Every once in a while I get the idea to pick myself up a modern RV. Then I shudder at the thought of the thing falling apart. RVs have long been known for bad quality, but recent reports suggest that quality has taken a dive. Now, even dealerships are fed up with it. Reports on current RV quality are damning enough, but don’t really illustrate what it means to a buyer. My parents just bought a travel trailer fresh from the factory, and the thing is so poorly put together that a safety chain and an emergency brake cable already broke.
If you’ve owned a motorhome or a travel trailer before then you know what I’m talking about. RVs take the difficulty that comes with owning a house and combines them with the difficulties of owning a car, truck, or bus. Something will almost always be broken and if you’re unlucky, it won’t be a cheap fix.
Take my parents’ 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH for an example. When they picked the 36-foot trailer up in 2016 I saw the telltale sign of water damage: bubbling in the outside walls. You can even see the bubbling in this picture that I took in 2019.
The dealership that sold it to them said it was normal, but I knew that it wasn’t. Fast-forward to 2021, and my parents have found that the last 15 feet of floor is rotted out from water damage. The water made it into the camper from a breach in the roof seal near the bathroom unit. The water didn’t just make its way through the walls–causing that “normal” bubbling – but got into the wooden floor. More damage is occurring up front, but hadn’t made it to the floor.
And that is just the worst issue. In 2017, the latch for the black tank started a fast leak, pouring literal crap water onto the highway. In 2018, the power converter shorted out and started smoldering. Later, the awning decided to get a divorce from the rest of the trailer. And that doesn’t even mention the countless cosmetic issues that come from the thing being built from hilariously cheap materials. And those were the problems with something that was only 9 years old when we got it.
Now, in the wake of record-breaking RV demand, the quality has apparently gotten even worse. New RVs seem to be as janky as used ones can be. In RV Travel’s report, dealerships minced no words in saying how bad it has gotten:
“It’s some of the worst stuff I’ve seen in 30 years,” said one longtime RV dealer. “It’s horrendous inside and out. But we have no recourse but to put it on the lot and try to sell it. You take what you can get, and you move on.”
The East Coast dealer said RV manufacturers are “building them as fast as they can, and there just isn’t any quality control. Manufacturers are not doing a good job of taking care of their customers. It’s gone from bad to worse.”
The RV Travel report wasn’t alone. Thompson Research Group surveyed RV dealerships in 2021 and the dealerships surveyed there echoed similar concerns as the dealerships. Some dealerships even took to YouTube to point out some models that may be more problematic than others. Friend of The Autopian attorney Steve Lehto even covered these reports on his own channel.
Dealerships surveyed by Thompson Research Group were kinder to the OEMs, but still detailed some rather silly problems:
“One of our RVs came with electric recliners but with no plug behind to plug into,” the dealer said. “What happened was the OEM putting it together could not get a regular couch so they just used the electric furniture they had in stock.”
“It’s hit or miss,” another dealer said. “One unit could be perfect and the next might have a bad fridge.”
New RVs are arriving at dealerships with missing parts, the wrong parts, or parts not put together correctly. It’s easy to say all of that in words, but how about a physical example? As luck would have it, my parents have decided to replace that Adirondack with a 2022 Heartland Mallard M33 for $62,800.
This beast weighs in at 7,746 pounds and measures in at 37 feet-long. Its tongue eats up 702 pounds of your tow vehicle’s payload and it has a bunch of slides. The travel trailer was just built in January, yet it feels older than that. And some ways it’s falling apart are surprising.
Let’s start with the little stuff.
If you stare long enough at the front of the trailer, you’ll notice some cool LED light strips.
These are supposed make the Mallard look cool at night. But look closer and you’ll notice that not only are these LED strips the cheap kind that you can get off of Amazon, but the weak double-sided tape holding them down is already giving up.
This isn’t too surprising as you’ll find cheap materials throughout a camper, but I’m still disappointed.
Moving down the body, the perimeter of the trailer is lined with these thin metal skirts. The dealership service center calls these “J-channels” and told me that they’re there to aid in visuals and aerodynamics. Well, the skirts on this trailer appear to have been secured with self-tapping screws and they’re already coming off.
The dealership says that the best that they can do is have the skirt refitted. I don’t see these sticking around for long.
Let’s move back a little bit to the rear. Like most RVs today, this one is covered in swoopy graphics. These appear to have been applied a bit crooked in some areas. Then when I stared at the windows I was shocked at how bad the application of sealant was. The coverage looks like it’s too little in some areas and too much in others.
I wonder how long it’ll be before this one leaks.
Alright, all of this has thus far been cosmetic, and could be fixed by a DIYer. Now let’s get into what’s really bad about this almost $63k rig.
Let’s get down low and look at the frame. This trailer was manufactured in January and hasn’t even been taken on a camping trip yet. But the frame already has surface rust creeping up all over it.
The service department believes that there isn’t anything in the form of rust prevention there. And the department went further, saying that the trailer was delivered to the dealership from the factory with surface rust. They recommend spray painting whenever surface rust creeps up.
Even today, the Adirondack’s frame looks cleaner than this.
Next, let’s move to the towing business-end of the camper. In the event of a ball or coupler failure, your chains are a layer of redundancy to help try to keep your trailer and tow rig under control. Sometimes, those chains can even save your life. So it’s critical to have chains that actually do their job. My dad reported to me that one of the chains on this trailer had to be replaced on the first day because the hook just fell off. How does that even happen?
Another layer of redundancy is this braided cable.
When this cable is pulled hard enough, it triggers the trailer’s brakes. The idea is that if the trailer were to become detached from your tow vehicle, it will attempt to stop itself rather than turning into a 7,700-lb missile.
But this cable? Yeah, it broke in my hand.
All I did was pull on it just a little to hook it up, and it just broke in my hand. It wouldn’t have done a thing in an emergency. It’s one thing to fail at the cosmetic stuff, but these are safety redundancies designed to keep people safe. Of course, the interior also has its own quirks.
I didn’t get the chance to climb inside, but my parents told me that at delivery they found that the bathtub wasn’t even secured into place.
Looking at reviews for the Mallard, it seems my parents have actually gotten somewhat lucky thus far, as others have experienced far more baffling maladies. Thankfully, all of this will be fixed under warranty.
I should also note that they’re towing this with just a 2010 Chevy Suburban 1500, which is a bad idea. Their SUV has an 8,000-lb tow rating and a 1,500-lb payload. The trailer comes within 200-lb of the tow rating and sucks up nearly half of the payload. That leaves very little room for passengers and gear in the SUV, and basically no room to carry anything in the trailer.
Towing right at your vehicle’s limit is never a good idea. The Suburban struggles to get up to speed, struggles to keep stable, and chugs fuel like there’s no tomorrow. My parents will be getting something more capable.
I have reached out to Thor Industries – parent company of Heartland RV – for comment on the potential quality struggles that manufacturers may face today.
Americans are still pouring into RV dealerships with the goal of getting something to take on the open road. I’m happy that more people are getting into RVing, too. But if you’re going to buy a camper, be sure to have it looked all over. You can still get a good RV out there, but not all of them are created equal.
The only good quality major brand I know of is Airstream, and even those often aren’t really as good as they should be. Being the best in this lot is still a lot less than equal to the worst automakers or the worst modular home builders.
I’m deliberately excluding high-end custom build coaches, because they really belong in a different category than mass-produced products.
It’s a pretty sad industry where such low quality is this common.
GM was on to something in the 1970s. Their product was noticeably better than their competition, but nobody appreciated them at the time.
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I have a friend who runs a RV lot. Number 1 tip…. Borrow or rent some other suckers RV. Worst money one can spend unless they live out of it full-time.
I have a 2013 Thor ACE motorhome that I bought used in 2020, and I am so glad I went used instead of new. If I had paid $130k to get the build quality I have, I would’ve been sick. And the warranty on this $130k Class A RV was only 1 year, which is nuts. Now the chassis is covered by Ford, with I think a 3yr/36k something or other. But even after going over it as much as I could, I found my shower drain leaking because of how it was installed at the factory, both tail lights leaking, thus causing some minor delamination of the fiberglass, water pump went out, and my generator recently wouldn’t start because screws vibrated out of the intake manifold. Lastly, as luck would have it, the V10 dropped a valve in the #4 cylinder, so it is currently in the shop awaiting a new engine which thankfully, my Good Sam service plan overs. Highly recommend the Good Sam service plan BTW.
Now I come from a camping family, everything from pop ups to class A RVs like mine, and I can handle pretty much any repair in the “house” part of the coach, which is good because there is always something to fix. However, you have to go into it knowing this. They were crap in the ’70s and ’80s, and are still crap today. I tolerate it because I love camping so much, and because I can’t afford something better, like an Airstream.