RV Test: Four Wheel Campers Fleet 8′

May 13, 2011
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When it comes to versatility, ease of use, simple driveability, comfort and a high fun factor in general it’s hard to beat a truck camper. Among the genre, pop-ups with their low center of gravity and drop-down profile lend themselves to an even more adventurous crowd. Four Wheel Campers has been making innovative, rugged pop-ups for decades, specializing in models of all sizes big and small, but for this report our interests were in the company’s new Fleet model. Based on its Eagle camper for small pickups such as the Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, the Fleet has been given 6 inches more width for extra sleeping and general interior living space.

All Four Wheel Campers products are aluminum-framed (which the manufacturer calls its Flex Frame), use polyfoam insulation and are built with rugged use in mind. And a new one-piece, no-seam, no-screws aluminum roof has recently been implemented by the manufacturer for the ultimate in reliability.

Feature Rich
Some of the other things we most admire about the new Fleet model are also shared by many of the Four Wheel models. It features a 6-gallon aluminum hot water heater and a DSI (direct spark ignition) option is available. A hot water bypass valve and a low water drain are installed in units that have hot water systems.

A high-quality 30-amp marine plug is on the side of the campers so you can hook the camper into your garage, generator or shorepower when available. All except the shell model come with an IOTA 30-amp power converter inside the camper as standard equipment.

All of the campers except shell models come standard with dual 12-volt outlets. Considering the proliferation of laptops, DVD players and other electronic toys and tools, or for charging cell phones and other vital communications equipment, these outlets are a welcome sight.

Hitting The Road
Our road-test camper was matched to a Toyota Tundra Access Cab with the 5.7-liter V-8, so the rig we drove handled like a rocket. The Fleet didn’t present much weight for the powerful engine to manage. We enjoyed some sunny drive time, but also ran into strong winds and heavy rain that same weekend. Such is the nature of typical Oregon weather.

A tall hardside camper, even on a well-matched and well-equipped truck, can cause some white-knuckle moments when those unexpected gusts are encountered. But it was smooth cruising all the way, as the low-profile Fleet brought us no such anxiety.

En route to our destination we did some sightseeing that included a side trip to the jetty and breakwater at Florence, Unger’s Bay Fish-n-Chips in the community of Winchester Bay and a stop at the Umpqua lighthouse and scenic viewpoint. A truck and camper are always easy to park, and the downsized Fleet and Tundra pairing was especially flexible when it came to sometimes-snug locations.

We were headed for Riley Ranch County Park (www.co.coos.or.us/ccpark/Riley_Ranch/RileyRanch.html) located between North Bend/Coos Bay and Lakeside, Oregon.

Riley Ranch is a new park and was designed with RVs in mind so it has large, flat, well-graded gravel parking spots and spacious sites with natural landscaping. It was all but deserted during our off-season visit, so we had a lot of campsite choices and just as much quiet.

Life With Pop-Up
Four Wheel’s campers are classified as soft-side models because the top of the camper folds down and is clamped to the lower hardwall body for travel. In camp, the roof can be raised 22 inches. It’s made up of a fabric wall panel that joins the roof and lower body together. Once opened up for camp, the Fleet has a full 6 feet 4 inches of headroom. But when folded down for travel, it measures less than 12 inches above the pickup’s roofline. This low profile translates into improved fuel economy and better handling.

With the truck parked and leveled, raising the roof is a matter of releasing six latches and pushing it up (with minimal physical effort) from the inside. Spring-loaded, bifold end panels help lift the weight one end at a time. Four Wheel reports that a new and improved lift system is in the works that will further reduce the effort to raise the roof — hard to imagine, since this took almost no effort at all for a person in reasonably good condition.

Smoothly climbing in and out, however, did require some practice. The entry door is only as tall as the hardwall, so you must duck as you enter and exit. If you forget to do this a few times, you learn quickly and it becomes second nature, but it’s still a bit clumsy.

One drawback to this small camper is its lack of exterior storage space. Everything must be stowed inside the camper or the truck cab. We filled the Access Cab’s back seat with photo gear and a few essentials, but the rest went inside the Fleet. Folding camp chairs, fishing tackle, firewood and the like occupied the camper’s floor space, and were moved out for campsite setup. Old bath towels draped over the inside storage items prevented cabinet damage from cargo movement during travel. And we transferred some items that we didn’t need inside the unit to the truck cab for temporary storage when parked. The round-robin system isn’t as complicated as it sounds; it’s just the kind of thing you get used to as part of owning a small camper.

Ours was a short-term test, so owners would likely have many of these items better organized in the camper’s built-in storage cabinets. Four Wheel designs such storage spots all about the interior, including access to the area between the camper box and the truck bed near the wheelwells. We used the latter for leveling blocks, an extension cord and other items that could stand being exposed to weather. Raising the roof reveals even more storage options. For example, the 23×24-inch refrigerator top in the aft streetside corner is a good place for gear once you’re parked.

The camper is available with a curbside sofa bed, or as in our test unit, the optional dinette for two.

The single-pole-supported, 16×24-inch removable dining table is sized appropriately for this camper and compact meals. One seat is part of the forward cushion-covered box that abuts the front wall, and the opposite-facing seat incorporates a flip-fold seatback mechanism. By removing the table and flipping the seatback forward and down, a modest-sized recliner/sofa is revealed to create a reading or lounging area for one person. In our case, we had one person stretched out on the bed and the other on the lounge after hours. The space was snug, but felt safe and secure when the weather started getting rowdy outside.

Speaking of reading, Four Wheel uses a pair of dual-bulb overhead fixtures fitted with LED lamps as the sole lights inside the Fleet. Given the rig’s small size, these were large enough to handle mealtime, setup and breakdown, and reading or other leisure activities. They also use far less current than incandescent bulbs so they’ll save battery power in a boondock camp. Our Fleet included the dual-battery option so we were set for long-term dry camping. A solar panel option is also available.

Its streetside galley includes a two-burner stove, small sink and optional 1.9-cubic-foot refrigerator.

The optional on-demand water pump replaces the hand pump for an effortless water supply from the 22-gallon freshwater tank. The balance of the kitchen works as you would expect. Nearby drawers corral utensils and there is enough storage for basic foodstuffs. Most of our serious cooking takes place outside over the campfire — except for morning oatmeal or our essential coffee — so the Fleet’s galley worked fine for our camping needs.

There are no gray or black holding tanks in the Fleet. The sink drain empties through a hose fitting on the exterior wall so you need to supply your own bucket or other container and hose to catch the gray water. A small nook in the camper’s interior, near the back door, is sized to fit a portable toilet. Although trim in size, the snug compartment is still better than a walk to the campground facility at night in the rain.

There was a surprisingly large master bed in the cabover area. It started at a moderate 4 feet deep by 6 feet wide, but the aft bed edge was part of a platform that slid to the rear and rested on side-rail supports. Once expanded, four padded cushions fit into the platform area and the bed expanded to 6 feet wide by 6 feet, 4 inches deep. That was large enough for this pair of tall adults with room to spare. A good night’s sleep is a priority for us and the Fleet bed was large enough, but we thought a bit thinly padded. Access is good as it’s an easy step up from the padded seating surface below.

If the weather is balmy, the fabric privacy and plastic weatherproofing window cover hook-and-loop fasteners can be pulled open to expose the mesh screens to allow cross-ventilation. Cold weather was on tap for our jaunt so we just opened a corner for fresh air.

The optional forced-air furnace was small but well-sized to the Fleet interior. While the fabric sidewalls offered little insulation, the company offers an optional Arctic Pack insulation package that includes insulated panels that attach to the fabric sidewalls with hook-and-loop fasteners. We stayed cozy and warm, minus the Arctic Pack, during our cool but not extremely cold camping trip.

During our lounge time we were entertained by music from the optional AM/FM/CD stereo system. The company offers a full range of options including roof racks for kayaks, popular electronics and other functional features.

We enjoy using a camper with some fabric walls because we can hear and enjoy the outdoor sounds, be they of environmental or animal origin. The Fleet did the trick and the natural noise lulled us to sleep. Those same natural sounds woke us in a hurry the next morning as the weather had turned and the trees were whipping and swaying in the wind. Gray clouds rolled in on the horizon and had our location in the bull’s-eye, so we set about breaking camp in swift fashion.

Breaking down the Fleet was easier than setup. We made sure all storage items were placed lower than the folded-down roof level, popped the front-end wall panel down and did the same with the back panel. Elastic cords inside ensured that the fabric sidewalls folded together inside the roof edge lip, and with a quick pass around to be sure the fabric was all tucked in, the six latches were secured, the cargo was stowed back inside and we were ready to roll.

Back on the road, with the storm now raging in full force, we carefully but enjoyably motored home. The Fleet was as easy to handle in a tempest as it was on a good day, and for the most part, our camping weekend had been fun and relaxed. This Four Wheel camper had the chops to handle a seriously rugged camping excursion, and provided civilized accommodations in a reasonably sized and priced package.

Four Wheel Campers
800/242-1442; fourwh.com.

Four Wheel Campers Fleet 8′
MSRP, BASE: $11,795
MSRP, AS TESTED: $14,940
EXT LENGTH: 10′ 1″
EXT WIDTH: 6′ 3″
FRESHWATER: 22 gals.
LPG: 5.5 gals.
CONSTRUCTION: Aluminum frame,
roof and exterior
INSULATION: Polystyrene
REFRIGERATOR: 1.9 cu. ft.
BATTERY (2): 12-volt
TOILET: portable toilet storage
DRY WEIGHT: 760 lbs.

Good stuff:
• Great driving and handling manners, good fuel economy potential
• Built tough for bad-road driving
• Interior design makes good
use of small space

Not so good stuff:
• No exterior storage
• Bed padding a bit thin
• Low doorway opening

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