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Ordinary tow vehicles just get you and your boat to the water. Some are more comfortable or more capable than others, but they all do basically the same thing. Or most of ‘em, anyway. We found  a tow vehicle that can be both boat hauler and cabin by the lake– but that’s not all. It can also take you deep to the boonies when you want to really get off the beaten path, and let you launch fairly sizable boats at unimproved ramps.

The Sportsmobile company that has built custom camper vans for
 

 more than four decades, offers a sturdy, workhorse vehicle that can be ordered per your specifications to suit any outdoor lifestyle.

Mechanical Mods
The typical Sportsmobile 4WD camper van receives major drivetrain mods such as a new front axle and steering links, new suspension front and rear, heavy-duty transfer case and heavy-duty driveshafts. A Transfer Flow replacement fuel tank gives the van a 46-gallon capacity for long voyages.

 This isn’t just any new front axle, it’s a custom-built, bullet-proof live axle supplied by Dynatrac. Based on a Dana 60, the Dynatrac unit provides a heavy-duty differential, big brakes and custom knuckles that are super sturdy and allow for a tighter turning circle than stock. Steering components from the box down are replaced with a custom tie rod and a beefy drag link that’s mounted horizontally to minimize bump-steer. A front sway bar with hitch pins for attachment can be discounted to allow for maximum front axle articulation for offroading.

cabin1 photo

The replacement leaf springs used in the suspension system are custom made for the conversion. Both front and rear replacement leaf-spring packs are designed to support the extra weight of the complete Sportsmobile conversion and allow room for taller tires. They also have what’s called a partial “military wrap” on the second spring. These second leaves fully support the main leaf, and the springs ends partially wrap around the shackle pin. If the main spring should break, the second leaf would hold the vehicle up for the trip home, so you’re not stranded.

The front suspension also has an “offroad tech” feature called a reserve shackle system (spring shackle on the rear of the spring, instead of the front). This allows the spring to absorb most of the energy from the bumps instead of transferring the jolt to the frame and cab.

Manual Dependability
Special heavy-duty transfer case is used for the Sportsmobile’s 4WD system. The Atlas II unit from Advance Adapters is a gear-driven (so there’s no internal chain to break) manual-shift, two-speed, dual-mode (4WD and 2WD) transfer case that allows a van equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission to have 10 forward gears, 2 reverse gears and gear-splitting ability in 2WD, too. With a drive system like this, the steepest and most slippery boat ramps or unpaved launching locations are choices, not challenges.

  Click on Specifications below to view in Acrobat PDF format for zooming and printing. (802K – may take a few minutes to download and view.)

test results
 

Ride and Drive
Our 4WD van’s nontowing ride was firm, but not bouncy, and its unladen handling characteristics were typical of a vehicle this large and tall. At times it seemed big and ungainly, but the steering improvements garnered by the replacement axle cut the E-350’s turning circle to just 39 feet compared to the stock van’s 42-foot turning circle.

As stated, we towed a few different loads with the three vans driven for this report. The ride quality of the stock 2WD conversion and modified 4WD van were nearly identical. The 4WD model rode a little firmer,

 

 but the Sportsmobile’s chassis soaked up the road with no harsh jarring. Even with the additional height and weight, the modified camper was a pleasure to drive and tow with. During our towing evaluation we encountered some moderate winds gusting up to 20 mph, but never felt exaggerated sway or buffeting.

Some of this can be attributed to the well-tuned suspension, but we also credit the vehicle’s wider-than-stock track and longer-than-stock wheelbase. The Dynatrac front axle track is 70.5 inches (approximately one inch wider than stock) and the stock rear axle is augmented

 with a set of TracRight offset spacers that extend the rear wheels nearly 2 inches to match the track of the front axle. The custom front axle is also installed 2 inches farther forward than stock.The heaviest trailer we towed (which we used to gather performance data) weighed in at 7550 pounds gross with 650 pounds of tongue weight. We did not need a weight-distributing hitch, as the rear suspension of the Sportsmobile 4WD camper van supported the weight without a whimper. And the modified E-350 revealed no tendency to wallow after going over bumps with the trailer.
launch photo Juicy Powerband
Towing with a diesel is always a breeze because of the fat powerband, especially in the case of Ford’s new 6.0L Power Stroke turbo. The torque jumps almost to peak at about 1400 rpm and stays flat until around 2800 rpm; it dips but remains strong to 3600 rpm, then fall off. And off-the-line acceleration is strong because of the sophisticated turbocharger control system that virtually eliminates turbo lag.

Acceleration and braking data was collected using the 7550-pound Chaparral Sunestra 252 deck boat. With this big boat in tow, the van could hit 60 mph in approximately 23 seconds and 40-to-60 mph passing times averaged 13.5 seconds. Braking under tow (from 55 to 0) was straight and true, and averaged 126 feet in length.

How to Get Yours
You can’t go to your Ford dealer to get one of these, and Sportsmobile has no dealer network, so you have to order factory-direct. Fortunately, buying a Sportsmobile camper van isn’t difficult. You can go to the factory to take delivery (Sportsmobile will pick you up at the airport for your walkthrough and final delivery process). Or you can pay them to deliver it to your home.

Because of the custom nature of the vehicle and the high-quality equipment used in the conversion, Sportsmobile camper vans start at $45,500 for 2WD models. The 4WD traveler passenger vans begin at $46,000, and the 4WD camper vans start at $61,240. With the options typically ordered (such as wheel and tire packages, custom bumpers with lights and winch, and custom radio and video equipment), the average 4WD camper van goes out of the Fresno factory’s door in the upper $60K to mid $70K range. However, since this vehicle qualifies as a motorhome, you can get long-term financing.

When you consider you’re getting an awesome tow vehicle, well-equipped family camper, capable offroader and a unique commuter all wrapped up in one package, the sticker isn’t as steep as it first sounds. Regardless of price, we found the Sportsmobile 4WD camper van to be a valuable asset for anyone engaged in an active outdoor lifestyle.