Practical Motorhome reviews the Shire Phoenix 2XL Studio Twin – a bespoke van conversion so spacious that there's even room for a wheelchair inside!

Overview

Panel van conversions or PVCs are enjoying a renaissance. This is partly due to the fact that modern high-top vans in general and the Ducato in particular are eminently suitable for conversion into a mobile home. 

Vertical sidewalls and a squared-off roof provide an almost perfect cuboid. At a stroke, one of the major disadvantages of the previous generation of PVCs has been addressed – that of a claustrophobic feeling at eye-level. Now add in a fully crash-tested shell, ease of fixing rear travel seats, low floor height, lack of rear overhang and a choice of exterior colour and the reasons behind that renaissance become clear. 

In addition, there are far more bespoke panel van converters than coachbuilt manufacturers, and these really do offer potential customers ‘choice’ with a capital ‘C’.

Shire Conversions, based in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, is one such firm and although it is relatively new, it has already gained both traction and gravitas by achieving many awards including a Gold Award in the Practical Motorhome Owner Satisfaction Survey 2014 and Silver in 2015. The award scheme title is declaratory and so really is worth keeping in mind that Shire's past customers are very happy with this bespoke van converter as you read our review.

Design

The cognoscenti is adamant that anything new falls into one of only two sub groups. These they label ‘new models exhibiting incremental changes’ and ‘new models exhibiting revolutionary changes’.

Shire Conversions has always ploughed its own furrow, so few will be surprised to learn that this highly desirable conversion sits comfortably in both groups. The original Phoenix M with its signature end washroom/rear storage/blind rear doors was revolutionary when it was launched two years ago, in that although previous models encompassed one or two of these features, no production model contained all three. Now the boundaries of that original idea have been stretched both metaphorically and literally as this, the XL Studio version, is almost a metre longer, at 6.36m (20’10”).

Incrementally, the model has benefited from continuous development and is even better than the original XL model, which was a class winner in last year’s Caravan Club Motorcaravan Design and Drive Awards.

On the road

The Sevel (‘Société Européenne de Véhicules Légers’) panel van is sold in the UK in three different guises – Peugeot Boxer, Citroën Relay and Fiat Ducato. All three are built in the same Italian factory. They are all very good motorcaravan base vehicles, and although similar in many respects, they are
not identical.

For many, Fiat’s Ducato just noses ahead. Either because its 2.3-litre 130bhp engine offers greater torque than the 130bhp but slightly smaller 2.2-litre offering of Peugeot and Citroën, or, more likely because the Fiat’s ‘lead’ is assured by being the only one to offer a two-pedal drive courtesy of its superb Comfortmatic automatic transmission.

Limited finances often prevent low-volume converters from keeping any demonstration/test vehicles. Instead they rely on previous customers’ willingness to show prospective purchasers around their personal motorhome. Exhibition models are sourced similarly or consist of those ’vans
just finished and awaiting delivery. The press demonstrator that Shire made available to us for test came without a passenger airbag, but they are, in fact, standard kit.

A motorcaravan with black coachwork sounds counter-intuitive to many motorcaravanners, but we thought it worked well.

This brings us on to the over-riding reason for buying from a bespoke motorhome builder and it can be identified as something that permeates through every molecule in every model that Shire designs and builds. It is choice.

Not only can you specify whichever badge you want on the grille – if the Fiat/Peugeot/Citroën triumvirate offer it, you can choose to have it – but engine, gearbox, colour and more accessories than one can shake a stick at are all part of the available mix of ingredients. As a result your recipe will comprise exactly what your heart desires and not what some focus group thinks you want.

Lounging & dining

It’s not just what Shire included in this extra long version that makes this a great motorhome, but of equal significance is what it resisted putting in.

When offered the extra-long wheelbase version over medium- or long-wheelbase derivatives, many designers immediately fill the extra space with more furniture. Shire has executed a modest extension to the galley but crucially left the unobstructed side door aperture unmolested. This is key to the amazing feeling of spaciousness that is immediately apparent on stepping aboard. No, that’s underselling the design – it isn’t just a feeling of spaciousness, but an incontrovertible fact.

The other major contributor to Shire Conversions’ unrivalled performance in the interior space race was the hinged table/worktop adjacent to the side door. Able-bodied motorcaravanners will enjoy the huge and uncluttered lounge floor this contributes to, but wheelchair users will find it so convenient. There is plenty of room to turn 360 degrees, plus somewhere to park in the lounge that is socially inclusive, but not in the way of the central aisle.

An island leg and two sizes of table-top to slot onto it turned the swivelled cab pews into a dining room. Also included in the mix is a tripod base for dining under the awning.

Finally, in this section, we like the soft furnishing fabrics, but if they don’t float your boat, you can choose whatever takes your fancy!

Kitchen

Located centrally and split either side of the central aisle, this is one of the best kitchen galleys we’ve seen in a panel van conversion. Loads of available storage, mainly under the base units and in high-level lockers, is supplemented by lipped open shelves and fabric pockets adorning the walls at chest height.

The standard specification is impressive and includes a microwave oven, retractable power dock and a wine cooler. It’s a kitchen designed for those who enjoy preparing raw ingredients and cooking instead of relying on warming-up ready meals. There’s a goodly acreage of worktop between the sink and cooker and cooks can spread out onto the hinged extra worktop/table opposite. It is all illuminated by a useful amount of natural and artificial light.

Ventilation was courtesy of an adjacent top-hinged window and a powerful two-way fan in the overhead rooflight. We appreciated the position of the absorption fridge which had been raised above floor level and meant that we didn’t have to bend double to retrieve items from the bottom shelf. Prefer a compressor fridge?

You’ve only got to ask!

Sleeping

Whether you’re a solo motorcaravanner or two, the bed is a Hobson’s choice longitudinal double that is made from the sofa in the time-honoured way of extending the base and allowing the backrest cushion to lie flat. Extra width was available by repositioning the armrest cushions and utilising a small infill.

The result was a pleasingly flat bed of a sensible size 1.85 x 1.26m (6’1” x 4’2”). We did feel that it could be improved by supporting the aisle edge of the cushion and by providing the inboard occupant with an adjustable reading light in the manner of those for the aisle seat passengers on aeroplanes.

On the plus side, the heating can be turned on first thing on chilly mornings without having to get out of bed.

When friends tour together, sharing a double bed might not be appropriate. Shire is aware of this so in the future there will be a choice – a single-beds option is under development.

Washroom

The washroom is immediately behind the kitchen and is accessed via a centrally placed door. The design makes optimum use of the available space.

The vanity basin has a useful flat outer edge on which bottles and sachets can be parked and the large illuminated mirror behind is well placed for wielding a mascara brush or razor.

A proper towel rail - not the ring variety - and a separate monobloc mixer tap complete the equipment inventory on the offside.

The shower tray is centrally placed and against the nearside wall an electric-flush toilet with wheeled cassette resides. Above that is a surprisingly capacious shelved (recessed) cupboard.

Located in the centre of the compartment’s rear wall is another door. This allows the shower hose to be passed outside where it could be usefully employed cleaning muddy canine paws or sandy feet. More on this under ‘storage’ where the two doors’ other useful function will be revealed.

The washroom is frequently the Achilles’ heel of PVCs so it was pleasing to find that this one isn’t compromised other than the step-up from the floor level, which is unavoidable if you are going to have a shower tray in a PVC.

Storage

The Phoenix 2XL Studio has six large (undivided) overhead lockers and a huge underseat storage space. There is also a two-door wardrobe, notmunusual in itself, but this interpretation is. It is divided horizontally and each half is different. The top section is a half-height hanging affair, while the lower section is shelved, perhaps recognising that fleeces and jeans are more likely than full-length ball gowns and tail coats to be the motorcaravanners’ apparel of choice.

If this arrangement doesn’t appeal, you can choose to have both sections shelved or combined into one as a full-height hanging wardrobe.

In the main living area are four handy wall-mounted elasticated pockets, and Shire’s signature array of storage pockets decorate the outside of the,washroom wall. The latter are accessed via the (blind) rear doors.

Some people dislike having to open a cupboard door to access a drawer, in particular a frequently opened cutlery drawer, as in this case, but this is a personal preference and not necessarily a design fault.

All at Practical Motorhome use their motorcaravans for load lugging so it was great to find that loading of long thin cargo will be a doddle as both washroom doors open to enable anything – from canoes to flat pack furniture and rolls of carpet – to just slide straight in.

Equipment

The equipment list is comprehensive. Pretty much everything a get-
away couple or experienced motorcaravanner might require is included, with
no thought to scrimping on the cost.

Take the two leisure batteries for example, or the two monobloc mixer taps in the washroom, or the insulation around the water tanks, or a ‘proper spare wheel’ instead of a can of puncture-fixing foam.

Standard spec is significantly higher than some more expensive rivals’ and at the risk of breeding contempt through over- familiarity, I’ll just remind you again… that on just about anything you have the choice of having something bespoke. Fancy a different awning to the standard one? Or cab blinds instead of insulated pads? Providing you can finance the options, you can have them.

This level of choice is especially important to those with mobility problems. Recently we heard of a major UK motorcaravan converter who wouldn’t even leave a cupboard out for a wheelchair-using potential purchaser - as it would have disrupted production. Contrast this with Shire’s bespoke build and its
‘can do’ philosophy.

Technical specs

LayoutVan conversion, rear washroom
Sleeps2
Travel seats2
MTPLM3500kg
Payload550kg
Length6.36m20′10″
Width2.26m7′5″
Height2.6m8′6″
Engine (capacity)2300
Engine (power)130
Engine (torque)320
Fresh/waste water75L / 50L
Leisure battery85 Ah
Secondary leisure battery85 Ah
Gas tank size25kg
Number of gas tank compartments1
External Options
Aluminium sidewalls
Kitchen Equipment
Dometic Fridge, 3-burner gas hob, Combined Oven/Grill, Microwave
Heating
Truma Electric/Gas Blown air heater, Truma Electric/Gas water heater, Truma Combi heater
Security
Immobiliser

Verdict

Gentleman Jack’s experiences as a judge for the Caravan Club Motorcaravan Design and Drive Awards left him with the impression that the Shire Phoenix 2XL would be as good ‘in the field’ as it was in the showroom, and it was. That said, he didn’t fully appreciate just how easy this layout is to live in. It’s all down to that unobstructed lounge floor space and non-compromised side door aperture. The spacious Shire Phoenix 2XL is an excellent example of the maxim that ‘less is more’. 

We’d go for a conversion only (£19,000+ VAT) on a fully loaded 3-litre base vehicle that was ‘just secondhand’. Buyers can save a mint this way and get more for their money. 

Jack knows, because he’s done it! 

You can read Gentleman Jack's Motorcaravanning for less than £2000 series of articles on his self-build online, as well as his friend Grant Long's self-build article, Build your own motorhome for less than £8,000

It's much easier to get Shire Conversions to convert your van for you, however, and within reason you can have whatever you want! 

Conclusion

Pros

  • Choice of engine and transmission options
  • Choice of interior fabrics and furniture finishes
  • Choice of equipment
  • Choice of exterior colour
  • Uncluttered floor space
  • Good for wheelchair users and the less mobile

Cons

  • The substantial bed base is heavy to lift
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