We've been asking the big question – are there too few automatic-transmission options for motorhomes? You might be surprised at motorhome owners' responses

When we asked if people thought there were enough automatic transmission motorcaravans on the market, we imagined that any preference for manual gears or auto might well depend on age, health and driving experience. We were in for a few surprises. 

Yes, says reader Laurence Barnes

With two very elderly dogs no longer able to travel and needing care, it’s not worthwhile having a motorhome sitting unused outside, so my wife and I are enjoying planning our next purchase, which will probably be in a few months. 

There are so many variants and variables now that some considerable thinking is required on what suits our needs and travelling lifestyle, but I have come across some issues. I’m a ‘vehicle-person’ anyway, so some of my questions are on the mechanical side. 

Because we drive automatic cars it is a given that the new motorhome should be an automatic as well; we have decided on a maximum vehicle length of 6.5m and, after much discussion, the must-have layout list includes a separate shower and a drop-down bed – this seems to us the best alternative to a fixed bed for a smaller vehicle and frees up leisure space in the van. There is a whole other list of requirements, such as cruise control and a reversing camera.

Full or partial auto?

The first difficulty comes in finding a good automatic choice, and doing our homework on the net and talking to other users there are very mixed views on the automated manuals now on offer, not only on the way they drive, but also with regard to reliability. 

Only Mercedes-Benz seems to have moved on from its robotised Sprintshift and now offers what I would call a true automatic (which is superb). Still, it seems odd that Peugeot has never offered an automatic choice and the new Ford is all ‘jam tomorrow’ – not even the old robotised Durashift is on offer.

I don’t understand why motorhome manufacturers accept this when there are alternatives available with an automatic option that gives the purchaser more choice. In addition to the Mercedes’ gearbox, the Fiat ComfortMatic and the Renault Quickshift automated manuals offer further variety. Fiat seems to have 80-90% of the engine/chassis market at the moment; this is a big deal for the brand. It is easy to say, well, motorhome sales are just a fraction of the much larger commercial market for its Ducato, but I don’t accept this argument. 

If you take the annual figure for motorhome sales in the UK and multiply this by at least 10 to get a feel for sales in the whole of Europe – which will be substantial – you’ll realise that Fiat should by now have made the effort to provide a true automatic transmission. After all, if Mercedes can do this with a lower sales volume, why can’t Fiat? 

The paradox is that I would not be surprised to find out that the demands of the motorhome driver for a better ‘car-like’ cab have driven the Ducato’s development to the benefit of the commercial driver.

Of all the automated manuals available, the Renault Quickshift has gained the most favourable reviews among users, but Renault cab-and-chassis bases appear to have become a rarity. Bentley comes to mind as the last manufacturer to have produced a whole range of motorhomes on a Renault chassis, and even though Bentley has gone out of business, its products are highly prized and do not hang around for long on the pre-owned market.

Then there is the additional cost of an automatic, and there is a substantial inconsistency here. If you look at the Fiat 500 MPV, you can have the manual or the automated-manual Dualogic gearbox with the same engine. The Dualogic costs an extra £900 (Fiat’s RRP for the option, which would probably be discounted by a retailer). 

So why does the Ducato ComfortMatic cost an additional £1500 (RRP), and why do some motorhome converters charge more than this? I wouldn’t mind paying this sort of premium for a proper torque-converter automatic transmission. But for an automated manual? Hmm, I’d have to think carefully about that. And that’s the dilemma: the choice for the motorhome purchaser is not good, and I believe it’s overpriced.

The demand is there

The irony is that, if you take a cross section of motorhome drivers, a substantial proportion of them are likely to be in the 50-plus, or even 60-plus, bracket. This is the age group that will more often own a car with an auto ’box and would probably – finance permitting – prefer automatic on a motorhome. 

Another irony I’ve uncovered is that, at every motorhome show I have attended, the new and used automatic models on show always seem to be the first to be sold. So why aren’t motorhome converters and retail outlets getting the message on this? Why must shoppers play ‘hunt the automatic’ at so many dealerships? 

A further consideration is that with the new pension freedoms it is a fair bet that a good proportion of the new liquidity available to pensioners will find its way into the motorhome market. The stronger the market the more discerning buyers are likely to be, and the more likely such purchasers will look to buy new rather than pre-owned. A good automatic option could be a strong factor.

So I do believe that some of the cab/chassis manufacturers have questions to answer on their products and their pricing; and you have to ask if the motorhome converters are shouting loud enough at the manufacturers on the matters raised here. Does anyone else care, or is it just me? 

No, says Practical Motorhome columnist Gentleman Jack

Automatic transmission (a two-pedal drive with no manual clutch operation and automatic upward and downward ratio changes) is currently available on all production motorhomes except those using Ford Transit, Peugeot Boxer and Citroën Relay base vehicles. Last year these accounted for 33% of new registrations, so the majority could have been bought with automatic transmission. In addition the figure for those offering automatic transmission 

is higher than the remaining 67%, because major volume converters such as Autocruise who favour the Boxer as the default choice  will build one on a Ducato for any purchaser who requires automatic transmission. 

Thumbs up for Fiat 

Respondents to our annual Practical Motorhome Owner Satisfaction Survey (in excess of 15,000 responses over the history of the awards) have overwhelmingly been very satisfied with Fiat’s ComfortMatic transmission; almost all of them said they would buy it again. Since its inception eight years ago, our respondents have found it to be more reliable than manual transmission with a much lower incidence of premature clutch failure when expressed as a percentage of those sold with each type of transmission. In addition, there is no fuel consumption or emissions penalty that sometimes accompanies torque-converter automatics. 

No, says Darryl Healey, Proprietor of Shire Conversions 

ComfortMatic features on 20% of the motorhomes we produce. I don’t believe that it is overpriced, though; with the increased weight of the entire vehicle, the auto ’box in a motorhome is built to take a lot more wear and tear than that in a car. Fiat would obviously charge more for it. 

Auto retains a hold on the public 

And I don’t think we converters need to shout loudly at base-vehicle manufacturers to change things. I wouldn’t entertain the thought of not using the Fiat Ducato because, at the moment, it’s the perfect vehicle for a panel-van conversion. Also, at the point of sale, we sometimes offer a free upgrade to an auto ’box, so perhaps everyone should buy a Shire motorhome! 

Motorhomes with automatic gears are very desirable and I would agree that they are the first to sell. If the auto ’box exceeds their budget, then customers can always use the cheaper alternative – cruise control – another extra we quite often throw in at the point of sale. 

What do you think? 

Tell us your views about automatic transmission on motorhomes via our forum, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages or write a letter or postcard and post it to The Editor (Talk), Practical Motorhome, Haymarket Media, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE.

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