This new 32-foot model from Dodgen Industries Inc. is constructed on a Chevrolet C5500 chassis, and includes interior amenities associated with the luxury type C market.
By Lazelle Jones
Few companies have built type C motorhomes longer than Born Free Motorcoach, a subsidiary of Dodgen Industries. The business was founded more than 37 years ago by John Dodgen and still is based in Humboldt, Iowa, where it began. Throughout the years the company's model names have changed, and the chassis they're built upon have differed, but the motorhomes have always been type Cs. And their pleasant interiors and clever construction have always distinguished them from the rest.
When I heard recently that Born Free had started building a new coach using a Chevrolet C5500 chassis, I wanted to review it. The President is a 32-foot model available with two floor plan configurations — rear twin beds or a rear queen bed.
Measuring 32 feet 4 inches, to be exact, the President is definitely a Born Free creation, with all of the luxury appointments that are the signature of Dodgen Industries. From the abbreviated cab-over cap back to the rear cap, the exterior lines are pleasing to the eye. The interior décor is creative, elegant, and begs to be enjoyed. The floor plan is functional and makes use of space well.
This unit is a full 102 inches wide. Its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) is 19,500 pounds — 5,000 pounds above the GVWR of the typical type C. I drove and lived in this unit for 10 days and put nearly 1,000 miles on it, traveling over everything from dirt roads to interstates.
The President handled it all well, thanks in part to the new chassis' Link Air suspension system, which levels the coach and intercepts and mitigates the effects of irregular road surfaces. The Link Air system incorporates two giant air bladders connected to an air compressor. The compressor automatically keeps the air bags properly inflated. The system also can be switched on or off manually via controls on the dash.
When I took the coach out for its test, I spent some time dry camping with a Kawasaki youth ATV riding school out in the California high desert. Here the August temperatures hover throughout the day in the high 90s and often break 100 degrees. The President became a place where the kids and their parents could cool down, take on refreshment, and relax when a break from the heat was needed. The kids will never know how good they had it!
Born Free President cockpitI accumulated 10 hours of run time on the gasoline Onan auxiliary generator, which powered the two optional 13,500-Btu roof air conditioners. With the air on, and with the day-night accordion shades drawn, the coach became a cool oasis.
The unit I reviewed included the 6.5-kilowatt generator, which is an option; a 5.5-kilowatt generator is standard. Even with the high generator usage, this 32-foot Born Free averaged a fairly respectable 6 mpg on the first tank of fuel. However, on subsequent mileage runs (steady operation at 55 to 60 mph) and with the dash air conditioner running on low, I logged 9 miles per gallon — very respectable for a coach with a GVWR of 19,500 pounds and an actual weight of 16,080 pounds (which included full fresh water and fuel tanks). The fuel tank has a 60-gallon capacity, so more than 500 miles can be traveled before refueling is required.
The coach's cargo-carrying capacity is also commendable. Had we wanted to take advantage of it, we had in excess of 3,000 pounds remaining, and that was after topping off the fresh water and fuel tanks. When equipped with a Class III receiver hitch, this coach can tow 6,500 pounds.
The C5500 Chassis
The prowess behind the President is its Chevrolet C5500 chassis. Chevrolet offers this versatile foundation in three body styles — regular truck cab, crew cab, and cutaway chassis cab. I first became acquainted with the Chevy C5500 truck chassis when it was introduced in Chevrolet's commercial truck line a few years ago. I was immediately impressed with its sloping front hood and above-the-road cab height, which improves visibility in front of the vehicle by a whopping 17 percent.
Born Free President interiorThe Chevy C5500 comes with the 8.1-liter Vortec engine, and that's how my test vehicle was equipped, but it's also available with a Duramax 6600 diesel engine. Both engines are coupled to an Allison six-speed automatic transmission for 2007. My test coach had a five-speed automatic; the switch to a six-speed model was made subsequently.
Anyone who drives this coach will appreciate the massive exterior side mirror system. It provides a very good view of what's happening on either side of the coach. The system features vertical split mirrors that are power-adjustable and heated. However, for a coach this long, I think a rear monitor would be useful. One is available from Born Free as an option, but my test unit was not so equipped.
Born Free uses the type C chassis "cab" to great advantage. For one, it dictates how the privacy curtains are positioned. You will never have to struggle to coax them around a track above the windshield. They are mounted on a track behind the driver and passenger seats, and they pull straight across to instantly isolate the cabin from the outside world. Second, this configuration keeps the cool air from the dash air conditioner right where you need it when you're sitting in the cockpit area. And once you're parked and the roof air conditioner (or the furnace) is turned on, you can close those curtains and keep all the air in the living spaces where it belongs.
Readers familiar with Dodgen Industries know that the company has used Ford chassis in its motorhomes for many years. But they may not know that Dodgen is also well-versed in using the Chevy C5500 chassis as the foundation for its commercial coach conversions; such vehicles have been on the road for 5 years now. Creating the luxury 32-foot President motorhome on this chassis was a natural progression.
Just as they do with all Born Free motorhomes, Dodgen Industries designers incorporated a tubular steel roll bar system in the 32-foot President. The exterior walls and roof are seamless panels of high-gloss fiberglass, with residential-style insulation packed between the wall and roof structural members. Lauan panel dresses the interior of the walls. All cabinetry and woodwork are built by Born Free employees; buyers choose between oak and cherry. (My test coach was outfitted with solid cherry cabinets and accessories.) All solid-surface countertops (galley, bath, and nightstands) also are created in the Born Free factory.
Born Free President interiorThe interior treatments found in the 32-foot President speak volumes about attention to detail. The floor in the front part of the coach is covered with a Berber-style carpet that sweeps several inches up each side of the walls. It looks great. All furniture, including the chairs in the cockpit, is upholstered in Ultraleather, a soft, luscious fabric that has the feel of creamy butter. Each window is trimmed with the same handcrafted wood that is used to create the cabinets and other interior woodwork.
The liberal use of the elegant handcrafted wood that is found in the galley area and the beautifully hand-tooled solid-surface countertops simply underscore how well the craftsmen at Dodgen Industries know and do their jobs.
A Practical Galley
A large sink sits disguised beneath a solid-surface cover that joins with a similar cooktop cover to create a massive countertop area. A microwave-convection oven is positioned above the cooktop. Overhead cabinets, as well as large cupboards and drawers in the base cabinet on which the counter top sits, provide plentiful galley storage. The cooktop hood has a vent and a light. Monitoring info for the holding tanks and battery, as well as the water pump switch, are located in the cooktop hood as well — a clever spot. Across from the cooktop and sink is the refrigerator-freezer. This is a large unit that yields 10 cubic feet of storage capacity and uses as its power source either 110-volt electricity or LP gas.
Adjacent to the refrigerator is a floor-to-ceiling cabinet stack that houses a very large roll-out pantry (four shelves) at the bottom and a single-door cabinet above. Even the galley window has been given extra attention. The valance above is fashioned from the same elegant wood found throughout the rest of the coach. The galley floor is covered by a low-maintenance vinyl that at first glance looks like ceramic tile.
Bed And Bath Choices
Born Free President bedroomBecause this is a wide-body coach, the President's rear queen bed (with which my coach was equipped) features an island-type configuration that permits ease of access from both sides. Beneath the bed is a cavernous storage compartment. If you choose the twin beds, you have the option of requesting the self-adjusting feature that lets each bed be raised to the desired level at the touch of a button. This is a perfect way to watch television or help those whose health requires a raised position while sleeping. The Select Comfort Sleep System comes standard with the queen bed and allows each individual to tailor his or her side of the bed to the desired firmness.
The coach-wide bath area is both functional and visually appealing. The private water closet is dressed with the same rich handcrafted wood that laces the rest of the coach. It includes a sink with a solid-surface countertop, a porcelain marine-style toilet, and a medicine cabinet.
Born Free President interiorImmediately opposite the water closet and across the center aisle is a very large shower that features a most unusual kind of shower curtain. It is not made accordion-style or out of cloth or vinyl. It is a thin sheet of translucent Mylar that pulls out and then retracts from a narrow, unobtrusive cassette. I liked it a lot and found it works well.
You can form a bed-and-bath area by opening the door to the lavatory so that it blocks the center aisle; or, if you wish, you can sequester the bath area by closing some floor-to-ceiling curtains that are located near the bedroom.
Standard on the 32-foot Born Free President is a roof television antenna with a power lift. No more having to hand-crank that baby. You simply touch two switches, one to raise or lower the antenna, and another to rotate it for reception.
The coach has two flat-screen TVs — a 17-inch model up front and a 13-inch unit in the bedroom. Both are attached to robotic-type arms so the pitch and angle of the television can be adjusted. My test coach also contained an optional Bose sound system, as well as a DVD player.
Born Free President bathroomThe Bose sound system was among several options that added to the $131,420 base suggested retail price of the 32-foot President. Altogether, my test unit had the following options, which brought its price to $154,794: Casual Elegance interior design package; front entertainment center; 17-inch LCD flat-screen TV with DVD player in bedroom; 6.5-kilowatt Onan gasoline generator; A&E WeatherPro power awning; Bose Wave radio/CD player; in-motion satellite system; two 13,500-Btu roof air conditioners with heat pumps and remote climate controls.
This is a luxury motorhome for the type C enthusiast who is looking for pleasant amenities, good cargo-carrying capacity, and more interior living space. It's also for type A motorhome owners who would like to downsize, but without sacrificing comfort and livability. And with the years of experience Dodgen Industries has building luxury type C motorhomes, this all-new coach on the Chevy C5500 chassis deserves attention from those folks and more.
Manufacturer ... Dodgen Industries/Born Free Motorcoach, 1505 13th St. N., Humboldt, IA 50548; (800) 247-1835, fax: (515) 332-3756; www.bornfreemotorcoach.com
Model ... 32-foot President
Floor plan ... Rear Queen
Chassis ... Chevrolet C5500
Engine ... 8.1-liter Chevrolet Vortec V-8; Chevrolet Duramax Diesel 6600 V-8, optional
Transmission ... electronic five-speed Allison automatic
Axle ratio ... 4.78:1
Tires ... LT225/70R19.5 all-season Goodyear
Wheelbase ... 213.5 inches
Brakes ... four-wheel antilock
Suspension ... on-board "Link Air" suspension system
Alternator ... #AD244, Delco-Remy, 150 amps
Batteries ... chassis — (1) 12-volt; house — (2) 12-volt
Steering ... cruise control, tilt steering wheel
Electrical service ... 50 amps
Auxiliary generator ... Onan 6.5-kilowatt gasoline, optional (5.5-kw model standard)
Exterior length... 32 feet 4 inches
Exterior width ... 102 inches
Interior height ... 7 feet 1/2-inch
Exterior height ... 11 feet 1 inch
Gross combination weight rating (GCWR) ... 26,000 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) ... 19,500 pounds
Gross axle weight rating (GAWR) ... front — 7,000 pounds; rear — 13,500 pounds
Wet weight as tested ... front — 5,220 pounds; rear — 10,820 pounds; total — 16,080 pounds
Payload as tested ... 3,420 pounds
Construction ... tubular steel roll bars, molded fiberglass body, fiberglass floor with wooden core
Insulation ... fiberglass blanket and vapor barrier foil
Fresh water capacity... 47 gallons
Holding tank capacities ... gray water — 57 gallons; black water — 37 gallons
Fuel capacity ... 60 gallons
Fuel requirements ... gasoline; with diesel engine option, #2 diesel for normal conditions and #1 for cold weather
LP-gas capacity ... 23.2 gallons
Water heater ... 6-gallon Suburban gas/electric
Heating system ... 30,000-Btu forced air
Water system ... demand
Air-conditioning ... (2) 13,500-Btu ducted Duo-Therm roof units with heat strips and remote climate controls
Refrigerator ... 10-cubic-foot Dometic
Toilet... Thetford porcelain
Warranty ... coach — 36 months/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, limited; chassis — 36 months/36,000 miles
Base suggested retail price ... $131,420
Price as tested ... $154,794