron proponents of rear wheel drive, began to offer entry level models with front wheel drive to try to win back market share from the Fiat Ducato.
Many diehard rear wheel drive motorhome owners in New Zealand watched the burgeoning front wheel drive market with suspicion. Would motorhomes supposedly built for Europeans who were used to driving from village to village and never veered off paved roads stand up to NZ conditions? Would front wheel drive imports come (un)stuck in the Land of the Long White Cloud?
Your motorhome’s drivetrain system helps power you down the road. The drivetrain, otherwise known as the driveshaft, allows your vehicle to shift from idle to drive.
On a front-wheel drive vehicle, the front wheels provide the power. All the drivetrain components are in the front of the vehicle (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Placement of drive components in front wheel drive vehicle
In a rear-wheel drive vehicle, the rear wheels deliver the power. A long driveshaft is connected to the transmission on one end and the differential on the other end by universal joints (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Placement of drive components in rear wheel drive vehicle
Rather than using universal joints, a front wheel drive vehicle uses constant velocity (CV) joints.
To supply power to the rear wheels, the drive shaft runs the length of the chassis in a rear wheel drive motorhome. The consequences of this configuration have quite an impact on the performance, function, and comfort of the motorhome as we will discuss below.
A new rear wheel drive motorhome is a substantially bigger investment than a front wheel drive motorhome. You can expect to pay $50k more for an Australian manufactured rear wheel drive motorhome than for a similar front wheel drive model purchased in NZ and a whopping $100k more for one made in Germany.
The cost of the base vehicle is the biggest single factor impacting on the cost of manufacturing a motorhome. The configuration of the engine in relation to the crankshaft and drive shaft in the front wheel drive motorhome is a simpler setup and therefore is less expensive to manufacture than a rear wheel drive motorhome. Because the chassis is heavier for a rear wheel drive motorhome, manufacturers tend to load them up with additional features such as dual rear wheels, slide outs and extra water storage - all adding to the cost of manufacture.
Not only will a rear wheel drive motorhome cost you more upfront, the ongoing costs of ownership are likely to be higher. Most rear wheel drive motorhomes sit on a heavier chassis. That’s because the addition of a drive shaft increases the weight of a rear wheel drive motorhome. The suspension is also lighter in most front wheel drive motorhomes.
Rear wheel drive models typically weigh more than 5 tonnes. Because a rear wheel drive motorhome is heavier, compliance costs and fuel consumption will be higher. Motorhomes with a GVM of more than 4.5 tonnes require a certificate of fitness which not only costs more but must be inspected more frequently. Read more about motorhome weight and its impact on carrying capacity and cost of ownership.
The drivetrain in a rear wheel drive motorhome has more moving parts so there’s a little more wear and tear on components. Also, if your rear wheel drive motorhome has dual rear wheels (as most do), you’ll have more tyres to replace.
Other than the price, the factor that has contributed most to the popularity of the front wheel drive motorhome is the drive. Many newbies look at a 6 or 7 metre motorhome and worry that they won’t be able to drive it. As long as it’s under 6 tonnes GVM (and most are), you won’t need a class 2 (truck) driver's licence to drive a front wheel drive motorhome and it will feel much like driving a car.
How is this possible? It’s all about design and technology - the result of continuous improvement by front wheel drive manufacturers like Fiat. A new front wheel drive motorhome has a similar steering position and driver visibility as your car, similar suspension and a lower centre of gravity so it handles like your car.
Fiat, the market leader, claims that the drivability of its Ducato starts from the bottom up i.e. the suspension. A new Ducato has front independent MacPherson suspension (the most common form of suspension in modern cars) with front and rear anti roll bars plus reinforced springs specific for motorhomes.
The drivetrain that runs through the centre of a rear wheel drive motorhome has a significant bearing on its centre of gravity and therefore stability and handling. The longitudinal drivetrain requires a higher chassis which means the habitation unit sits higher off the ground. Sitting higher off the ground gives it a higher centre of gravity than a front wheel drive motorhome. The habitation unit sits lower in the front wheel drive motorhome so it has a lower centre of gravity than a rear wheel drive motorhome.
The width of the vehicle also has a bearing on the centre of gravity as it's the combination of height and width that matters. The lower and wider an object is, the more stable it is.
A motorhome with dual rear wheels (common in rear wheel drive motorhomes) is inherently less stable than a motorhome of the same dimensions with single rear wheels. That’s because the measure for centre of gravity relating to vehicle width is the centre point of the wheels.
Lower and wider are better from a handling standpoint, as they reduce weight transfer during cornering and braking, and also reduce the propensity to roll over. Just think about how the super wide track Hummer improved the stability of its predecessor, the Jeep Willy. Motorhome manufacturers like Bürstner and Carado have introduced a wide track chassis to improve handling and stability even more. They may be wider and more stable than in the past, but these motorhomes still have the height of the habitation unit on the chassis don’t expect any Hummer inspired motorhomes on the road any time soon!
You’ll also find most of the drive technology found in modern cars in a new front wheel drive motorhome. This includes electronic stability control (ESC), or electronic stability program (ESP) as it is called at Fiat, where stability is monitored and adjusted for as well as ABS brakes, traction control and hill control technology. The new series Fiat Ducato, which will be available in 2022, brags a whole host of new advanced driver assistance features including adaptive cruise control, lane control, upgraded electronic stability control (cross wind assist, post collision braking), autonomous emergency brake control, intelligent speed assist, plus new detection systems (blind spot assist, rear cross path detection).
You’ll find many of the same safety features in a motorhome on a Fiat Ducato as in your car. For example, dual driver’s airbags, three-point seat belts with seat belt reminder warning and pretensioner, plus front deformable crash box for absorbing minor crashes.
During periods of high acceleration, front wheel drive motorhomes may experience torque steer where the motorhome veers to the left or right which can lead to understeering around corners. However, this understeer tends to be simpler to master than the oversteer you might experience when driving a rear wheel drive motorhome in poor conditions like wet, snowy and unsealed roads.
When it comes to manoeuvring in tight spaces, the front wheel drive motorhome has an advantage. The steering angle is smaller than in vehicles with rear wheel drive so the turning circle is slightly larger in a rear wheel drive motorhome than a front wheel drive with the same wheelbase.
Since front wheel drive motorhomes sit lower than a rear wheel drive, they have a lower centre of gravity making them more stable than rear wheel drive models. This stability improves road handling making turning corners more comfortable and also reduces rocking when moving around in the motorhome habitation area when it is stationary.
It’s the performance of a front wheel drive motorhome on soft ground or on steep rough roads that caused the most concern of the diehard rear wheel drive fans. Rear wheel drive vehicles are generally considered to have more traction than front wheel drive vehicles. A rear wheel drive configuration, with the weight over the wheels that power the motorhome, is an inescapable advantage. Most of the living and sleeping areas of a motorhome as well as the storage sits over the back wheels providing plenty of weight. This weight, plus the extra footprint in models with dual wheels, gives the rear wheel drive motorhome a head start on wet or soft ground. And on steep inclines, particularly unsealed ones, when the vehicle’s weight is transferred to the rear, having power in the rear wheels makes the rear wheel drive motorhome less likely to lose traction.
Traction control is achieved in a rear wheel drive motorhome by a lockable differential (diff-lock) feature. In normal operation, only one wheel (or set of wheels) on the rear axle provides the drive. The other(s) rotates at different speeds to allow for cornering. By using the diff-lock, the driver can disable the differential which allows both sets of wheels to turn at the same speed. Engaging the diff-lock means both sets of rear wheels do the driving, improving traction.
The manufacturers of front wheel drive have attempted to overcome the inherent disadvantages of having most of the weight of the motorhome sitting over the passive wheels by introducing a raft of features that mitigate many of the inherent problems. ESC improves the motorhome’s stability by detecting and reducing loss of traction thereby improving control. In a loss of traction situation, the brakes are automatically applied to help steer the vehicle where the driver intends to go. Braking is applied to wheels individually - for example, to the outer front wheel to counter oversteer.
You’ll also find ASR (Anti-slip Regulation), which avoids wheel slip when starting off, MSR (Motor Schleppmoment Regelung) avoids loss of grip when there is a sudden gear downshift, Hill Holder which avoids rollback during hill starts and Hill Descent Control which helps maintain speed downhill so you don’t have to brake constantly in a modern front wheel drive motorhome.
The most significant feature is Traction+ which integrates the ESC function and the Hill Descent Control. Fiat calls this the “intelligent electronic differential” that helps the motorhome tackle, mud, sand, snow and wet grass. The system transfers torque from the slipping wheel to the one with the most grip to regain traction.
More weight over the rear axles in motorhomes with dual rear wheels can cause the wheels to sink into soft ground more easily increasing the risk of wheel spinning. So neither a rear wheel drive nor front wheel drive motorhome is immune to loss of traction in challenging terrain. The best solution is careful weight distribution. See the tips section below.
While most rear wheel drive motorhomes have higher ground clearance than front wheel drive motorhomes, this doesn’t necessarily relate to the drive shaft but rather the build style. A higher ground clearance allows obstacles on the ground to be driven over with less likelihood of damaging the undercarriage.
A rear wheel drive motorhome will tow a trailer better because the wheels powering the vehicle are closer to the load. The additional weight of a trailer can slightly elevate the front of the motorhome especially on steep roads, reducing traction.
Most experienced motorhome owners will agree that no matter what motorhome you drive, the skill and experience of the driver can have a greater impact on the outcome of a sticky situation than the design of the motorhome itself. In fact, we’ve talked to campground owners who have towed many a stuck motorhome and are convinced that rear wheel and front wheel drive motorhomes were equally likely to get stuck on soft ground or wet grass.
Understanding how your motorhome performs in different conditions and what your work arounds are can get you out of many sticky situations. Just ask John and Barbara Maddren who drove their Bürstner Aviano front wheel drive motorhome on the notoriously challenging Molesworth road in the South Island.
While on road performance is usually the most discussed topic when comparing front and rear wheel drive motorhomes, there are other factors to take into consideration when weighing up which is better for you - in particular, access, interior comfort, and storage.
The space required for the drive shaft means that the rear wheel drive motorhome sits higher than a front wheel drive and the floor is higher off the ground. The higher floor level makes access a little harder as usually several steps are required to climb into the habitation unit. In comparison, the Bürstner Lyseo TD series has just two steps and you’re in. A lower floor level in a front wheel drive motorhome means more interior room without increasing the overall height of the motorhome.
One of the latest innovations in front wheel drive motorhomes - the double floor - offers more storage, better insulation and improved heat dispersal. The double floor is only possible because there’s no drive train between the front and rear of the motorhome. The intelligent thermo double floor, regulates the interior temperature in both winter and summer and increases your storage options. The handy underfloor lockers are ideal for tucking away shoes and other gear.
On the topic of space, the driver’s cab in a front wheel drive motorhome is typically more spacious than in a rear wheel drive model. That’s because the longitudinal orientation of the engine in a rear wheel drive means the engine protrudes into the cab making the cab less roomy.
While the drive system of your motorhome has an impact on traction, the way you drive, pack and park your motorhome can be equally important. We’ve collected the wisdom of our community of experienced motorhome owners on how to improve traction and avoid getting stuck.
The best way to deal with loss of traction is to avoid getting stuck in the first place. While this may sound obvious, packing with weight distribution in mind and pausing to plan the approach to soft, wet or unstable ground can avoid regret and worse, marital disharmony!
If you plan to regularly tackle challenging roads and ground conditions, you may want to consider an all wheel or four wheel drive motorhome. An all wheel drive will generally outperform both front and rear wheel drives on slippery surfaces.
While there are a few options for all wheel or four wheel drive campervans in New Zealand, the only all wheel drive motorhome currently on the market is the HYMER MLT-580. The all wheel drive system sends torque to all four wheels only when the motorhome senses the need for extra traction. When the all wheel drive mode is not activated, all wheel drive motorhomes default to rear wheel drive.
While all wheel drive motorhomes are well suited to driving comfortably in any road conditions, they do have drawbacks. Due to the all wheel drive system being heavier and creating more friction, all wheel drive motorhomes use more fuel than front wheel drive or rear wheel drive motorhomes. The extra grip generated by the all wheel drive system also requires high quality tyres to be most effective.
The reality is most new motorhome purchases in New Zealand are in the up to 3.5 tonnes category and are front wheel drive - largely because of the significant price difference. Most buyers think long and hard about the benefits of rear wheel drive before committing to forking out the extra dollars. If you want a rear wheel drive motorhome, you need to go up to the next weight level which will usually mean a higher purchase price and higher annual cost of ownership.
For many motorhome buyers, the superior drivability and comfort of a modern front wheel drive motorhome outweighs the inherent weight distribution advantages of a rear wheel drive. Modern technological advancements have addressed many of the shortcomings of the original front wheel drive motorhomes. Electronic control systems and countermeasures reduce the chances of getting stuck in a front wheel drive motorhome.
However, no matter how good the design and technology is in a front or rear wheel drive motorhome, it’s often the driver's skill and experience that has the greatest bearing on the outcome of a sticky situation. Careful pre-planning such as distributing your weight when packing the motorhome and carefully choosing your site are the best ways to avoid getting stuck. Using traction mats on soft or slippery ground can also help avoid loss of traction.