When it first arrived, the Swift Group’s Escape range was a complete revelation. Right in the thick of the credit crunch, the launch of the Escapes brought the Swift Group back into the budget end of the market – a segment it had previously serviced with the Sundance family, but which didn’t seem ‘budget enough’ any more.

It put the Escape in direct competition with the Elddis Autoquest range for affordable family touring.

By way of a response, Elddis, which only three years ago had this market segment to itself, has worked hard to improve its popular Autoquest range. In addition, Auto-Trail entered the fray last year with its popular Tribute range of Ford Transit-based motorhomes, which have met with great acclaim.

Now the ball is in Swift’s court once more, and it has responded by revamping the Escapes with the results set to make their debut at the February NEC show. The most exciting development is an all-new model, the 696: a sub-seven-metre ‘van with twin longitudinal bunks in the rear, giving it a comfortable berth count of six. Practical Motorhome was invited to Swift’s East Yorkshire HQ to preview the newcomer.

Our first impression upon entering the 696 was that the layout is ideal for families of five or six; in addition to the comfortable complement of two berths, the full dinette means that the 696 can accommodate four travellers in the rear, two facing forwards and two facing rearwards, all strapped in with three-point safety belts.

While we’re on the subject of the dinette, the seats are very comfortable, and the inclusion of a facing sofa and clever seat extension mean it can be converted into an L-shaped lounge that will easily accommodate six people. The lounge table has a swing-out attachment to provide sufficient space. We were very impressed with the sturdy table, which can even be bolted into the floor to stop it moving while in transit.

The seat extension does obstruct access to the cab, but movement between kitchen and lounge is not affected. The kitchen provides ample work and storage space, and gets Swift Group’s trademark removable sink cover and drainer, which have storage slots in a kitchen cupboard so they’re not a hindrance.

The washroom is situated across from the kitchen, and it’s the one area that has been compromised in Swift’s quest for space. That’s not to say that it isn’t usable, but it suffers from ‘white cubicle’ syndrome. Storage is generous, though, and all in all the washroom will meet the needs of the long queue of people waiting to use it, and children in particular won’t found the dearth of space troublesome.

The lounge bed is spacious and easy to make up – once you’ve lowered the heavy table, that is – and will easily accommodate a couple. The overcab double is comfortable, too, although headroom is a little tight. It has its own reading light, as well as a window light, helping to make the space seem lighter and airier.

The 696 really shines when it comes to its rear bunks, though. The ladder to the top bunk is fixed to the wall – a welcome departure from having to mess around with removable ladders – and the lower bunk can be lifted and secured out of the way to create a tall load area in the rear. Swift’s designers have included a sliding partition that cordons this area off from the rest of the rest of the ‘van, effectively creating a rear garage. This is tall enough to swallow bicycles and can be accessed from an external door. All in all, this is a very flexible feature that will prove useful if you don’t need all six of the Escape’s berths.

The large washroom is handy, as are the storage spaces under the dinette seats, and you can find space for fill-in cushions when they’re not needed. There’s 544kg of payload to play with, so weight budgeting will be required, but this should prove sufficient for a full quota of occupants.

Swift faces stiff competition from the likes of CI with its excellent (but costlier) Carioca 656, but we think the Escape’s lounge and bed design make it a better family ‘van, especially for those with small kids.