“Ultra-light” is a favorite industry buzzword. But what does it mean, exactly?
The RV Industry Association – the arbiter of most things RV – can’t provide much help: It has no standard definition of what an ultra-light is.
“Lighter than the average trailer, is my guess,” Mac Bryan, RVIA vice president of administration, says coyly. Expanding upon his answer, Bryan adds, “These are marketing terms; each manufacturer will use them to their advantage. What may be an ‘ultra-light’ to one is the top-end for another. … It’s a moving target, unfortunately.
“There are products out there that you could tow with a Prius and they certainly would be included as an ultra-light. On the other hand, there are other products that require a bigger vehicle to tow,” he adds. “The consumer is intrigued by marketing terms such as that and may often go there looking for that (model) when they need more than that.”
For their part, RV manufacturers use “ultra-lights” to describe travel trailers ranging anywhere between 1,600 and 6,000 pounds, which even they acknowledge is a fairly large spread.
Even assuming the industry could come to an agreement on what an ultra-light is – which is doubtful – attempting to gauge the size of the market segment would still be problematic. Grand Rapids, Mich.-based market data firm Statistical Surveys doesn’t track RVs by weight, so manufacturers have to do some of their own extrapolation to decipher where they stand in relation to the marketplace.
However, Statistical Surveys can break out retail sales by lengths. The company’s data shows that sales of travel trailers measuring 15 to 22 feet in length for the past 12 months ending in May (latest figures available) were up nearly 26 percent over the corresponding period a year ago, which is double the growth of the total travel trailer market.
“It’s a fast-growing market,” Statistical Surveys President Tom Walworth concludes after a brief analysis of the data. Key factors for this product’s success are its relative low cost and its easy towability.
For his part, looking ahead, Bryan says as long as consumers want extended space and an RV for more than just weekend use, “we’ll have a very robust large travel trailer and fifth wheel market” while the market for ultra- lights will be somewhat constrained.
On the other hand, “As tow vehicles get smaller, we may come up with an ultra-light category being forced by tow vehicle capability,” he says. “We’ll see how the federal government manages greenhouse and CAFÉ (corporate average fuel economy) standards. That could drive the market in that direction. If those (standards for tow vehicles) become restricted, we’ll probably see more ultra-lights. Or, there could come along a new term (for lightweight RVs) that we can’t even conceive of today.”
While predicting the future is nearly impossible, makers of ultra-light trailers are very optimistic about the market for their respective products. Three of the most successful builders in the category are Jayco, K-Z RV and Travel Lite.
Jayco: Light as a Feather
One of the early pioneers of ultra-lite manufacturing was Jayco, which started marketing a lightweight product, the Jay Wren, in the early 1970s to counteract the big gasoline price run-ups. A generation later, in 1996, Jayco introduced the Hawk, which was easily towable by a minivan.
In 2000, Jayco unveiled the Kiwi, which evolved into the Jay Feather in 2004. This ultra-light became a logical stepping stone between the company’s successful line of folding-camping trailers and its popular Jay Flight travel trailer.
Today, Jayco considers the Jay Feather brand one of the top-selling ultra-lights on the market. That’s a bold claim to substantiate given that most manufacturers and dealers lump their ultra-light lineup in with more traditional-weight products in their reports to Statistical Surveys. Jayco is one of the few exceptions that reports the ultra-lights independent of other lines, which puts the Jay Feather on the Statistical Surveys travel trailer list at around No. 20.
John Fisher, Jayco’s senior director of product development for lightweights and pop-ups, takes the Jay Feather’s apparent performance in the retail market in stride and is proud not only of its strong heritage, but also its proven consumer acceptance.
Fisher says that if White Hawk and Jay Feather lightweight products were grouped together for Statistical Surveys – which most brands encompass – the combined Jayco lightweights would catapult into the Top 10.
The Jay Feather7 lineup takes the ultra-light moniker to a new level, as it’s just 7 feet wide, opposed to the 8-foot widths typical among competing brands. The slimmer, trimmer Jay Feather7 lineup of expandable travel trailers is an attempt to stand out in the marketplace by focusing on lighter tow weights and more entry-level price points.
The Jay Feather7 lineup for 2016 has seven new floorplans ranging from 2,800 pounds UVW (unloaded vehicle weight) up to 4,200 UVW. Lengths range from 16 to 23 feet on the 7’s and 17 to 26 feet on the 8’s. MSRPs range from $16,000 to $25,000 for the Jay Feather7 lineup and $18,000 to $30,000 for the Jay Feather 8-wide.
“You want to hit within that tow range, of 3,500 to 6,000 pounds,” says Fisher, who is ever vigilant of the towing capacities of the family fleet of vehicles. “We do a lot of advance R&D prior to releasing a new floorplan and manufacturing a prototype. We weigh a lot of components and do as much ‘estimating’ as possible so it will fall within the segment.”
Providing all the basic camping amenities in an ultra-light can be daunting.
“Today’s camper loves all the amenities — even in an ultralight,” Fisher says. “You have to find a way to give them the proper UVW so they can still tow it. In 2016, for Jay Feather, we standardized a lot of amenities. We made a power awning with LED lights standard. A lot of our competitors use a single entry step. We now have double steps standard. We added an outside grill LP quick-connect port on every unit. We added a black tank flush. We made the outside shower standard. With all the things we made standard, we only added a few pounds.”
Fisher calls the Jayco engineering quite an accomplishment for a lightweight product, considering that the units still feature vacuum-bonded, laminated floor, side, rear and front walls including slide walls, Magnum truss roof system and an integrated frame.
“A lot of manufacturers will skimp on construction to save weight,” he says. “Jayco does not do that. We really build a superior product for a lightweight.”
Jay Feather is also considered a hybrid because it features an expandable end that resembles a pop-up camper. This feature appeals to traditional campers who want to get off the ground
but still want to feel like they’re in a tent, according to Fisher.
And for the first-time RVer who can’t afford a larger tow vehicle, the Jay Feather serves as an affordable, entry-level purchase that offers many of the amenities of a traditional travel trailer, he adds.
Going into the 2016 model year, Jayco also sought to extend its product offering to cover the 3,500- to 6,000-pound market.
“A lot of our product was expandable or hybrid, and we also had some rear bed slide models. We worked hard to offer a lot of new floorplans that were non-slide or shallow slide. … A lot of people like that tent and natural feel, but a lot don’t want to take time to set it up. They’d rather be inside and have their AC rolling.
“Our 2015 lineup didn’t have much to offer in that non-hybrid offering. We made sure we had the whole brand covered for 2016,” he adds. “If you look at our lineup, from A to Z, it’s very strong. We’ve added the four Murphy bed models to the Jay Feather and Jay Feather7. Customers really love that option.”
Jayco introduced its 2016 models, including the Jay Feather7, at a dealer show in Denver in June and the response was “overwhelming,” says Fisher. “Everybody worked very hard to segment the brands and give them a fresh new look. We did not veer from the awesome construction points we hold dear to. The dealer response has been awesome.”
K-Z RV: A Veteran Ultra-Light RV Maker
K-Z RV has been building smaller, weight-conscious vehicles throughout its 44-year history, but the company has put an increased focus on the ultra-light segment since the recession, says Marlene Snyder, company vice president of sales and marketing.
“We’ve concentrated a lot in the last four to five years on lightweight travel trailers because tow vehicles are getting smaller. It’s a big segment for us and we keep expanding,” she says.
K-Z calls its price-conscious flagship Sportsmen Classic and Spree Escape true lightweights, along with the newer, more luxurious Vision. The stick-and-tin Sportsmen Classic in 13 floorplans provides all the basics in a lightweight package that can be towed by minivans and small SUVs. Sportsmen Classic is a versatile product that comes with or without slide-outs, hybrid tent ends and even a small toy hauler. Lengths run from 15 to 22 feet and UVW starts at 2,126 pounds.
The Spree Escape is available in 16 floorplans and features bunk models, hybrid tent ends and a unique toy hauler model. Lengths run from 16 to 27 feet with UVWs starting at 2,200 pounds.
“The Vision is a newer product line that hits a different price segment. The focus is lightweight but has the additional amenities that some buyers enjoy,” Snyder says. The amenity highlights include LED lights, exterior speakers, an oven, a skylight in kitchen, a power awning and ivory-colored infused fiberglass. The length ranges from 23 feet to 27 feet. UVWs start at 3,650 pounds.
Snyder had no problem with a definition of an ultra-light as weighing 6,000 pounds or less.
“You can say 6,000 (pounds), but a lot of tow vehicles can’t pull that; 5,200 is our ‘break-off point’ and for most of our vehicles, 4,000 pounds is on the high end,” she says.
In fact, one of company’s top-selling floorplans weighs in at 2,800 pounds with a GVWR of 3,500 pounds and that seems to be the “sweet spot,” she says. Indeed, K-Z has several floorplans for its Classic and Escape brands that are in the 2,100-pound range.
To reach these goals, K-Z “weighs everything,” Snyder stresses. “We look at all aspects, including appliances, and see which is lightest. We weigh aluminum roofs and stick-built roofs. We do a lot of homework in the build process to make sure we get the lightest weight we can.”
The extra effort is paying dividends as K-Z’s laminated lightweights showed a 17 percent sales gain through the first half of the year, she notes. With 16 floorplans for the Spree Escape and 13 for the Sportsmen Classic, “we probably have three times as many (floorplans) as the competition,” Snyder says.
Meanwhile, Snyder says dealers continue to rave about the Sonic, a twin-axle ultra-light built by K-Z’s Venture RV division that entered the market three years ago. Aimed at the smaller tow vehicles in the family fleet, the Sonic is unique from most of its class because it has a seamless one-piece fiberglass roof membrane that extends from the front all the way back to the bumper.
The trailer is loaded with features, including a safe ‘t’ek box, which is a hidden storage cabinet, a DVD player with Bluetooth stereo, LED lights, night shades, innerspring mattress, skylight and an 82-inch-tall ceiling height (unheard of in a lightweight unit). Dry weights range from 2,995 to 4,500 pounds and MSRPs range from $18,000 to $23,000.
The SN234BH, a brand-new 23-foot rear bunkhouse floorplan, is already a hit, according to Snyder.
“We introduced it in May and got lots of orders just from showing the dealer base the layout on paper, without seeing it in person,” she says. “We received a great response to it.”
Travel Lite Unveils Idea 2.0
Travel Lite has been collecting dealer and retail customer suggestions since unveiling its first ultra-light travel trailer, the Idea, in 2011. The culmination of those comments has led to the Idea 2.0, a dual axle unit new for 2016.
Production began in mid-August and the first three floorplans for Idea 2.0 officially debuted in September during Elkhart Open House Week.
“The initial reaction has been fantastic,” says Travel Lite President Dustin Johns, noting, like K-Z’s Snyder, that the RV maker is filling retail orders for dealers who have yet to even see the unit – let alone step inside one.
Idea 2.0 replaces Travel Lite’s first ultralights, the i15Q, the i17 and i18, and improves upon many of their features, Johns says. He touts the new white gelcoat exterior and all-new graphics. Also new are the now standard frameless windows and the chrome-beveled clear lens LED clearance lights.
Inside, the original Idea’s 3-cubic foot refrigerator has been replaced with a 6-cubic-foot double-door version.
The kitchen also features a nice kitchen sink backsplash, LED back-lit cabinets with frosted glass inserts and toe-kick lighting to illuminate the floor.
A pillow-top mattress is now standard in all bedrooms.
The bathroom shower floor has been lowered to create 5 inches of additional height. The overhead cabinets are backlit and feature glacier glass hardwood doors.
All the recessed toe kicks are illuminated. These features add warmth and style and are designed to appeal to female consumers, according to Johns. The Idea 2.0 offers clean lines but still keeps the lightweight profile. It weighs in at around 2,800 pounds, and like all Travel Lite towables, most six-cylinder vehicles will be able to tow the Idea 2.0. MSRP will be $17,995.
Johns is especially excited about the 2.0’s 19QBH (queen bunkhouse) floorplan, which sleeps six adults. It features a rear dinette, which makes into a bed, the biggest bathroom in the Idea line and all the standards mentioned above. It weighs in at 3,250 pounds and will retail starting at $19,995.
Johns says the Idea 2.0 will appeal to the retail customer looking to downsize from a large fifth wheel but still wants all of the amenities in a lightweight unit.
Travel Lite also markets another ultralight, the Cobblestone, but Johns says his focus for 2016 has been on the new Idea 2.0.
Johns concedes that Travel Lite is not a mass volume builder, but says his company’s dual-axle luxury trailer weighing less than 3,000 pounds fills a market niche.
“We take the time to use composite materials and make the lightest unit we can,” he says. “Weight is always a big part of what we do – it’s part of our name.”