Two Guys, a Truck and a 31-Foot Fleetwood, Part I

Two Guys, a Truck and a 31-Foot Fleetwood

Part I: Experiencing the RV Lifestyle En Route to Super Bowl XLII

"James, would you be prepared to go to the Super Bowl for Edmunds?"

"Um, yeah?"

You don't say no to that question; you can't say no. Most men would quit their jobs, sell their wedding rings or scarf down a bucket of equine organs for the chance to witness the biggest spectacle in sports. But there's gonna be a catch, and it's bound to be something along those lines.

"You're going to get there by driving and living in an RV for four days."

Ford and Fleetwood were going to provide a motor home to showcase how a growing number of Americans are choosing to retire and/or spend their vacations. We would pick up the rig at Fleetwood's Riverside, California, headquarters and drive it to Phoenix's West Valley for the big game, dropping anchor in Palm Springs, California, and Lake Havasu, Arizona, along the way.

So it wasn't eating horse intestines, but it was hardly an adventure up my alley, nor Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath's, who would enjoy and/or suffer through the journey with me. Neither of us had ever been camping, and the closest we'd ever come to an RV was blowing by one on the freeway. This was virgin territory, but as I figure, we were perfect explorers because of it.

Our New Friend Terry

There would be a pair of Fleetwood recreational vehicles on this journey. The first was a self-powered motor home known as the Fiesta 33L, which consisted of a Ford F53 chassis with a front-mounted 6.8-liter Ford gasoline V8, good for 362 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque. It also had a 32-inch LCD TV, dark cherry wood finishing and was certainly the more stereotypical RV, but we had our eyes keenly set on its partner.

His name was Terry, a homey 31-foot fifth-wheel trailer hooked into the bed of a mighty 2008 Ford F-450 Super Duty, equipped with a 6.4-liter turbodiesel capable of 350 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. Having already put this most capable of heavy-duty pickups through its paces by towing a 17,140-pound trailer during an Edmunds full test, we knew the F-450 and its 24,000-pound towing capacity would lug the 9,000-plus-pound Terry like a walk in the RV park. More on that theory later.

Terry and the black F-450 looked far cooler than the Fiesta. But our attraction to the pair was strengthened by the knowledge that 85 percent of the estimated 352,000 RVs sold in 2007 were towable rather than motor homes like the Fiesta. A trailer's lower MSRP probably has something to do with that (Terry cost $44,710 versus $97,440 for the relatively cheap Fiesta), along with the fact you have a fully functional vehicle to drive around the rest of the year when you're not RVing. Sure, it's a heavy-duty pickup with a Flintstones ride and gas-swilling engine, but at least it's not a bus.

Before setting off, Fleetwood Senior Product Administrator Gary Henderson gave us a quick primer on setting up the RV. We were briefed on such tidbits as not electrocuting ourselves, not dumping "black" sewage water upon our Skechers and not blowing up the RV. All important to be sure, but more fascinating was learning how to open up the three nifty slide-out panels, how to position the TV antenna and how the refrigerator manages to remain on at all times to keep our beer cool. Now we're talking.

We were asked if either of us had any experience driving a fifth-wheel trailer. Magrath responded that he drove one once about three years ago. I stared blankly.

"OK," responded one of our comrades-in-travel from Ford. We didn't see them again until Palm Springs.

"I Think I'm Overthinking It"

As we slowly — and I do mean slowly — began to trudge along in heavy traffic on the 91 freeway out of Bakersfield, Magrath started to realize the contradictory nature of driving such a large vehicle.

"I think I'm overthinking it," he declared, getting more comfortable as he checked the huge telescoping mirrors of the F-450. Once under way, the massively capable Ford made it easy to forget the big haul astern, save for the frequent hitch creak and the odd ride. You feel every bump four times — truck front axle, truck back axle, trailer axle and then trailer recoil sent back to the cab.

The steering is fairly numb on-center, but it lends a sense of confidence that you're in firm control of both truck and trailer. It's not that dissimilar to a car. The same can't be said for the big Fiesta we'd drive later, whose steering is stiff at low speeds and beyond vague at higher ones, causing frequent overcorrections and demanding the absolute undivided attention of the driver — which could be tricky if you've got a couple of kids along for the ride.

However, as a pair of mindless commuters dodged in front of our F-450, Magrath discovered the contradictory aspect of RV driving: "The trick is to also plan ahead."

Indeed it is. When driving something that's about 53 feet long and 10 tons — and in two pieces — it's vital to plan ahead when needing to change lanes, and leave enough space ahead to stop. The real trick is to maintain a distance that discourages other drivers from cutting in front of you, while keeping enough real estate ahead to prevent you from ramming into things. Ever wonder why there's always so much space in front of big rigs stuck in traffic? Now you know.

When we needed to stop, though, the F-450 provided all the confidence in the world. Magrath was instantly impressed by the firm brake pedal that speaks back to you as if to say, "Relax, I've got it, partner." While the 650 lb-ft of torque under the hood may make the biggest splash for pulling nearly 20,000 pounds of truck and Terry, we were much happier with the ability to stop nearly 20,000 pounds in quick order. Some of the credit here should go to Ford's trailer brake controller, which balances the performance of the F-450's massive four-wheel discs and the trailer's electric brakes.

"Um, It's Accelerating by Itself"

As traffic cleared and we got up to speed, Magrath grew more comfortable.

"Am I allowed to pass people?" he pondered as we came up to a dawdling 1980s Toyota mini truck.

"No, you shouldn't!" I implored. "This is RVing. Think old man. Slow and steady."

He ignored me. It wasn't a problem, though, for once again, the massively capable Super Duty and its Power Stroke turbodiesel earned its stripes. An hour later, we couldn't say the same for simpler aspects of the truck.

"Um, it's accelerating by itself," Magrath exclaimed as I was fiddling with the nav system. Frantically, he began searching for why the engine was continuing to churn hard despite the fact that no foot was on the accelerator. As the truck barreled down an inclined strip of highway, Magrath dropped the transmission into neutral, but that didn't do anything.

Cars began looming ahead and Terry loomed ominously in the mirrors. The incident probably lasted for only 25 seconds, but as I began fondly recollecting the contents of my life, Magrath finally managed to identify the cause and extricate the offending rubber all-season floor mat from the accelerator. Embarrassing disaster diverted.

As we climbed out of the F-450 in Palm Springs, I chucked the floor mat into the crew cab's backseat and gazed back (and up) at Terry in renewed awe.

"Wow, we were pulling that?" I pondered aloud. A day earlier, I had viewed heavy-duty trucks as massive, fuel-swilling tools of overcompensation. After only three hours of our journey, I was singing a different tune — at least about the truck. The rest of the journey would determine my feelings toward Terry.

Part II: Experiencing the RV Lifestyle En Route to Super Bowl XLII

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